LUBBOCK, Texas — Billy Gillispie is starting over at Texas Tech.
Two years removed from his firing at Kentucky and a conviction for drunken driving, Gillispie has landed in a part of Texas he knows well. He grew up about 250 miles southeast of Lubbock in West Texas.
Gillispie has a roster that includes one starter from three returning players on Pat Knight's team, along with 10 new players — all but one of them freshmen.
Gillispie, who is 140-85 in his seven seasons as a Division I coach, led UTEP and Texas A&M to remarkable turnarounds. Red Raiders fans are hopeful he can do it all over again in Lubbock.
How does the 51-year-old feel standing on the brink of starting over?
"I have been lucky," he said. "I am just a basketball coach getting his team ready to play."
When Gillispie was hired, he said Texas Tech could win a national championship. He hasn't backed off that statement.
"There are a lot more things than just having good players and a good team on the court as far as having a championship program," Gillispie said. "I don't want to have a good team. I want to have a great team. I don't want to have a good program, I want to have a great program. But a great program is more than just having one great team."
Gillispie replaces Knight, who was fired after going 50-61 in 31/2 seasons. Knight failed to lead the Red Raiders to the NCAA Tournament after taking the reins when his famous father, Bob, resigned during the 2008 season. Pat Knight now coaches at Lamar.
Kentucky fired Gillispie after the Wildcats went 40-27 in his two seasons and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years. In some ways, he said, his firing was a blessing.
"I'm not saying I want to be fired again," Gillispie said. "I have a great deal of respect for the people that made the decision to fire me. That's part of the business. I understand that."
Gillispie admits he made mistakes in the months after his firing at Kentucky. He pleaded guilty in November 2009 to driving under the influence of alcohol five months after his dismissal. He says he's not drinking now.
"I made some stupid decisions but it wasn't because I had a dependency, or any of those kinds of things," Gillispie said. "So I spent some time with people that make those distinctions. I wanted to coach again and knew it was a necessary step to take."
While out of a job, Gillispie lost his mother to cancer. His hobbies included playing golf and watching NBA games.
Coaching offers came, he said, but he wanted to be at a "place that cared about me as a human being, not as a paid gladiator." He wanted a school where the basketball program meant something to the community and the players could connect with fans.
"The jobs that I probably wanted to have they probably didn't want me at that time," Gillispie said. "And the jobs that wanted me to be there, I probably wasn't ready to take that particular situation, so it went a little bit both ways. Obviously, extenuating circumstances with me, and I respect that. I put myself in that situation."
There is, Gillispie said, a sense of familiarity in being somewhat close to where he grew up in tiny Graford, Texas.
"I think it provides more comfort for the people who are dealing with me, instead of the people I'm dealing with," he said. "It is probably a little bit easier than going into a place where they don't really know you, where that transition for everyone involved might take a little bit longer."
Gillispie in 2004 led UTEP to its first NCAA appearance since 1992 after it went 24-8 and won a share of the Western Athletic Conference title. At A&M, he led the Aggies to three consecutive 20-win seasons and Gillispie was chosen AP Big 12 Coach of the Year in 2005. In 2007, the Aggies lost 65-64 to Memphis in an NCAA regional semifinal.
It might take until mid-January, he said, before his new team hits its stride. He said he is counting on senior Robert Lewandowski to be a vocal leader. Lewandowski, who has dropped about 25 pounds since last season when he averaged 8.5 points, called Gillispie's practices "intense."
"It has been good but it has been tough and I think all the guys have done a good job stepping up, but now it is to the point where we are there physically," he said. "We just need to be there mentally and get the basketball stuff done now, too."
The regular season begins Nov. 11 at home against Troy.