I still remember it like it was yesterday. Rumors swirled for weeks that the nation’s premier basketball program might be coming for Texas A&M’s coach. Late into Thursday Night, they were still just that, rumors. After all, How could Kentucky, a school that lives and breathes basketball, a school with 7 national championships and 13 final fours, be coming for an Aggie coach that had reached the NCAA Tournament just three times in his career and only reached the second weekend once?
But as people awoke on Friday, they were rumors no more. On stage at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. wearing a royal blue and white jacket with the Kentucky logo, was Billy Gillispie. The man who had brought Aggie Basketball out of the ashes was actually gone.
Now, almost five years later, despite four straight NCAA Tournament runs and teams with quality that rivaled Gillispie’s final squad, Aggie Basketball has never truly been able to recapture the magic of 2007. Gillispie remains a figure larger than life to some fans. A man that, if not for being blinded by the green of the bluegrass, would have brought championships to Aggieland by now.
Many Aggies will never let go of Gillispie because of what could have been, and there are also those that think he deserves what happened at Kentucky. But love him or hate him, one thing that no Aggie basketball fan will ever do, is forget him.
That’s why Billy Kennedy faces more than an 0-3 Texas Tech team on Saturday. He faces the man that, to most Aggies, did nothing less than resurrect Texas A&M Basketball.
A Must Win for Kennedy?
On wednesday night, the Aggies walked off the floor in Austin defeated for the third straight time, and for the fifth time in their last six games. The A&M team that was picked to win the Big 12 Conference has never materialized. In its place, a mountain of rumors, speculation, frusration and disappointment.
Hopes of leaving the Big 12 with their first conference title gave way weeks ago to hopes for a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament. Those diminished hopes have now surrendered further to despair and even anger as the Aggies now find themselves winless and at the bottom of the conference.
Aggie fans, despite not having experienced a season like this, could probably accept not making the NCAA’s as long as they could see the team improving. But they need a light at the end of the tunnel. Saturday is the chance for Kennedy to give them that.
Kennedy said it himself, at Reed Arena on Saturday he’s going to get the chance to see if he can get his winless Big 12 team to out-compete Gillispie’s winless Big 12 team. If he does, that will be a big first step the right direction.
"If we continue to get better and we can play well at home it gives us the best chance. They'll play hard, we'll have to match their intensity,” Kennedy said on Wednesday. “One thing Billy goes a great job of, he gets maximum effort out of what he has. I thought we got good effort but we're going to have to play harder than that to win Saturday."
Kennedy knows what Gillispie means to A&M fans, and gave credit to the former coach for building the program that he now leads.
"He's been a big part of A&M's success, no question. gotta give him a lot of credit for turning the program around and getting the kind of players he did during his tenure here. Fortunately it's not me against him, it's gonna be about the players,” he said.
Emotions in the Stands
An interesting part about Saturday’s game is that the players involved weren’t part of the drama of five years ago. To junior guard Khris Middleton, Gillispie is just the coach on the other bench.
"I really don't know the guy. I know he was there before I came, but I really don't know much about him,” he said Wednesday.
But the fans remember. They remember what it was like when basketball fever swept over Aggieland for the first time in a generation. Memories of “The shot,” of A&M’s first and only win in Allen Fieldhouse, and even of the failed Martellus Bennett basketball experiment are sure to come creeping into the minds of fans in Reed Arena Saturday when they see their old coach.
Who knows what could have happened if Gillispie had stayed at Texas A&M. Perhaps he would have eventually won a Big 12 Championship, or maybe he would ultimately have had the same problem coaching top flight talent that he did at Kentucky. We’ll simply never know.
But if Billy Kennedy wants fans to get behind his program the way they got behind Gillispie’s, he needs to start by giving them a reason to believe. He needs a win that shows that things are improving, and that despite this season’s hardships, the program will bounce back.
So while people in the stands are reminiscing about the program’s past and worrying about its future, for Billy Kennedy, the only time that matters is the present.