NORMAL — In the beloved 2000 motion picture “Remember the Titans,” Hayden Panettiere plays 10-year-old Sheryl Yoast, a football coach’s daughter.
Yoast attends practices, offers her father coaching advice and is a passionate and knowledgeable fan of the game.
“I was that little girl,” said Kristen Gillespie. “When that movie first came out, I cringed. That was my childhood. That was my life. I ran sprints with the team in preseason. I rode the bus to every road game. I thought that was normal.”
Gillespie’s normal has come to Normal. After 51 wins in two seasons at Division II Lewis, Gillespie was named Illinois State women’s basketball coach earlier this week.
Kristen was born into a coaching family and embraced her surroundings immediately. She accompanied her father Mike to games where he served as basketball coach at Aurora Central Catholic, Joliet Catholic and East Moline United.
“I’m so thankful looking back,” she said. “I had the greatest childhood. I grew up around the sport I loved.”
But the Gillespie coaching tree is much deeper rooted. It sprouted from legendary football, baseball and basketball coach Gordie Gillespie, Kristen’s grandfather.
Gordie, who died in 2015 at age 88, won 2,402 games over three sports at the high school and college level and guided Joliet Catholic to five state football championships.
“In my grandfather Gordie and my father Mike, I had two of the greatest coaching role models before I even knew what a role model was,” said Kristen. “I don’t know if I have a greater supporter than my father.”
Mike Gillespie’s pride was obvious at his daughter’s introductory news conference. Mike, wife Connie and Kristen’s brother, Mike Jr., traveled from Florida for the occasion.
“She’s a great young lady. She’s got a chance to be a terrific coach,” Mike said. “It’s a dream come true for me to see her stand on that podium and become a Division I coach.”
Mike Gillespie remembers a 2-year-old Kristen attending a 1979 game in Horton Field House as Joliet Catholic won a sectional championship.
“She was there every day at practice,” said Mike. “It was the same thing when we moved to Florida. She was always there. Every basketball camp, every drill.”
Mike Gillespie started the Tallahassee Community College basketball program and won 258 games in 10 seasons before moving on to Division II St. Leo and Division I Florida A&M. Gillespie took Florida A&M to two NCAA Tournaments and won one game.
“Both my grandfather and father had tremendous passion,” said Kristen. “They knew why they coached. My father coached a lot of young men from really different backgrounds and became a father figure to them. He would stand up at weddings for some of his players, and it was so cool to see.
“I try to emulate him on a daily basis. I know my 'why' (I coach). My 'why' is to try to impact these 12 (ISU) young ladies, help them along their four years to make their time here a little better and help them prepare for life after college.”
Kristen Gillespie started her college career at Auburn before transferring to North Carolina State where she played for Hall of Fame coach Kay Yow. After Yow’s death from breast cancer, the Kay Yow Cancer Fund has raised money to fight the disease.
“I don’t know if there is a finer coach or a finer woman I’ve ever met, beside my mother, who completely impacted my life,” Kristen said. “She showed me what coaching is really about. Every day my four years at N.C. State was a life lesson.
"I try to use them on a daily basis. I hope and pray I can be half the woman she was. I hope she’s smiling down from heaven and is proud of me. That would mean a ton to me.”
Kristen followed her brother and father as college basketball players. Mike Gillespie played college basketball at DePaul and Mike Jr. at Morehead State.
“My son was a really good player, but Kristen had a different drive, a little different motor,” Mike Gillespie said. “She was going to be the best. She studied it and loved it. She never quit learning how to become better.
"That’s what I think is going to separate her. She’s not going to quit working to become a better coach.”
The Gillespie coaching footprint also includes two more of Gordie’s sons. Bob Gillespie won 510 games as Ripon’s basketball coach and also coached baseball at the school for 23 years. Gordie Jr. served as one of Kristen’s assistant coaches at Lewis.
ISU athletic director Larry Lyons thought it interesting that Kristen brought up “Remember the Titans” in one of their phone conversations before she was named Redbird coach.
“Visualize that little blonde girl,” Lyons told those assembled for Gillespie’s introduction. “That’s Kristen Gillespie. It was obvious to me she was born to be a coach. I'm very excited that Kristen has chosen to become part of our Redbird family.”