By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It looked like more of the same for West Virginia University a week ago when the University of Florida approached the Mountaineers’ new running back coach Robert Gillespie, who still needed to Google directions to find his way to his new office in the Puskar Center, and offered him an assistant coaching job in the Florida program.
The Gators had no reason to believe they couldn’t steal away this West Virginia coach, being an SEC program and a card-carrying member of the college football elite, complete with a few national championships on their resume.
What’s more, Gillespie himself is a former Gator, a highly decorated one at that as a running back and team captain for Steve Spurrier from 1998 to 2001, finishing as Florida’s No. 2 all-time receiving running back.
The defection alone would have been crushing as Gillespie now had strong ties to new WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, coming with him from Oklahoma State, but the effect was multiplied because it appeared if he skipped out on WVU, top running back recruit Andrew Buie also would go in a different direction, probably to Louisville.
WVU had no reason to expect Gillespie to refuse such an offer, considering its recent history. Rich Rodriguez walked out on his team after losing to Pitt in 2007, and basketball coach Dan Dakich left just eight days after having been hired to replace Gale Catlett when he discovered some dirt under the basketball office carpet.
This defection thing had become so prevalent at WVU that basketball player Dan Jennings walked out on the team at halftime of a game a week ago with nothing more than a chalkboard goodbye to his teammates.
It appears, however, that Robert Gillespie is made of stronger moral fiber than the others.
Put yourself in Gillespie’s shoes, a young coach offered a chance to go home, to coach the best athletes maybe in the nation, to wake up on a February morning and take a walk on the beach instead of hoping the car is warm inside and the snow melted off the windshield when he leaves for work.
What could go through his mind to bring him to the decision to stay with Holgorsen, an untried head coach who did not yet even have that position, when Florida was calling?
“I’m a man of my word,” he said Thursday afternoon at the Puskar Center. “I left a good job at Oklahoma State to come here with him. I gave him my word that I’d come here and help him build this program. As attractive as it was, I believe it’s all about timing. I didn’t think it was the right time.”
This was neither a snap decision nor an easy one. To some, it would seem to be a crossroads in a career, but Gillespie saw beyond the moment and decided not to accept it as the moment that would dictate the direction his career would take.
“I didn’t make my decision on going back to a place where I get a little butterflies and bright stars,” he said, referring to Florida and his history with the state and the school. “I’m a football coach. This isn’t a beauty pageant. I want to be around guys I enjoy being with, guys who can help me grow, guys where I have a voice and some input in the offense. That’s what I based my decision on.”
He had spent time discussing it with his wife, praying over it. He spoke to some family members and some coaches whom he has come to trust.
There were first, of course, practical considerations.
The timing was just wrong, he felt. He believed at this time in his career, as early as it is, this was the right fit.
And then there was a far bigger consideration, a moral one.
“I gave my word and that means a lot,” Gillespie said. “I told him I would come to help him build this program. He’s passionate about this place, and he brought along people with the same passion. Was it tough? Yes, but in the end of the day I made the right decision. Things happen every day in this profession. Doors open when you don’t expect them to. If it’s meant to be, they will open back up.”
Holgorsen understands the situation, appreciates the decision, a decision he applauds as the right one.
“He’s a good person and a man of his word,” Holgorsen said. “I didn’t have a discussion with him. I didn’t have to. He knows that he has a strong voice with me. He knows what he’s getting. He knows how I work. He knows the offense. He’s going to have lots of opportunities in the very near future to go to a lot of places.”
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.