Gillispie, Jasper complete strange journey to Texas Tech

by | Special to

Normally when a college basketball program hires a graduate assistant to coach, my interest level rises a tick above nonexistent. Often graduate assistants are former alumni, friends of the coach or random names with little basketball experience, trying to break into the coaching ranks.

But this week, I took note of a particular grad-assistant hiring. Derrick Jasper, the former Kentucky and UNLV player who finished his career with the Runnin' Rebels this past season, announced on his Facebook page that he would be joining the staff of his former coach at Kentucky, new Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie.

On the surface, the move isn't unusual. Players trying to break into coaching often take gigs with their former coaches. And Jasper snapping up a chance in the Big 12 Conference would seem to be a no-brainer. But for me, the announcement was perplexing and as surprising as any I've encountered in college basketball.

Derrick Jasper is joining Billy Gillispie's staff at Texas Tech after a tumultuous time together at Kentucky. (US Presswire)  
Derrick Jasper is joining Billy Gillispie's staff at Texas Tech after a tumultuous time together at Kentucky. (US Presswire)  
The dynamic between Gillispie and Jasper is not normal. The two spent one season together at Kentucky, during Gillispie's rocky UK ride. Anyone close to Kentucky basketball knows that even the calmest of days are a soap opera. But Gillispie's two-year run in Lexington was chock full of wild and seemingly implausible moments.

There was poor on-court performance and plenty of drama off the floor. His decision-making often was characterized as questionable and stories of his strange relationships with players and administrators were plentiful. From forcing one player to spend a halftime in a bathroom stall to kicking his leading scorer off the team during a postseason game, tales of Gillispie's dealings with players own a unique place in UK history.

But Gillispie's relationship with Jasper seemed to be the most broken of all. Jasper was recruited by Tubby Smith and played one season under him before Smith left for Minnesota. When Gillispie replaced Smith, Jasper was seen as one of his more-talented returners and a potential cornerstone of Gillispie's program. However, Jasper suffered an injury that required microfracture surgery on his left knee before Gillispie's first season, a procedure typically followed by a nine- to 12-month rehabilitation period.

The recovery time seemingly would have kept Jasper out for his sophomore season. But that assumption seemingly was not shared by Gillispie or later, even Jasper himself. So Jasper returned early, playing 20 games in his sophomore season and helping the team make a late run to the NCAA tournament. But the Jasper who suited up that season was not the same player, and he later admitted rushing back before the leg was healed.

There was speculation that Jasper was cajoled, if not pushed by Gillispie to return. While Jasper never has publicly said he was forced back, the player-coach relationship deteriorated soon after his return. Jasper then transferred after the season. Gillispie was surprised and unable to prevent Jasper's transfer to UNLV.

Before and after his departure, it was no secret that the Jasper-Gillispie relationship was strained. Always considered a friendly player and revered by teammates, Jasper became, as one player told me after the season, "ready to get out of town as quickly as possible." A desire to be closer to home was the public explanation of his departure, but the early return from injury and the strained Gillispie relationship were considered at least partially to blame.

Now, three years later, Jasper is returning to work for the coach he left behind. In an interview with the Las Vegas Sun this week, Jasper said that the decision is "kind of shocking to some people" -- a sizable understatement to anyone those around the two in Lexington. He said that rumors of the poor relationship were "blown out of proportion a bit," adding that, "I wouldn’t be going back to work for him if I didn't believe he was a good guy."

While Jasper's statements are in tune with the party line going forward, they don't mesh with what some around Lexington experienced three years ago. As one former player on the team at the time said, "When Derrick left, they were not on good terms. Clearly something has changed, but the news did really surprise me."

So how does a player who transferred away from a coach halfway through his college career then end up working on his staff? Career opportunity is one reason. Breaking into college coaching is no easy task and Jasper's first opportunity comes at a high level.

But something else may be at play. When players and coaches feud, they sometimes later reach common ground, but rarely would they choose to recreate the situation that led to their problems. But this situation was not one of two personalities that could not mesh, where they consistently bumped heads. Instead it was a relationship strained by outside events and questionable decisions that had long-term effects on both careers. That presents a different opportunity.

For those who know Gillispie well, one universal truth is acknowledged. Even through all his problems in Lexington, including a stint in alcohol rehabilitation after his dismissal, those closest to the coach speak of his tremendous heart. Former players, even those who clashed with him, all are quick to say they believe he cares for them and they could call him for help. Many around Gillispie in Lexington have stories of his strange behavior but also cite his caring nature.

Bringing Jasper onto his staff at Texas Tech seems to speak to that nature. After watching a player-coach relationship crumble and a promising playing career derail because of an injury made worse by a rushed return, Gillispie may see this as a chance to correct a mistake. Those close to Gillispie say that Jasper's departure from Kentucky took him by surprise, even though many observers saw the relationship as long broken. Could rebuilding that relationship in a coach-mentor dynamic mend issues?

Jasper and Gillispie had not spoken between the time Jasper left Lexington and the time he called his former coach to inquire about a spot on his staff. During their time apart, Jasper's once-promising playing career ended without reaching the same heights it did before his surgery; Gillispie was dismissed at Kentucky and he spent two years outside the game he loves.

Four seasons ago, they were brought together in a more promising place and had bright futures only to find disappointment. Now, they reunite, each starting a different path than the one previously planned.

Whether the pair puts bad days in Lexington -- and everything that has happened since -- behind them is what makes this turn of events fascinating. Because after all the difficulties, the one thing they agree upon for sure -- a mutual admiration of the game -- has put them in a position to give it a try.


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