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From the Barn to the Bar

Mitch Gilfillan went from playing Division I basketball to repping coaches and ADs

Published in 2023 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

There are days when Mitch Gilfillan drives to visit his parents after a long day at the courthouse and passes by a sheet metal barn in his hometown of Morton. The barn sits beside a house, looking just like the other barns in town. But inside, there are no tractors or supplies or farm animals. There’s a basketball court.

The 39-year-old attorney estimates that, as a kid, he must’ve attempted tens of thousands of shots on that court. He was friends with the owners, who provided him with a key to the barn back in seventh grade. Gilfillan would stop by about four times a week to shoot a couple hundred shots—25 shots from one spot, 25 from another, and so on. Then, he’d turn off the lights, lock the doors and head home. He did this nearly every week through his senior year of high school.

“It got to the point where I was so comfortable shooting that it felt like nearly every shot was going to go in,” Gilfillan says. “That barn put me in a different category than a lot of the basketball players I competed against.”

The category Gilfillan was shooting for was Division I. It was his dream as a kid to play collegiate basketball at the highest level, and even though he was 5 feet, 10 inches tall, the sharp-shooting point guard got his wish at Lehigh University.

Gilfillan started for most of his senior year and, by the end, his was the all-time winningest team in Lehigh history (their record has since been broken). One moment that encapsulates his dream-come-true experience is depicted in a frame in his office: a photo of Gilfillan and his smiling Lehigh teammates, just after they won the 2004 Patriot League Tournament, which led to their third-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.

“Being a part of March Madness was surreal,” Gilfillan says. “Hearing your name called on Selection Sunday and seeing Lehigh on everyone’s brackets was unbelievable. There’s just not a lot of people in America that can say they played in the NCAA Tournament.”

A sophomore at the time, Gilfillan played five minutes for the 16-seed, and scored one point in the loss. “To this day, my friends still joke about seeing me on ESPN and that I looked even smaller on TV than I did in person,” Gilfillan says. 

After Lehigh, he followed in his father’s footsteps and attended law school at Valparaiso. Upon graduation, Gilfillan was faced with an uncertain job market due to the 2009 financial crisis, so he went back to basketball—this time, as a coach.

Gilfillan, crouched in the center, during his assistant coaching days at Edwardsville.

He started as director of operations at Ball State, and, at age 25, was promoted to an assistant coach, becoming one of the youngest Division I assistant coaches in America. Later, he made stops as an assistant at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and as director of basketball operations at Illinois State University.

But after seven years of traveling and long hours, Gilfillan wanted to spend more time with family. He returned to law, working in insurance defense and civil litigation. The best part? A chunk of his clients are Division I and II basketball coaches and athletic directors from the Big 10 to the Patriot League.

“It gives me my fix of staying attached to the game,” Gilfillan says. “I don’t think many people get to combine their passion/interests with their work.” 

His barn is now his office or the courthouse.

“As a college coach, you have recruits, you have boosters, you have alums—people you need to keep happy. That mindset has helped me tremendously in the legal world, because now that’s turned to clients and keeping them happy and satisfied,” Gilfillan says. “My experience on the court and my competitive nature has helped take my legal career to another level.”

It’s also made him a very valuable asset on his attorney basketball league team.

Gilfillan still gets asked by college and high school coaches to rejoin their ranks and coach again. But he’s happy. The only coaching he’s focused on is for his two daughters, Hadley, 8, and Harper, 6.

“Many people have joked that I probably have the most dangerous and legitimate playbook of any coach in the third grade,” Gilfillan says. “They’re probably right.”

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