A highlight of my brief sports writing career: Getting to know Gary Gaines, a great coach and a great man who deserved better than “Friday Night Lights”

Coach Gary Gaines sat, legs crossed, on the other side of his desk from me, a green 23-year-old sports writer for The Odessa American, in the fieldhouse at Monahans High School. As I lobbed questions at him and scribbled his answers in a notebook, my old-style tape recorder lay on his desk as backup.

It was mid-October 1984, and I wanted to know what it had been like for Gaines, in his sixth season as a high school head football coach and second leading the Class 4A Loboes, to be here, in a place where everyone seemed to love him and what he was doing for the West Texas town of about 8,000 and its football team. Just a year out of college in 1972, he’d taken a job in the same program as an assistant coach and stayed four seasons before moving on to his first head coaching stops in Petersburg and Denver City, even smaller West Texas towns.

“Monahans is a sports town and football is very important to the people here,” Gaines told me. “I think anytime it’s important to the community, it’s going to be important to the young people. Even though they hadn’t won a district championship in a while, it was still basically the same as when I’d been here before.”

Gaines even went so far as to call it “the best head coaching job I’ve had by far” – and that included Class 5A Amarillo Tascosa, where he’d spent the 1982 season.

Coach Gary Gaines talked to his players during a practice at Monahans High in October 1984. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

Popularity had come quickly for Gaines when he returned to Monahans in 1983 and led the Loboes to their first district title since 1976. That was also my first football season at The American, having graduated from Texas A&M in May ’83. I spent my first two years covering the likes of Monahans, Andrews, Fort Stockton and other teams in District 2-4A – when I was given the chance to escape the office on Friday nights. That wasn’t often, since two of my colleagues on our four-person sports staff had to cover Odessa Permian and Odessa High.

Gary Gaines, as most of you dialed into sports news have heard, died Aug. 22 at age 73 in Lubbock of complications related to Alzheimer’s, which he’d been suffering from for several years.

When my dear friend Loretta Wolske – one of my sports writer colleagues at The American during my nearly four years there – texted me early the next morning with the news, I was heartbroken. Gaines and I had reconnected 10 years ago by email, and I’d hoped for several years to do so again. I had no idea Alzheimer’s had taken an unbreakable hold of his life.

As you also know, it’s not Gaines’ success coaching the Loboes from 1983 to ’85 that he’s known for. It’s what blew up after that, when he became head coach in 1986 of the storied Permian Panthers – known across the desolate, oil-rich plains of West Texas and far beyond as Mojo since the 1960s – that made Gaines famous.

Not that he ever asked for it. He shunned attention and preferred that go to his players.

In my limited years of covering sports – two years at Texas A&M, my memorable time in Odessa and some high school games for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after I started working there as a features, then sports, copy editor in 1987 – I’ve never known a less egotistical, more genuine, compassionate coach whose main focus was on the kids he led on the field. Gaines was a devout Christian, and I firmly believe that had a great deal to do with his strong character and unwavering morals.

Gaines’ first two Monahans teams won district titles. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

But when journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger came to Odessa in 1988, spending a year there and immersing himself in everything Permian football its players, its coaches, the city and how football made it crazy, seemingly looking for every stain and stigma he could find Gaines became unwillingly famous.

In a blue-collar city of about 100,000 where almost 20,000 cram Ratliff Stadium on Friday nights for Permian home games, football rules the falls like nothing else. Getting the chance to witness that passion, that devotion, that intensity, that worship for four seasons was nothing short of sublime for this sports journalist fresh out of college – if the word “sublime” can even be applied to the sport of football.

Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights isn’t the uplifting, feel-great, pride-instilling story of a town in love with its football team and gridiron heroes that Gaines and all Odessans expected. Until the book came out in 1990, he had no idea it was going to go so many of the places it went. No one did.

According to my esteemed Dallas Morning News colleague Kevin Sherrington in his outstanding column this past weekend, by the time Gaines went into a memory care facility in 2017, he didn’t even remember the book – which he always insisted he never read and never forgave Bissinger for writing.

Kevin writes that Gaines’ former players found the book to be a pretty accurate portrayal of the 1988 season. One aspect that makes me seethe is hearing some of the racist quotes about Permian players that Bissinger attributed to Gaines’ assistants. That they would utter those words about their players, if they truly did, is unforgivable. That they would say them in the presence of a guy who’s writing a book is downright moronic.

I left for Fort Worth 16 months before Bissinger and his family moved to Odessa in August 1988 so he could begin his FNL odyssey. I wasn’t there for the season that ended with Permian’s loss in the state semifinals to Dallas Carter, which then won the championship but had its title removed for using an ineligible player.

