A whirlwind trip to the place my newspaper career began, joining hundreds in paying tribute to the late Gary Gaines, a great football coach – but so much more to so many

As I made the five-hour drive Saturday from Arlington to Odessa, anticipation and memories ran pass routes through my head. I pictured the West Texas landscape and the city I remembered from so long ago, when I was a sports writer at The Odessa American in my first job after graduating from Texas A&M in 1983.

I wondered what the place would look like now, 35 years after I left, as I made a mental list of the sites I wanted to visit during the few hours I’d be in town. My old apartment, if I could figure out which one was mine (I did). The old newspaper building, which I was sad to find had been torn down, but for a great reason – to make way for a community center.

Odessa College, the juco where I’d covered dozens of basketball games and track meets and played many a hoops pickup game. Ratliff Stadium, the renowned high school football venue that opened in 1982 and where I’d covered so many great games in my four years at The American. And Permian High, home of Mojo, a moniker anyone who knows anything about Texas schoolboy football is familiar with.

On a hot, windy, crystal-clear day, I did manage to visit all those places in Odessa, which, for all its growth and the oil industry’s volatility, seems to have changed little since I left for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in April 1987.

But of all the possible reasons for me to go back these many years later, the chance to retrace some of the steps I took almost 40 years ago wasn’t why I made this whirlwind trip.

I went because of Coach Gary Gaines.

I went because I’m one of the thousands of people whose lives he touched in ways large and small, all significant, during his 73 years – as a coach, teacher, leader, mentor, husband, father of two, grandfather of five, friend, and Christian role model to untold many.

The most wonderful photo of Gary Gaines and his five grandchildren. To them, he was Grandy, and, according to his son Bradley, he absolutely loved being Grandy.

Several hundred of those countless folks who love him and have felt his influence – including former players and coaches, friends, family and members of the Odessa and Monahans communities – gathered Saturday afternoon at Crossroads Fellowship in Odessa to honor his memory and celebrate the immense impact he had on them during an eventful, difference-making life cut short last month by Alzheimer’s.

In a previous post after Coach Gaines’ passing, I wrote about how he’d treated me with such respect and kindness when I started my career as he became head coach in Monahans, at the time a Class 4A football program just west of Odessa. I covered District 2-4A in 1983-84 as the Loboes won two district titles, and he always shared his time when I needed some quotes or information about his team or a previous or upcoming game, even when he had much more pressing issues on his hands.

But it wasn’t just the way Gaines treated me that made such a lasting impression. I could clearly see he was a man of strong character, honesty, integrity and faith, and that meant a lot to me, because some coaches don’t have those qualities and can be pretty tough to deal with.

As many of you know, either because you follow HS football or from the Friday Night Lights book and/or movie, Gaines – who’d been an assistant at Permian from 1979 to 1981 – left Monahans to become Mojo’s head coach in 1986. It was a job he’d hoped to have a chance at, but with PHS Coach John Wilkins still young in the early 1980s (he became Permian’s coach at 30 in 1973) and having won two state titles, it didn’t seem likely Gaines would have a shot anytime soon.

But a couple of months after Wilkins turned 43, the Panthers lost to Houston Yates in the 1985 state final – a season I covered from start to finish for The American – and he retired to become the school district’s athletic director.

A photo from Saturday’s slide show of Coach Gaines during his second stint as Permian’s head football coach from 2009 to 2012.

Gaines was hired as Permian’s sixth head coach in January 1986, and I was there to cover the Ector County ISD board’s unanimous vote. Over the next four years, Gaines’ teams went 47-6-1, winning a state championship in 1989 and being crowned national champs by ESPN. During that stretch, a journalist came to Odessa to chronicle the 1988 Permian season for the book that fueled controversy and angst for its often-negative portrayal of the football program, the school’s academics and much about the West Texas way of life.

After several other coaching stops and a couple of athletic directorships, Gaines returned to Permian in 2009 for his last coaching gig, spending four more years with Mojo.

Saturday’s two-hour memorial service was about as perfect as anyone could want for a celebration of life. In addition to the scores who filled the church, the service featured a slide show of what seemed hundreds of photos, lovely flowers, mesmerizing rows of candles filling the front of the stage, and tributes by several former players, one of his coaches, friends and Gaines’ son Bradley, who all shared with emotion and grace their memories and thoughts about what made the coach such a rare and unforgettable part of their lives.

One of the most moving aspects of the service was the music. Permian High’s Satin Strings performed the hauntingly beautiful “Ashokan Farewell,” which many may remember as the theme music from Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS Civil War series. While the musicians played, a video rolled on the two large screens of an earlier group of Satin Strings serenading Gaines with the same song in December 2012 as he retired from his second stint as Mojo’s coach. Permian’s Black Magic chorus gloriously sang “When I Need a Friend” and “It Is Well,” and closed the service with “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

Another group of Permian musicians – the marching band – also saluted Gaines during Mojo’s game Friday against visiting Harker Heights at Ratliff Stadium, as the Panthers fittingly won 28-27.

