RANGER, Texas — Billy Gillispie wasn’t interested in the romanticized aspect of this story.
The longtime no-nonsense basketball coach, whose stops at Texas A&M, Texas Tech and most notably Kentucky were marked by equal parts success and controversy, understands Jaren English’s background as well as anyone.
Gillispie recruited the 6-foot-4 guard out of high school in 2017 and again after English’s prep campaign a year later. He knows that up until his one season with Gillispie at Ranger College, the Detroit native held no Division I offers and was considered by many to be a Division II-caliber talent.
But this is no Rudy-like tale of triumph, the former UK boss expressed. This is about a guy who’s played with a metaphorical chip on his shoulder from the beginning and will continue to do so, Gillispie maintains, even after finally reaching the ultimate goal in May, when he signed with St. Bonaventure.
English is undoubtedly driven, his junior college coach said.
But not by the singular objective of a D-I scholarship; rather, by his own desire to be great.
“I don’t think that really has anything to do with it,” Gillispie said of the initial lack of interest. “I think that Jaren is built a certain way. He has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to win and he wants to be a great teammate, and he does both of them very well.
“The reason (he’s made it to the D-I level) is because that’s who he is; that’s who he is on a daily basis. I know you guys like to have some Cinderella story or whatever, and the whole deal is: he’s at St. Bonaventure and had other Division I offers because that’s who he is. He’s earned that, and he’ll continue to earn things because of the way he goes about things on a daily basis.”
ENGLISH WAS one of the best players on one of the top junior college teams in the country last winter.
The combo guard averaged 12 points and a team-best five rebounds and shot 49 percent from the field, including 43 percent from 3-point range (29-of-67), for a Ranger squad that went 31-4 and reached the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I championship game.
Before that, he averaged 17 points, six rebounds and four assists while leading Romulus High School (Michigan) to the Class A state semifinals as a senior, earning a Detroit News All-Metro Area-West First Team selection along the way.
What’s his biggest strength offensively?
It almost doesn’t matter, Gillispie said — he does just about everything well. More important than his skillset are his off-the-charts intangibles.
“His best strength is he’s a winner,” said Gillispie, who’s been at Ranger, where he played collegiately (1978-80), since 2015, “and I value intangibles more than probably any coach in the history of basketball.
“He’s got skills, he’s got talent, but he’s got more intangibles than anything, and that’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed coaching him.”
GIVEN HIS background — his rise from a lightly-recruited high school star to a guy that Gillispie described as “probably the most improved player I’ve ever had from the start of a season to the end” — English seems like a steal.
Considering his traits — hard-nosed, a player with something to prove — he seems like a perfect fit for Mark Schmidt and the Bonnies.
From more than halfway across the country, Gillispie can’t say for sure if those things are true. But he does know this:
“He’s a great person, No. 1. He’s a guy that has unbelievable spirit day-to-day. Every time you see him, it always seems like he’s in a good mood — he makes everyone feel better when he’s around.
“He’s a very, very determined player, a very determined student, a very determined individual. He plays like he has a chip on his shoulder all the time — and those kinds of players are coming fewer and further between. He doesn’t take anything for granted.”
Of course, he can play, too.
AS ONE of two offseason juco additions (alongside Matt Johnson) — and currently one of five members of the Bonnies’ 2019 recruiting class — he’ll likely be expected to contribute right away in some capacity.
“He’s a developing shooter; he’s not great, but he’s developing,” Gillispie said. “He makes big shots. There’s nobody that he won’t try to guard. He sacrificed this year a lot because we played small … because of that, he ended up turning into a fantastic rebounder.
“I love him. I think that a lot of teams are missing a player like Jaren when you’re talking about trying to win championships. He’s a very multidimensional player, but as good of a player as he is, he’s a better person. He’s a wonderful guy to help build a culture around.”
With three years of D-1 eligibility, English is part of a sophomore Bona class that includes Kyle Lofton, Osun Osunniyi and Dominick Welch. Gillispie believes that his former Ranger guard could be the next standout player in an already loaded group.
“I know that Coach (Schmidt) has had a lot of success, and I’m sure they’ll continue to have success,” he said. “(The Atlantic 10) is a tough league. I think Jaren’s best days are ahead of him. I think he’ll definitely be really good this year, but he has a chance to be really great his last two years.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)