I’ve never seen the 2004 movie based on the book, with Billy Bob Thornton cast as Gaines, but I’ve seen enough clips to make me question not only the casting of Thornton but the accuracy of the screenplay.

When I was a young sports writer in Odessa, I finally got the chance to cover Permian in 1985. The legendary John Wilkins coached his last of 15 Mojo seasons before retiring at the unbelievably young age of 43, leading Mojo to a berth in the Class 5A state final against Houston Yates at Texas Stadium in Irving.

The college prospect-heavy Lions dominated the Panthers 37-0 in one of the most lopsided games I ever covered, leaving Permian’s state title total stalled at four (Mojo since has won two more one under Gaines in 1989, the last season in the first of his two Permian coaching stints, and its last in ’91).

Gaines, who had been an assistant coach on Wilkins’ staff from 1979 to 1981 (during which time Mojo won the 1980 state title), was named Permian’s head coach at age 36 on Jan. 21, 1986. I was there to cover the Ector County ISD trustees’ meeting that night and talked to him after the board’s unanimous vote making him the sixth head football coach in the school’s 27-year history.

Here’s the story I wrote for The Odessa American, an afternoon newspaper, when Gaines was hired as Permian’s head coach in January 1986.

Gaines said that while it was a dream come true, it would be tough leaving Monahans, where his teams went 24-7-4 in three years with two district titles.

“I think you visualize things through your coaching career, and it’s always been a goal of mine since I coached here for John to someday be the coach at Permian,” he told me. “Monahans is a hard place to leave because they’ve treated me so well. We have such strong affections for our athletes and coaches over there. We visited with our players and coaches today, and they understand the magnitude of this opportunity. It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s just a great opportunity.”

In a rarity during those days, Permian missed the playoffs in Gaines’ first season as head coach. But the Panthers made long runs in his final three seasons, 1987-89, winning the state championship in 1989 and going 47-6-1 in Gaines’ four years.

After Permian lost to rival Midland Lee by one point in 1988, disgruntled fans planted for-sale signs in Gaines’ yard. But he and his players overcame the distractions of that year – and a season-ending injury to star running back Boobie Miles during a preseason scrimmage – and fell one game short of playing for a title. They won it all a year later, going undefeated and beating Houston Aldine 28-14 for Permian’s fifth state championship as well as being named national champs.

Mojo hasn’t been back to a state final since losing to Converse Judson in 1995 after making it to 11 by that point. Permian won its other state titles in 1965, 1972 and 1984 (shared in a 21-21 tie with Beaumont French in the state final).

After Permian won the ’89 title, Gaines took a job as an assistant coach at Texas Tech, where former Midland Lee coach Spike Dykes was head coach from 1986 to ’99. Gaines stayed at Tech for four seasons before going back to his high school roots as head coach at Abilene High (1994-95) and San Angelo Central (1996-99).

Gaines decided to give college football a try again the following year when he was hired as the head coach at Abilene Christian, where he spent five seasons with little success as his teams went 21-30. From 2005 until early 2009, Gaines was school district athletic director in Odessa, then Lubbock.

A few shots of Coach Gaines from a October 1984 Monahans football workout I shot for a story I wrote for the next day’s paper. (Photos by Frank Christlieb)

But he still had the itch to coach, and in March 2009, after Permian coach Darren Allman (who played for Permian when I was in Odessa) left for Austin Westlake, Gaines was hired a second time to lead the Mojo program – 20 years after he left the Panthers for Texas Tech.

The fact that Gaines returned to oversee Permian football after all those years, after the pressure he’d withstood before, after the white-hot spotlight Friday Night Lights had shined on Mojo and the city, speaks volumes about his loyalty to the players and the program, his fortitude and his determination.

It’s exactly the kind of man I remember him being. He wasn’t in it for the glory.

Permian went 8-4 in Gaines’ first season back, winning one playoff game. But in his four seasons, that would be the Panthers’ lone postseason victory. They went 4-6, 6-5 and, in his final season, 5-6, losing 34-33 to El Paso El Dorado in a 2012 bidistrict playoff in the last game the 63-year-old Gaines would ever coach.

During his eight overall seasons at Permian, Gaines’ teams went 70-27-1. In 2013, he was inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor.

Gary Gaines, who grew up about 30 miles south of Odessa in Crane, was born with plenty of integrity. From what I grew to know of him long ago, it’s just part of his makeup.

But it didn’t hurt that, while attending Angelo State University from 1967-71 and playing halfback, he spent his last two seasons under the guidance of legendary coach Grant Teaff, who has as much integrity as any coach who’s ever stood on any field in any sport.

