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Florida A&M Coach Makes a Difference

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Florida A&M Coach Makes a Difference

Sports

Florida A&M Coach Makes a Difference

Florida A&M Coach Makes a Difference

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Coach Mike Gillespie, coaching the Rattlers in the 2004 NCAA tournament against Kentucky. He'd like to take his 2007 team back to the Big Dance. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images hide caption

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Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Coach Mike Gillespie, coaching the Rattlers in the 2004 NCAA tournament against Kentucky. He'd like to take his 2007 team back to the Big Dance.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

After a second-place regular-season finish in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Florida A&M University enters the MEAC men's basketball tournament this week with a real shot at winning a bid to the Big Dance — the 65-team field that will compete for the Division I national championship starting later this month.

A fatherly but intense head coach, Mike Gillespie, is getting a lot of credit for the team's success, both on and off the court.

Gillespie wins basketball games and graduates players. FAMU, a small, historically black school in Tallahassee, was doing neither before he arrived in 2001. The Rattlers had not had a winning record in men's basketball for 11 years, and just 9 percent of the players who started there in the 1990s earned a degree.

Gillespie's secret? He tells his team it's all about attitude.

"If you're a very selfish person in a marriage or in a family, your family is going to be dysfunctional," Gillespie said during a recent interview. "If you have that type of atmosphere in a game of basketball, you're going to have a dysfunctional team."

Gillespie works himself into as much of a sweat as his players do. During games and in practice he's loud and constantly moving.

Guard Ernest Maul played basketball at a junior college in Indiana, and it was an easy decision for him to come to FAMU with Gillespie, because he knew Gillespie cared about him and wanted him to graduate.

"I had to get a summer class this summer and a lot of schools fell off, not believing I would get it," Maul said. "He just instills trust in his players. That's basically the main reason. And I had confidence in him as well as he had confidence in me."

In recent years, FAMU has been plagued by scandals: missing financial aid money, questionable hiring practices and late paychecks. In six seasons, Gillespie has worked for four presidents and five athletic directors. Yet he has posted a winning conference record every year. And this year, FAMU could have its first 20-win season in nearly two decades.

During his tenure as FAMU coach, Gillespie has had 22 seniors, 20 of whom earned degrees. His players say he tells them what to expect when they arrive on campus. He's an Irish Catholic dad who wants to know everything about their lives.

"I know how exactly how many hours each guy needs to graduate," Gillespie said. "I know the curriculum that they're in. I could tell you how many hours they passed, what their GPA is. (I) make sure they're going to class, doing all the right things. And (if) I can stay on top of it as the head coach, I think the greater opportunity we have to graduate our kids."

Junior Jon Mason says Gillespie is like a father to the players.

"He just makes sure everything is in order, and if it's not he will either help you get there, or put you with the person who will help you get there," Mason said.

James Call reports for Florida Public Radio.