Hanging out with Billy Clyde, for now

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My years of scribbling notes and asking pesky questions have landed me in front of some fairly interesting and noteworthy folks over the years.

The pinnacle was probably the time I spent about 10 minutes one-on-one with W’s dad, the first president Bush, following a speech he gave during the Clinton years.

I got wind that following his speech he was going to a private residence to meet and greet some of the high-enders who ponied up mightily to bring him to town. I bolted from the speech a few minutes early, went inside the residence without so much as sideways glance from the Secret Service types and, next thing I knew there he was, walking into the room all alone.

He was genuine and friendly, even after I told him what I do for a living. I guess he didn’t figure a hack from a Podunk weekly newspaper in upstate New York was going to badger him too badly on why he let Saddam retain Baghdad during the first Gulf War.

I’ve interviewed a host of NFL stars and a handful of major leaguers, hockey players and golfers. I even interviewed former heavyweight champ of the world Smokin’ Joe Frazier after furtively knocking on his hotel room door, waking him up and expecting to get my ears boxed for doing so.

I can now add the man most love to hate these days, Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.

About the time the Bearcats were tipping off in the Sweet 16 last Thursday night, Billy Clyde claimed a seat right next to me on press row, where he spent all but the final minute or two of the game.

My first thought is that the embattled coach surely must have been able to find safer haven to enjoy some hoops than seeking it among guys like me. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that regardless how many in the press were calling for his head, among that very group was the best place for him.

Other than a few catcalls — “Fire Gillispie!” — from folks behind us in the stands, Gillispie was given the celebrity status guys like him generally receive. Autograph hounds (adults and kids) pestered him throughout the game, often interrupting him during a conversation or as he polished off a couple of hot dogs, popcorn and Coke.

Only once did he turn someone away, but added that if the man came back during halftime, he’d sign.

And he did, along with inking a few dozen programs and other items for a throng of children. One child got a good dose of grief from the coach for daring to wear a Tar Heels T-shirt while asking for an autograph, which I considered totally appropriate.

Spending the better part of two hours seated next to perhaps the most controversial man in the state, I admit that a host of questions and smart-aleck comments were at the tip of my tongue: “So, Billy, bet you didn’t figure on being here this time of year, huh?” “So why is it that you don’t play zone defense?” “Is the NIT all you thought it would be and more?” “If ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards shows up at halftime, are you going to be nice this time or tell her she’s still asking bad questions?” “Think you’ll be back next year?”

You get the idea.

But because I wanted to watch the rest of the game and knew such questions would likely get me bounced right out of Rupp, I stuck to small talk, including why the most powerful man in the arena had to buy his own hot dogs.

“I pay for everything I get,” he said. “I don’t take anything for free.”

Good policy, that.

Of course we discussed Terrell Owens, too, because that’s what sports fans generally do.

Being from Texas, it stands to reason Billy’s a Cowboys fan. As a lifelong Bills fan, I sarcastically thanked him and his team for sending the venerable-yet-pestilent T.O. to Buffalo.

He made no bones about his distaste for T.O., adding that he would never have a guy like him on one of his teams.

In all, Billy was a down-to-earth guy who was equal parts accommodating to his fans and deaf to his critics — just a fellow hanging out, watching the Sweet 16.

I’m happy to have spent some time with him because I really liked him quite well. But rest assured he won’t be back for next year’s high school tournament. He’ll either be in the NCAA Tourney or fired if he misses it again — if he’s given another chance to get there at all.