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NOT LONG AFTER BILLY GILLISPIE ARRIVED IN Lexington to take over as Kentucky's basketball coach, sports information director Scott Stricklin walked into the new coach's office and announced, "I know where you've eaten every day this week." As Stricklin started listing the establishments where the coach had been spotted, Gillispie stopped him and said, "I wasn't at that place." � "Well, there you have it," said Stricklin. "People here are also going to see you where you aren't." � Another thing Gillispie has learned since stepping into the most celebrated and intensely scrutinized job in the commonwealth: Everybody—male, female, grade-schooler, geezer—has an opinion about the team, and they'd like to share it with him. When he and assistant Jeremy Cox sit down to eat in public, their waitress might tell them that their rebounding needs to improve, while a patron nearby might offer a comment about whom they really should be recruiting. "I'll meet an elderly grandmother, and all she'll want to talk about is our interior play," says Gillispie. "I've never seen anything like it."
This statewide preoccupation might be unnerving to some coaches. It isn't to Gillispie. "I love that their passion is equal to mine...or," he adds, "that mine is equal to theirs."
He was not the Billy that fans yearned for when Tubby Smith resigned last March. (That would be Florida's Billy Donovan, a former Wildcats assistant.) But it's hard to imagine a coach better suited to the particular demands of this job. Consider what Gillispie accomplished in places that don't have Kentucky's tradition and recruiting clout: Three years after he orchestrated one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history at Texas-El Paso, Gillispie did the same thing at Texas A&M, transforming a Big 12 doormat that went 0-16 in conference play during the 2003-04 season into a Sweet 16 team in '07. On top of that, he is self-deprecating, hardworking and charming—"He can talk to anyone; that's the magic of the guy," says former A&M assistant Alvin Brooks.
Most important, he is singularly devoted to basketball. Divorced, with no kids, no pets and no houseplants, he abides few distractions. He never bothers with grocery shopping until his saline solution runs out, about every six months. Breakfast at A&M was a package of peanut butter crackers and a Dr Pepper out of a convenience store. Even his homes get little of his attention. When a TV crew arrived at his house to film his Texas-El Paso team on Selection Sunday in March 2004, they found a Christmas tree donated by a friend still standing in his living room.
Working on two or three hours of sleep a night during the season, Gillispie watches as many as 15 game tapes of an upcoming opponent when, he admits, "three or four would do." Before text messaging was banned as a recruiting tool this year, he would send as many as 8,000 messages a month to recruits. "Overkill, I know," he says.
He knows his life must look out of whack to most people, but it doesn't feel that way to him. "It's not a job to me, it's a passion," he says. "Not too many people are lucky enough to work as many hours a day as coaches are required to work. It's not a burden, it's a blessing."
GILLISPIE INSISTS HE HAS NO ORIGINAL IDEAS about coaching. He gets most of his from his friend and mentor Kansas coach Bill Self, for whom he worked as an assistant for five years at Tulsa and Illinois. He does, however, have at least one special talent, according to Brooks. "None of us sees everything that's happening on the court, but he misses hardly anything," says Brooks. "One of the guys on our staff called him Rain Man. He's great with numbers, but he also has a good feel for people. He can see it all so clearly."
Other than that, the main thing Gillispie has going for him is exhaustive preparation. In addition to those 15 opponent game tapes, he watches tapes of every practice and game of his own team, looking for any opportunity to get his players better shots. His players are also well-prepared. Gillispie's preseason "boot camp"—two weeks of high-intensity 40-minute conditioning sessions twice a day—are so extreme that a Texas A&M campus reporter who watched one session after Gillispie barred him from participating began his article, "Coach Gillispie saved my life."
In practices, which are run at full-throttle whether they are in the middle of the week, in the spring or five hours before a game, Gillispie is demanding of everyone, including the half-dozen walk-ons he typically carries. He once made a manager run for not wiping sweat up off the floor fast enough.