When Billy Gillispie spoke on Tuesday during a news conference formally introducing him as the next head coach of the Tarleton State University men’s basketball squad, he acknowledged that his high-flying career has also featured some bumpy landings.
He was chosen to be the school’s 15th men’s basketball coach after Chris Reisman recently accepted a promotion into Tarleton’s administration and stepped down after two seasons in that position. TSU Athletic Director Lonn Reisman, Chris Reisman’s father, had led the Texans for 30 seasons — winning 691 games in his career overall, including 654 at Tarleton.
Gillispie agreed with Tarleton on a four-year contract, through the 2024 season, to lead the Texans as they enter a transition into the NCAA Division I ranks. The contract terms are pending approval by the Texas A&M Board of Regents.
“I say buckle up,” Tarleton President James Hurley said. “As we transition to Division I basketball and the Western Athletic Conference, I cannot think of a better coach in America to lead us through this transitional period in Tarleton athletics history.”
Gillispie’s track record includes an impressive array of head coaching stops, including high-profile stints at UTEP, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech.
His record is also documented as having some stormy chapters, which he indicated he doesn’t intend to repeat.
“I’ve made some mistakes, but we try not to repeat them,” Gillispie said at the podium. “And I’ve been so lucky to have so many great friends, because of the relationships we’ve developed, that forgave me for the things I haven’t been able to do as good as I could, and gave me an opportunity. And I’m standing here today with a second chance.”
Gillispie’s ability to win games, however, is not in question. At the NCAA Division I level, he has a coaching record of 148-108. He took Kentucky, A&M and UTEP to the NCAA Tournament, and was a two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year. He also was a co-Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, and Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
In Gillispie’s most recent coaching job, at Ranger College, his teams won 103 of 127 games played. He guided the Rangers to the National Junior College Athletic Association’s championship game in 2019, and was named as the Junior College National Coach of the Year. In his first season at Ranger, he led the Rangers to a 31-7 record. Later, however, all 31 wins had to be forfeited because one of the players had applied to enter the NBA draft in 2013, according to an online Dallas Morning News article.
Two years ago, Gillispie’s coaching was put on hold by a serious health problem, and he received a kidney transplant — thanks to a donor who didn’t know him.
During the news conference, Gillispie joked about that landmark time in his life, in relation to his past.
“She gave me a kidney without knowing me,” Gillispie said from the podium during the news conference. “And I guess if she would have known me, she probably would have not done that. I hope people think that’s funny.”
The donor, Ericka Downey, attended the news conference, and gave her thoughts, noting, “I’m incredibly honored to be a part of this. How excited I am for coach Gillispie to get his opportunity to come back to Division I basketball is unbelievable. I wouldn’t have missed this day for anything.
“I certainly don’t want to make today about me. This is all about coach Gillispie and his hard work and toughness to come back and climb back into living his dream and his passion, and to play a small part in that and to be here and to see it come to realization.
“When I became a donor … like he said, I didn’t know him. But that’s been the biggest blessing in this whole process. I met him two years ago, yesterday. And to get to see the person he is, the heart that he has for individuals and for relationships, it has blessed me tremendously and I couldn’t be more excited to be here to see him take over the reins here at Tarleton State.
“And there’s no doubt in my mind how successful he’s going to be here at Tarleton State. But it is truly my belief that basketball, and now the WAC, is better because coach Gillispie’s still in it.”
Gillispie said of Downey, “We’ve become very close. What a wonderful lady.”
Gillispie, who said that it was “only by the grace of God I’m standing here today,” indicated he can’t wait to get started at Tarleton — where he aims to let his propensity for winning games resume.
“We’re always looking for redemption stories,” Gillispie said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to to take. It’ll happen sooner than people think, moving into Division I, and a great league (WAC), in this university, but you’re going to see one of the greatest stories in the history of comeback stories.”
Acie Law played for Gillispie at Texas A&M, and is a former NBA player who reunited with Gillispie as a volunteer assistant coach at Ranger in 2015-16.
Law said of Gillispie, “This is a phenomenal hire for Tarleton. Him being able to bounce back and become a Division I head coach exemplifies the message he always conveyed to us as players about being resilient.
“Think about where he started with the success he was able to build and you think about the adversity he dealt with and health issues ... to be able to overcome all of that and bounce back, I'm so excited for him.
“I think as a coach, you're getting a guy that is going to work his tail off and work extremely hard and he won't be outworked. He's going to succeed wherever he goes."
Gillispie said that the key to winning is getting great players, and added, “We’ll play hard, we’ll play smart, we’ll play together.”
He said that he wants Wisdom Gym to continue to be a place other teams dread visiting.
“We’re going to fill that thing up and make it the hardest place to play in the WAC,” Gillispie said. “We’re going in there (the WAC) trying to win — and we’re not trying to win 15 years from now … we’re trying to win now.
“We have so much to offer in this town, in this area, and in this university.”