Ratliff Stadium, which holds over 19,000 fans, opened for the 1982 season, just months before I arrived as a sports writer in June 1983. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

Given the chance, I’m sure dozens of Gaines’ former players and fellow coaches would’ve gone up to spill their guts and hearts about how important he was to them. In the interest of time, his wife Sharon, daughter Nicole and Bradley asked four players and a coach to speak, as well as a pastor friend and another who’d been a television anchor in Odessa and became close friends with Gaines.

Lloyd Hill played receiver for Gaines at Permian from 1987-89, then starred at Texas Tech after the 1989 state title. Coincidentally, Gaines also moved to Tech in 1990 to become an assistant coach and was there all four of Hill’s seasons, including when he was an All-American in 1992.

But if not for Gaines, Hill told the audience Saturday, he wouldn’t have made it at Tech. During his freshman year, his position coach was riding him hard, calling him names and making his life miserable enough that he had his stuff packed and wanted to transfer. Hill went to see Gaines, who, during a lengthy conversation, assured him everything would be OK. And, Hill said, from then on, it was.

“He would come to me every day after practice, ‘How you doing?’ And it wasn’t just about football; it was about life. And he would always ask me two questions: ‘How’s your mom; how’s your grades?’ And that never stopped,” Hill said.

A beautiful display of flowers and photos of Coach Gaines stood among dozens of candles on the stage at the front of the church. The photo at upper left is one I took of him during a Monahans High football practice in 1984. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

Matt Hancock, who was part of a contingent of former Monahans players and coaches in attendance, talked about how Gaines was “more than just a football coach. He mentored what it was to be a Christian.” Hancock recalled being certain as a high school senior that he wanted to become a football coach like Gaines – and that’s what he told his coach, who called him into his office and asked him what he planned to do with his life.

Hancock received advice he hadn’t expected.

“He said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s hard on your family, it’s hard on your friends, it’s hard on your faith.’ And I haven’t really told that story to too many people, because I always envisioned that I was gonna stand on a football field with a whistle and be a coach and influence young people. He told me to go make something of myself and make my family proud.”

He paused a few moments to collect himself.

“Coach, I hope I’ve done that.”

A few years ago, Hancock said, he and the Gaineses had lunch together in Lubbock. It was a memory he’ll never forget.

“I love him and I appreciated him and I truly wanted to explain to him what an impact he had on my life,” Hancock said. “What he meant to me as a person, to be a better person, to be a better Christian man. It absolutely mattered not to me what notoriety he achieved, who he had become. He could’ve been 0-fer every single year and it wouldn’t have changed what he meant to me. He is my hero. I couldn’t … physically get that out to him because I wouldn’t have made it through it, so I went home and I wrote him a letter. I poured my heart and soul into it, and I hope he is proud of me.”

The Gaines family Gary, Sharon, Bradley and Nicole in a photo from the 1970s.

Alan Wyles, a flanker on the ’89 Permian title team, remembered Gaines showing patience and mercy toward his players. That season in the game against rival Midland Lee – whom Permian hadn’t beaten since 1985 – Wyles was bringing in a play from the sideline and gave quarterback Stoney Case the wrong call, resulting in a busted play. He just knew he was going to hear about it from Gaines at halftime.

“So I’m waiting on Coach Gaines, and he walks up and says, ‘Hey, just try to listen a little more clearly next time.’

“The man had this much mercy,” Wyles said, extending his arms wide. “This much mercy.”

Two speakers, including a former Permian player, credited Gaines’ role in helping them achieve sobriety. Trent Hendrick, another member of the ’89 team, said he’s been sober 10 years.

“He showed me a great role model, an example of what it is to be a Christian, a man of faith,” Hendrick said. “I just don’t know if I’d be where I’m at today without him, my family, my wife and everybody else, but he was a huge part of that, because I looked up to him so much, he was my friend. He had such a huge impact on me, but just think about the people he’s touched all over the state – it’s just unbelievable.”

Randy Mayes (left) was an assistant coach with Gary Gaines at Permian and went on to be Mojo head coach from 1994 to 1999. Trent Hendrick (right), who played for Permian’s 1989 state champions, credits Gaines for helping him get sober. (Photos by Frank Christlieb)

Hendrick closed with an observation that got may have gotten the biggest laugh of the afternoon.

“I think when he went to heaven, he went to the pearly gates, the angel comes up to him and says, ‘Coach, we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve got a big game ahead of us, it’s tough out there’ … and I think he looked that angel right in the eye and said, ‘Son, I replaced John Wilkins in 1986 at Odessa Permian – this is gonna be a piece of cake.”

One of the people I had hoped to see at the service was Wilkins, and I was fortunate to visit with him briefly afterward. At first he didn’t remember me, but when I told him about having covered Mojo for The American during his final season in 1985, he came around. He told me he’s turning 80 next month, and considering I was 26 when I left Odessa and am now 61 … wow, do I feel old.

