The news broke early on a Thursday, and -- this being the age of the Internet -- the mugshot was circulating the nation by noon. It was Billy Gillispie, unshaved, puffy faced and dealing with a drinking-and-driving related incident for the third time. And considering he was still only five months removed from being fired at Kentucky, this incident was more high profile than the previous incidents, just a wild morning news story for an otherwise slow news day.
So the blogs made their jokes.
College basketball fans did, too.
|Larry Eustachy was a rising star as Iowa State's head coach before his alcoholism came to light. (Getty Images)|
"I tried to call him, but I didn't get him," Eustachy said. "I just wanted to talk to him because, you know, I've fallen from grace, too."
"I know what he's facing, and it's not funny."
Larry Eustachy likes Billy Gillispie.
You should know that up front.
They aren't best friends or even good friends, mind you. But they have been around each other a lot over the past decade, and Eustachy has come away impressed, so much so that he doesn't hesitate to say things like "there is nobody more talented than Billy." Eustachy admires Gillispie as a recruiter, respects him as a coach. But more than anything, these days, he sympathizes with Gillispie as a man in rehab battling a disease -- and yes, Eustachy will remind you, this is very much a disease -- that is difficult to beat to the point of it sometimes feeling impossible.
So he doesn't laugh at the jokes.
He actually finds them offensive and cruel.
"I can't speak for Billy or about his situation, but I can tell you that alcoholism is recognized as a disease, and believe me, it's a disease," Eustachy said by phone while on the road recruiting. "I've been to enough 12-step meetings and spoken enough to know that Robert Downey Jr. has a very serious disease just like I have a very serious disease. It is a disease, and it is progressive. And once you realize that, it's not funny. It's not a joke, and the people who joke about him have no clue."
Eustachy paused and thought for a moment.
"I mean, would you laugh at somebody who is battling cancer?" he asked. "Because that's what it is. It's a disease. And I know people will read this and say, 'That Eustachy is so full of sh--.' But it really is a disease. So why would you make fun of somebody with a disease? Why would you make jokes about it? I mean, I understand why, and I don't get angry about it, because I understand. But alcoholism is a disease. And I know what he's facing, and it's not funny."
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It has now been more than six years since Eustachy went from Iowa State's basketball coach to the centerpiece of a national scandal. Photographs of him drinking with students at a party after a loss on the Missouri campus were published, and the backlash was immediate. Eustachy was forced to publicly describe himself as an alcoholic. He then accepted a buyout, resigned under pressure and checked into rehab in May 2003.
But here's the thing: He didn't really believe he was an alcoholic.
"In all honesty, I went into rehab with the idea that I would get the 'Good Housekeepin Seal' and get back to coaching," Eustachy said. "I didn't think I was an alcoholic. I didn't even know what an alcoholic was."
In other words, it was a PR move. When Eustachy entered the Hazelden facility in Minnesota, it wasn't to help a drinking problem as much as it was to help a career. He knew a prerequisite to coaching again was reinventing himself. So Eustachy decided to do 30 days in rehab to repair a damaged image, and nothing more.
"But when I got there I had doctors telling me, 'OK. You drink every night, and when you drink you can't stop. That means you're an alcoholic,'" Eustachy said. "And I'd say, 'I was the f---ing National Coach of the Year. How am I an alcoholic? I never drink during the day, and I never drink until the [work] day is over. What the hell are you talking about? Show me your National Doctor of the Year award. Don't give me this sh--.'"
Regardless, they gave it to him.
All day, every day.
"And I didn't have anything to do but listen because once you're in there, you're in there," Eustachy said. "I was in groups, I was listening to speakers. And then, as it went along, my mind started to clear and I started to see. I kept hearing all these stories and it started to ring a bell, and I started to realize that the way I was living was such a crazy and unrealistic lifestyle."
That's when Eustachy really realized he was an alcoholic.
That's when he decided to change.
He acknowledged the problem for real that time, then tackled it. Less than a year later, in March 2004, Southern Miss hired him to replace James Green, and Eustachy said he has completely avoided alcohol since leaving Hazelden. Which hasn't guaranteed success on the court, of course. The 2000 AP and USBWA National Coach of the Year hasn't coached in the NCAA tournament since 2001, and in six years he has yet to take Southern Miss to a postseason event of any kind.
And yet Eustachy feels better than ever.
Sure, he's no longer a young coach rising to stardom.
But he's not an aging coach drinking himself to death, either.
"If you're an alcoholic, it kills you one way or another," Eustachy said. "You either die of it from cirrhosis of the liver. Or you crash a car. Or it's something else. But nobody survives alcoholism. You eventually die from it, one way or another. But again, you have to be willing to change before you can change. Like I said, I went in there kicking and screaming. But eventually I accepted that I had a problem."
By entering a facility in Houston, Gillispie has taken the first step toward accepting the same thing. There's obviously no way of knowing whether he's serious about it, or if he's simply doing what Eustachy initially did, i.e., going to rehab because it's the only way to repair a damaged image. Time will tell, I guess.
But either way, Eustachy said he's planning to soon pop into John Lucas' Athletes After Care Program and see Gillispie, just because. He's not going there to preach. But if Gillispie wants to talk, he'll talk. And if Gillispie needs somebody to listen, he'll listen. And if Gillispie needs to hear that it's possible to come out of this with a better life and a rejuvenated career, Eustachy will tell him both of those things, because he really does believe in Gillispie's talent as a coach and recruiter, and he won't be surprised if we look up in five years and see Gillispie doing better than ever, back leading a program on a run through the NCAA tournament.
But first things first.
"I don't want to talk for Billy or his situation, but you have to be willing to change," Eustachy said. "I had to literally drop to my knees and apologize, and it's not easy. I know he's trying. But what he's facing is not going to be easy."