Gaines was the team’s MVP and an all-American his senior year under Teaff, who coached three years at ASU before taking over at Baylor, where he spent 21 seasons before retiring after the Bears went 7-5 in 1992 and defeated Arizona in the Sun Bowl.

When Gaines was a senior in 1970, Angelo State handed top-ranked Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) its only loss of the season, 38-21, at San Angelo Stadium. The Javelinas went on that year to win the first of their five NAIA national titles in the 1970s.

Angelo State inducted Gaines into its Hall of Honor in 2019.

For many years after leaving Odessa, I had hoped to reconnect with Coach Gaines, and the day before that playoff game his Panthers played in November 2012, I sent him an email, hoping he’d respond. The subject line was “good luck.”

I should’ve realized he would. At about 5 a.m. the next day, less than 14 hours before his team kicked off, he wrote back:

“Great to hear from you Frank! I certainly have fond memories of our association while I was in Monahans as well as Odessa.

“We’re excited about the opportunity we have and hope we will play well tonight.”

A few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, I emailed Gaines again to wish him and his family happy holidays and to share some information about my having found my birth family a few years earlier, along with a link to a story I’d written about my birth mother for The Dallas Morning News. Just as he always did decades earlier, Coach Gaines took a few minutes of his time:

“Have a blessed 2013 – my how fast time flies. I’m still wanting to work and have put out some feelers outside of education. I’m sure being 63 will not be looked on as an asset. The good Lord has a plan and I trust him with whatever happens.

“We’ve got all our family here in Ruidoso, New Mexico with snow on the ground. We have 5 grandchildren (4 girls and 1 boy). The girls range in age from 8 to 16. The boy is 7. Lots of fun and plenty of noise.”

Here’s that story I wrote about how Monahans had grown to adore Gaines in a little over a season as head coach. I can’t take credit for the rhyming headline.

I had read that Coach Gaines went to work briefly for Daktronics, a company that manufactures scoreboards, digital billboards and video displays. I also know from Kevin’s column that Gaines’ cognitive troubles had started as early as his last season of coaching, which saddens me to hear.

Rather than the controversy and negativity Bissinger’s book brewed, with Gaines at the center trying to keep his 1988 team pushing toward the playoffs and a chance to play for a championship, I prefer to remember the Monahans coach whose team I covered and wrote about on a weekly basis in 1983-84. The exceptional coach and mentor who was patient, gracious and always made time for me – when I called, needed to set up an in-person interview or talk to him in the hectic moments after a game.

The folks in Monahans had it right when they gushed about how much their coach meant to them during the 1984 season.

“We could still be looking for a coach now and we’d never find one as good as Coach Gaines,” Connie Bean, president of the Lobo Booster Club, told me after a weekly meeting. “He’s just a fine man and he’s helped the community a lot by coming here.

I promise, it didn’t suddenly start snowing that afternoon in Monahans. Apparently it’s a problem with the negative. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

“I don’t know what he has, but all the kids just love him. He won’t give you 100%; he’ll give you 110. I guess you could call him a born winner. He doesn’t know how to lose. We hope to keep him and let him retire here. He’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to Monahans.”

Said Houston Branam, who moved to Monahans in 1944 and graduated from the high school in 1951, “Everybody thinks Coach Gaines does what he says and is straightforward and honest. He’s had a tremendous impact on the town. He doesn’t put on any airs. He’s true.”

This past weekend while going through some old clippings of stories I’d written during my Odessa American days, I also came across a cherished find: negatives of photos I’d taken of Coach Gaines during a Monahans football workout that day in October 1984 for my story when I interviewed him, a few of the townsfolk and even his quarterback, Steve Hernandez, about the coach and how much he meant to his team and the town. I was able to use a small scanner Kay bought me a few years ago and get them uploaded to my laptop to use with this post.

Rest in peace, Coach.

5 thoughts on “A highlight of my brief sports writing career: Getting to know Gary Gaines, a great coach and a great man who deserved better than “Friday Night Lights”

  1. I believe my brother would be proud of the writer you are and the way you told so much of his story in this article. Thank you for sharing your perspective of Gary. He was truly an outstanding person, coach, brother, friend, husband, dad and mentor. I’m proud to call him my brother. Thank you, Frank.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Tamra:
      I’m genuinely touched by your thoughtful comment about my post on Gary. I’m so glad you and your family felt it accurately captured the high-quality person he was. Ever since he and I had that brief email contact 10 years ago, I’ve wished we’d connected again, but as with so many other people who’ve been a part of my life and passed away so young, I regret now that I didn’t reach out again sooner. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m deeply sorry for this heartbreaking loss you all have suffered, and that he had to go through the daily struggles brought on by Alzheimer’s. God bless y’all.


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