John Clay

Gillispie and Pitino like to get inside players' heads

John Clay
John Clay

One is from the mega-metropolis that is New York City, graduated college in Massachusetts, and cut his coaching teeth as an NBA assistant at the feet of the encyclopedia Hubie Brown.

The other is from a postage-stamp in rural Texas, was graduated from Texas State, and made his name knocking about the Lone Star state teaching high schoolers to excel at that sport they play before spring practice starts.

Yet the flashy Rick Pitino and the earthy Billy Gillispie have more in common besides the fact they both know what it's like to head college basketball's winningest program.

Both are practicing Dr. Phils.

Coach P. and Coach G. may check basketball coach for their chosen occupations, but both are actually practicing psychologists. They're master motivators just as intent on climbing inside the heads of their Jimmys and Joes as they are on drawing up the perfect Xs and Os.

And it's not always pretty.

"Most of the time that Coach Pitino was my coach," said Cameron Mills this week, "I was convinced that he hated me."

The walk-on who stole UK fans' hearts under first Pitino and then Tubby Smith, Mills now comments on Billy Gillispie's Cats as part of a radio pre-game show. He was reluctant to comment on G's style — "I've never been to practice," he said. — but his memories of P's motivational ploys remain fresh.

"What it took me awhile to realize," said Mills, "is that Coach Pitino saw I was capable of doing things that I didn't know I was capable of doing."

That's the goal, of course, even if the two coaches take slightly different approaches toward that goal.

Gillispie is the king of sarcasm. Newbies can be taken aback by the coach's sharp tongue. He can pierce with an off-handed comment. He keeps everyone on their toes — DEFCON alert might be more like it — in apparent belief that complacency is the root of all evil.

Asked if he gave first-year guard Kevin Galloway advice on how to handle Gillispie's methods, junior Michael Porter replied, "We're still learning ourselves."

To the fans, the mind games can be a bit maddening. Gillispie's progress toward producing head-knockers can create plenty of head scratching. The fans see a substitute summoned from the end of the bench, head toward the scorer's table, then be quickly jerked back to his seat for some unknown reason.

The fans see DeAndre Liggins refuse to go on in one game, then play 27 minutes the next. They see Galloway start two straight games, then play a combined seven minutes the next two. They hear back-channel stories of players being tossed out of the Craft Center.

"Coach Pitino didn't really throw you out of practice," recalled Mills of some of Pitino's eight seasons as the Kentucky coach. "What he would typically do was throw you onto the treadmill."

For Mills, that happened more than once. In fact, Pitino was so demanding, so unrelenting, so got-to-have-it-got-to-have-it, that the future minister was sure his head coach no longer wanted him around — that Mills was simply "in the way."

In fact, during Pitino's now-famous individual meetings with his players after UK's Elite Eight loss to North Carolina in the 1995 NCAA Tournament, Mills told his coach that he felt like a burden.

"He told me that he didn't feel that way at all, that he liked having me," Mills said. "And it was a surprise, because I just knew that he hated me. ... But you know that his expectations for you as a team and for you as an individual are probably higher than you have for yourself."

In fact, Pitino is pushing those very same buttons with his current Louisville team, the pre-season No. 3 which has now lost three games.

The coach didn't start his best player, Earl Clark, after the junior's mediocre effort against Minnesota. The coach is in a constant struggle with Edgar Sosa, his talented but erratic point guard.

But long-standing Pitino followers have little doubt it will come. Eventually.

"The thing about Coach Pitino is that when he gets what he wants out of you, you know it," Mills said. "I got two compliments the entire three years I was with him. Both times I lived off those. I'm probably still living off those, to be honest, just because you knew that when you got a compliment, you had earned it."