Randy Mayes, one of Gaines’ assistants who went on to become Permian’s head coach from 1994 to ’99, felt humbled to be the only coach asked by the family to speak. He shared some great memories, but the most appropriate piece of his tribute came in the Bible verses he closed with, asking the audience to think of Gaines as he read Philippians Chapter 2, Verses 3-4:

“‘Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look not only for his own interests, but also look to the interests of others.’ That was Gary Gaines,” he said.

I visited with Coach Mayes for a few minutes afterward and learned that he’s retired from coaching and now athletic director at Liberty Christian HS in Argyle, in Denton County north of Dallas-Fort Worth.

Bradley, the oldest of Gary and Sharon’s two children, talked about his father’s faith, his love for his family, his hearty, robust laugh, his nonstop sense of humor, and the relationships he maintained with students of all stripes long after their graduation. The fact that his jobs resulted in 17 moves meant he had that many more opportunities to impact lives, Bradley said.

“I was so proud that he was my dad,” he said. “Not because of what he was, but because of the man he was. He was the man that I strive to be every day. He’s the example and blueprint that I have tried to live by.”

Gary, Sharon and Bradley Gaines

The other speaker who thanked the coach for helping lead him to sobriety was Kurt Kiser, a former sports broadcaster at KOSA-TV in Odessa who was the “Voice of Permian” from 1985-89 and hosted The Gary Gaines Show. He became close friends with Gaines and said that years later in 2007, after Gaines had gone to Lubbock ISD as athletic director and Kiser also was working at a Lubbock station, they went to lunch together.

“He sensed I needed help and invited me to a coaches’ Bible study. … The impact of that Bible study, the impact of Gary Gaines, directly led me to quit drinking Oct. 31, 2007. And thank you Jesus and thank you Gary, I haven’t had a drop since.”

When Gaines accepted a plaque from ESPN honoring his team as 1989 national champs, he said, “I certainly accept this award with humility and hopefully with class.” Kiser said those two words humility and class are emblematic of the person Gaines was.

Kiser also couldn’t help bringing up the music video he helped the Permian players produce using New Kids On the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough” after the ’89 title – and how Gaines even grudgingly made a cameo lip-syncing the line “’Cuz ya know it ain’t over till the fat lady sings!”

Among the many former Gaines assistants at the service was Colby Carthel, Stephen F. Austin State University’s head coach. The Lumberjacks had an open date Saturday, so he traveled to Odessa to honor Gaines, who had given him his first coaching opportunity when Gaines was head coach at Abilene Christian University from 2000-04.

I’ve had some memorable days lately in switching jobs from the newspaper business after 39 years and into marketing/public relations. But Saturday will be one I could never forget.

When I walked inside the church, the first person who spoke to me was Bradley, who recognized me from our having connected recently on Facebook. After we visited briefly, I picked up a program and went inside, taking in the moving scene while trying to figure out where to sit.

I was stunned and supremely honored to see that the Gaines family had chosen one of my long-ago photos of Coach Gaines at Monahans High to use on the program. (Photo by Frank Christlieb)

It wasn’t until I finally sat down a few minutes later that I looked at the program and realized that one of the photos I shot of Coach Gaines at a Monahans High football practice in October 1984 was on the cover. I couldn’t believe it and was at once honored, humbled and touched that the family had chosen to use one of the images I’d found negatives of recently, scanned and emailed to Bradley. They also included several in the slide show and used one among others in the display onstage with the flowers.

Thank you to Coach Gaines’ family for honoring him so fully, to everyone who joined together in doing so, and to the speakers who put aside any butterflies to give it up for a man they’ve respected, admired, looked up to and loved.

And I join everyone else in also saying: Thank you, Coach.

(Photo by Frank Christlieb)

6 thoughts on “A whirlwind trip to the place my newspaper career began, joining hundreds in paying tribute to the late Gary Gaines, a great football coach – but so much more to so many

      1. Glad to hear that, sir. So far things are going smoothly w/the new job at UTSW, thanks for asking. I’m into my third week starting today. Enjoying working with Steve Kaskovich — he’s my immediate supervisor. Such a great guy. The past few years at the DMN, I was generally working noon to 8 or 9 pm, and now it’s more like anywhere from 8:30-9:30a to 5 or 5:30p and weekends off. Can’t complain about that! 🙂

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  1. Frank, what a fantastic read. It made me think of all the coaches from my past — and I can name them all, from seventh grade to the University of Northern Iowa, — and the tremendous influence each had on my life. The memories truly make us rich, don’t they my friend. Stay in touch, pal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dano, so great to hear from you — and thank you so much for reading the post. I know you had many great coaches whom you worked with over the years and held in high esteem. You’ve written about some of them, and I always enjoy those memories. Would love to see more. Gary Gaines was a great man. I still haven’t seen the movie, but I just can’t picture Billy Bob Thornton playing him. Gaines isn’t remotely like BBT. But maybe I just need to watch it sometime and find out for myself. The book has some good parts, but for the most part I just don’t care for it. Too sensationalized and painted a more negative picture than what I recalled during my time there. But maybe I was naive.

      Man, we gotta get a group together — soon!!!! 🙂

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