Why in the world is Tennessee playing Tarleton State?

Marvin Westwestwords

Please be seated, students. Class is about to begin.

Let us start with a pop quiz. All who know what is a Tarleton State, hold up your hand.

That’s OK. Almost nobody from around here knows.

Tarleton State is a school, a university no less, in a rodeo town, Stephenville, Texas. I won’t ask where is Stephenville. That would be an unfair question. There are so many places and things in Texas. It is several times larger than Farragut.

For our purposes, in this class, Tarleton State is a basketball team coming to Knoxville on Thursday to play the internationally famous University of Tennessee Volunteers, rumored to be a Final Four team. Probably not THAT good, but …

Why Tarleton, you ask? I have no admissible evidence, no clue. Tennessee has a very strange schedule. Last week I questioned the logic of bringing in Georgia Southern for a basketball scrimmage in mid-December with Southeastern Conference combat drawing near.

The Eagles came and went. Their record upon departure was 0-10. Popcorn sales were down at Food City Center. The Vols lacked focus and coach Rick Barnes fussed.

After that, things got worse. Tennessee went to San Antonio (think about the carbon footprint) to play North Carolina State in the middle-of-Saturday-night under the guise of a Hall of Fame benefit game. I am told it started sometime after 10 p.m. Attendance was overestimated at 2,238. Be sure 86 percent of the TV audience remotely interested in Volunteers against the Wolfpack yawned and took a nap.

I did. I missed seeing why Tennessee’s top scorer this season, Dalton Knecht, went 1-for-7 and got only two points.

Tarleton State University is the next why-in-the-world game. You are correct, East Tennessee State is much closer and would add some fans. Not many Tarleton boosters are coming. Current estimate is three.

If you insist on knowing, upper deck tickets to Tennessee-Tarleton are $1 each on the resale market. Better tickets are $2. There is Vol Network radio, no conventional TV.

Tennessee athletics hasn’t done much promotion of the Tarleton visit but I may have figured it out on my own. The coach is Billy Clyde Gillispie, a basketball lifer from deep in Texas – born in Abilene, played at Ranger Junior College, coached eight years in high schools, became head coach at UTEP and Texas A&M, got fired at Kentucky, rebounded to Texas Tech for a few minutes, retired once or twice, reappeared at Ranger and emerged at Tarleton.

Have you spotted the connection to Tennessee? Rick Barnes coached the Texas Longhorns from 1998 to 2015. Rick and Billy Clyde are confirmed opposites but certainly acquainted. Bill and the Aggies beat Barnes and the Longhorns when Kevin Durant was the main man.

Gillespie is 64. He has a very “interesting” record – four-time NCAA tournament coach and 13-time Coach of the Year in big and little leagues. Emotion and drama are career trademarks. He says he hates losing more than he loves winning. One source said he is a strange guy, charming or a real jerk, sometimes both in the same afternoon.

He has a history of health issues – high-blood pressure, kidney transplant, apparent heart attack, etc. He admits he has been bothered by alcohol problems.

His former wife said she loved him but found he was married to basketball. She said even when he was home, he wasn’t there.

Believe me, Billy Clyde can coach the game but there are battle scars – accusations of recruiting violations, forfeiture of 32 junior college games that probably wasn’t his fault, protests of mistreatment of athletes, complaints that he exceeded NCAA limits on practice time and allegations that he pressured injured players to participate.

Billy Clyde being Billy Clyde, there might have been a few exaggerations. It is a fact that his one-season record at Texas Tech was 8-23.

Before that, based on astonishing success at A&M, he replaced Tubby Smith as coach at Kentucky. Billy Clyde said “Big mistake going there.”

He was a misfit. He didn’t like the social spotlight, interviews or public relations obligations.

One example: Starting with Adolph Rupp, Kentucky coaches addressed the Lexington Rotary Club before each season with a brief preview of the team. Everybody told Billy Clyde it was what you did, that even Joe B. Hall had to do it.

Gillispie didn’t bother.

He just wanted to coach. He never understood the Wildcat culture, fan cult, impossible expectations. Anonymous existence, undisturbed concentration, was impossible.

He went a substandard 40-27 in his two seasons. His first group lost to Gardner-Webb by 16 in Rupp Arena. His second team lost to Virginia Military.

Historical landmark: 2008 Wildcats upset Bruce Pearl’s third-ranked Tennessee.

I like this part: It has been said that Billy Clyde Gillispie worked harder than most coaches, recruited the best of the best, has a wonderful basketball mind, accomplished some truly incredible things, maneuvered skillfully up the coaching ladder, reached the top and had great potential to stay.

It has been said that he confronted and solved a lot of problems but hasn’t found an answer to himself.

Favorite yarn: When Kentucky decided to fire Billy Clyde, it couldn’t find him. He wouldn’t answer his phone. He wasn’t at his house. The UK president and athletics director Mitch Barnhart were literally driving around town looking for him.

Gillispie allegedly was also driving, around and around New Circle Road to avoid the conclusion. He knew it was coming. Everyone knew it. Media camped out in front of Memorial Coliseum. It was an absolute three-ring circus.

He was eventually paid most of $3 million to go away.

Gillispie today is Tarleton’s star attraction. He may or may not be on the sideline Thursday. He has been on sick leave.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.


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