JOLIET – Pat Sullivan posed the question.
“It’s always been a wonder – how did Gordie become Gordie?” said the former University of St. Francis basketball coach, athletic director and athletic chairman. “That sort of greatness, you can’t definite it, but you know it when you see it.”
Gillespie, the local coaching legend, died Saturday night at age 88. Joliet will be without the man who was so hugely successful in his approach to athletics and, more importantly, relating to people.
What exactly did Gillespie see in the athletes he recruited to Lewis and St. Francis, and attended Joliet Catholic, for among other reasons, to play football for him? Fifty-plus years later, Tony Delgado and Tom Kennedy don’t have the answer.
“It was my good fortune that I was playing basketball for Harrison Tech in Chicago against Crane Tech,” Delgado recalled. “We lost, 99-50, and Gordie [who was coaching Lewis at the time] was there watching.
“I’m a 5-9 guard who couldn’t shoot, and nobody else talked to me. But he invited me to a tryout, and I made the team. He saw something that, for whatever reason, he thought could be developed.”
Kennedy grew up in Braidwood, attended St. Rose School in Wilmington, attended Joliet Catholic never having played basketball.
“I played baseball the last two years of high school because my mom and dad got me a car,” Kennedy said. “Leroy Leslie was my baseball coach.
“I went to Lewis and got hooked up with a park district basketball team with Snake Serdar. Yes, I was learning to play basketball according to Snake. I was playing intramurals at Lewis, and two guys on the team went on academic probation. Gordie asked me to play basketball. I could jump and shoot, but I was green.
“I was a baseball player, but I said I would do it, and Gordie worked me hard in practice. The season started my sophomore year and I was splitting time. I got my first start in January that year against McKendree and went 10 for 13 from the field and 12 for 13 from the line and was a starter from then on.”
A couple years later, he was drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs, soon to be in the NBA. “I’m not sure what they were smoking,” Kennedy laughed of being their 13th-round draft pick.
WHAT GORDIE SAW
Delgado and Kennedy became Gillespie’s close friends and associates for life. He saw something in people, from an athletic standpoint and otherwise, that others missed.
“In my case, Gordie created something out of almost nothing and changed my whole life,” Kennedy said. “Even during my 27 years at Regis [in Denver], I called on Gordie every day. I’d always stop and say, ‘Now what would Gordie do?’”
There’s that Gillespie greatness Sullivan spoke of. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.
Sullivan related a story that longtime baseball coach John Morrey told about Gillespie.
“John was at the National Baseball Convention when Gordie spoke and got a standing ovation,” Sullivan said. “He didn’t hear another standing ovation there until four years later, when Gordie spoke again.”
Gillespie coached 110 sports seasons for 59 years. He coached basketball, baseball and football and was a smashing success in all three.
“Gordie was giving a talk at a coaches’ convention, and I was observing,” Kennedy said. “The hair stood up on the back of my neck when he said, ‘If you don’t like kids, get out. It’s not about you – it’s about the kids.’
“That’s what made him so different, in addition to being a coach, literally, for all seasons. He taught humility in way I didn’t catch on to in the early years.”
Sullivan has worked basketball clinics with the likes of John Wooden, Bobby Knight and Dean Smith, and respects them for the coaches they were. But to him, they were not Gillespie.
“There is nobody like him,” Sullivan said. “Guys like Wooden, Knight and Dean Smith were great coaches. But we’ve got the best. I’ll go my grave saying that.
“Like in ‘The Natural,’ when Gordie walked down the sidewalk, you could hear someone say, ‘There goes Gordie Gillespie. He was the best there ever was.’ Who else ever heard of a coach in three sports on the college level? Who else could coach 110 seasons and along the way be as successful as he was?”
MAKING PLAYERS BELIEVE
It was Gillespie’s greatness, his ability to make his players believe they were better than even they thought they were.
“He was the greatest motivator and psychologist who ever coached,” said Saint Xavier coach Mike Feminis, who played on the first USF football team in 1986, when Gillespie began the program. “He got us to play at a level none of us ever thought we could.
“In ’86, we got together three weeks before our first game. We’re winning, and we didn’t even know each other yet. We’re beating teams and competing with teams we had no business being on the field with.
“I know for me, Gordie absolutely gave me the confidence when I stepped on the field that I could be Superman. I really thought we were up, 7-0, before the game started because we had Gordie on the sideline.”
There’s that greatness again. It all stemmed from how he cared about, how he loved, every one of his players and assistant coaches.
“So many talk about the championships and the victories – but when all is said and done, we remember the man,” Delgado said. “I was there Tuesday holding his hands. He couldn’t talk, but he took his finger and put it to his heart. He wasn’t speaking to me in that moment. He was speaking to the thousands and thousands that he touched.
“That will be my lasting memory of our 54 years together.”
Dan Sharp, Joliet Catholic’s football coach and athletic director and Gillespie’s close friend, put the coach’s greatness this way:
“If you pick up a phone book and point to someone randomly, chances are it would be someone who knew Gordie and is a better person because of it.”