NORMAL — During the interview process for the Illinois State women’s basketball coaching job, Kristen Gillespie was asked the simple question “why Illinois State?” by director of athletics Larry Lyons.
“I thought that was the easiest question I was asked,” Gillespie said. “I told Larry I really believe this will be the best job in the state of Illinois. Teams win here and they do it the right way. Look back a couple years, and there is a ton of success.”
Gillespie will try to resurrect that success after being introduced as the eighth ISU head women’s basketball coach Tuesday. She assumes the reins of a Redbird program that has won only 28 games while losing 93 the past four seasons.
“I am excited to lead this program back to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference,” said Gillespie. “And we will compete for championships. We will make runs in the postseason. That is my promise to the Redbird nation.
“I understand the task at hand. We will find a way to get it done. I’m looking forward to building on the foundation (former coach) Jill Hutchison laid years ago.”
A former point guard at North Carolina State, Gillespie has five years head coaching experience after holding several Division I assistant coaching jobs. She was 51-12 the past two seasons at Division II Lewis with two NCAA Midwest Regional appearances.
Lyons said Gillespie emerged from a “search that drew national interest,” including standing Division I head coaches, and was the choice of three finalists who were brought to campus for interviews as “the best fit and right person at the right time.”
According to Lyons, the successor to Barb Smith has a “proven record of success, the ability to attract experienced assistant coaches, the ability to recruit student-athletes who will compete on the court and in the classroom and the ability to develop those student-athletes to reach their potential on and off the court.”
Gillespie is the product of a coaching family. Grandfather Gordie Gillespie was a basketball, baseball and football coaching legend in the Joliet/Chicago area. Father Mike, who was in attendance Tuesday along with mother Connie and brother Mike Jr., is a former high school and college basketball coach.
Kristen Gillespie’s Lewis teams averaged 70.7 and 71.2 points, while giving up 57.1 and 60.6.
“You are going to watch a selfless team, a team that plays really hard,” she said. “We’ll add some pieces along the way. But if we believe in one another, you will see progress pretty quickly.”
The Redbirds’ top two scorers (Taylor Stewart and Brechelle Beachum) were seniors on an 8-23 team this past season. For the 2017-18 season, ISU currently has one senior, three juniors and six sophomores on the roster.
“We are going to shake out every bush and try to see what’s out there,” Gillespie said of possible additions to the roster. “I’ve been talking to some people in the last 24 hours. It’s not going to be an overnight fix. We want to make sure we bring in high character young women who can make an impact on our team.”
Gillespie said she would consider a graduate transfer for the upcoming season. “If we bring in a player, they have to be able to help us right away,” she said.
Katrina Beck, a junior guard next season who is ISU’s leading returning scorer at 8.7 per game, called Gillespie’s arrival “a clean slate. We’re all really excited to start over and develop individually so we can start progressing.
“She is really funny. She has a good, positive vibe. She’s really genuine and encouraging.”
Senior-to-be Hannah Green said Gillespie left a “really good impression” when she met with Redbird players Monday. “She brings a lot of energy. We’re really excited to have her and start working with her.”
Lyons said Gillespie was signed to a five-year contract with an initial year salary of $170,000. Buyout details and bonus clauses have yet to be finalized.
According to Lyons, recruit Errin Hodges, who signed a national letter of intent with ISU in November, has requested and received her release but also wants to meet Gillespie before deciding where to attend college.