Gillispie helps put Ranger College on map with remarkable season

Andrew Valderas
Ranger College head coach Billie Gillispie, who has compiled 148 wins at the Division I level, returned to his alma matter last April and now has the Rangers riding high with a 27-4 record entering Friday's Region V semifinal game against Hill College.

Players from Ranger College remember the first day of practice this season under new head coach Billie Gillispie.

With the program coming off its worst season in school history after finishing with a woeful 2-23 record, players had to buy into the system of their new head coach in hopes of reviving the program, which hasn’t qualified for the end-of-season Region V Basketball Championships since 2012.

“There was no basketball. We were working on defense the whole time,” freshman guard Jordan Geist recalled of the first day. “He was like, ‘This is what happened last year, and this is what we’re going to do this year.’ We had to be a defensive team, and that’s how we were going to win games. Any cancer on the team, we’re going to get it out.”

Gillispie, a former Rangers ball player himself from 1978-1980, has built an exceptional coaching résumé. The 56-year-old has had stops at schools like SEC powerhouse Kentucky, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, where he guided some of the Aggies’ best teams in school history, from 2004-07, including a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

“We know what he has done in the past with those other teams,” said freshman forward Kris Clyburn. “We had trust in him.”

So far, so good

The past four months have been night and day for Ranger College. The Rangers have used their signature stifling defensive play and exceptional rebounding to help produce a 27-4 record. After avoiding an upset in the first round of this week’s Region V tournament at the Brownwood Coliseum, the team from the tiny town that sits an hour northeast of Brownwood will face its next test Friday when it meets Hill College in the semifinals.

The Rangers, ranked No. 10 in the national polls, are essentially undefeated on the court. The only four losses came at the hands of forfeits due to a paperwork issue regarding a player at the beginning of the season. With a win against Hill College and another in the championship game Saturday, the Rangers would receive an automatic berth into the National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.

“It’s unbelievable we’re playing here at this time and still haven’t lost a game yet on the court,” said Gillispie, who returned home to his alma matter as head coach and athletic director last April after being away from the game for three seasons. “This is something that we would’ve had never imagined happening. I thought things would happen for us but not this quickly. It’s been a real honor to be around this program.”

 Getting defensive

The team is ranked in the top five in nearly every major offensive and defensive category, but Gillispie and players say the team’s recipe for success has been forcing turnovers (16.4 per game, ranking second in North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference) and rebounding (conference-leading 27.8).

“It’s what we stress the most every day,” Clybrun said.

Cashing in with points off forced turnovers in the final minutes against Frank Phillips College allowed Ranger College to avoid a meltdown in the tournament’s quarterfinal round. The Rangers scored 30 points off 26 forced turnovers that game.

A coach’s impact on players, Ranger College

Gillispie was named NTJCAC Coach of the Year, and helped boost the statuses of players like Geist, conference MVP, and Clyburn, Defensive Player of the Year.

Geist, who played his high school ball in Indiana, said Gillispie, acknowledging his background in the coaching realm, was one of the main reasons why he chose to move from the Midwest to the South — to a school in a town with a population of no more than 2,500 to be exact.

“He knows what it takes to be at the next level (Division I),” said Geist, who leads the Rangers in scoring (16.2) and steals (1.5). “Knowing that he can get me there and tell me what I need to do to get there really helps.”

Clyburn, from Westland, Mich., said Gillispie has “been the key” to their success and the No. 1 seed in this week’s tournament.

It’s been two different worlds for sophomore guard Victor Diaz, who was on last year’s team roster. He said it feels good that Gillispie has helped remove the “underdog” tag from the program the past three seasons.

“He basically changed the culture,” Diaz said. “He really made us winners. This doesn’t happen often but at the same time we worked for it. I think it’s what we deserve.” 

Being put in the spotlight at tournaments like these allows players to put their talent on display in front of university scouts. Gillispie, who has won 148 games at college basketball’s highest level, said the success also helps with recruiting.

“Doing this is a great first step and brings great things to your school and the program,” Gillispie said. “More attention to it in a positive way. You’re always looking for that.”