By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Ever since he was a child, Gary Gaines knew what he wanted to do with his life. All he had to do was look to his uncle, a sideline general from yesteryear, and he knew he was going to be a football coach.
“He was my childhood hero,” Gaines said of his uncle. “I had great admiration for him and what he did, and I never had any other desire.”
Now, at age 53, Gaines has been coaching football for 32 years, including 19 seasons as a head coach. As a head coach, Gaines has compiled a coaching record of 117-95-6 on the collegiate and high school levels, not shabby by any standard.
“He’s very successful,” ACU junior quarterback Colby Freeman said. “He’s known as one of the great coaches in West Texas.”
Indeed, Gaines has left his mark in this part of the state. A 1971 graduate of Angelo State University, Gaines has won district championships at Petersburg, Monahans, Odessa Permian, Abilene and San Angelo Central high schools. His teams made nine playoff appearances, and his 1989 Odessa Permian state championship team is considered one of the finest teams in the history of that program.
From 1990-94, Gaines was linebackers coach at Texas Tech University, where he recruited and coached current NFL linebacker Zach Thomas.
But the really impressive talent Gaines has is turning around losing programs. The shaky programs he took on at Abilene High and San Angelo Central just before he came to ACU, were able to start winning as a result of his coaching efforts. As a result, Gaines was hired into an ACU program in 2000 that had endured seven losing seasons and just three winning ones in the 1990s. So far his time with the Wildcats has not been easy. In this his third season, Gaines has gone 6-20 at the helm. But as he says, no coaching job is an easy one.
“There is not an easy coaching job out there,” he said. “It’s hard to win football games anywhere you are. But I think that’s another thing that makes the job so intriguing.”
Because of his subpar record at ACU, Gaines has taken some criticism, something Freeman said is not appropriate.
“He has done everything he needs to do to get this program turned around,” Freeman said. “He’s brought the right players and coaches in, and it’s up to us now. There’s no excuses; nothing to put on the coaching.”
Gaines’ recruiting ability is part of what makes him the coach he is. His warm smile, laid-back personality and slow West Texas drawl let recruits feel no pressure and to know him as a friend and not just a coach. Junior offensive lineman Britt Lively was playing for Texas A&M when he met Gaines, who was recruiting his younger brother Josh, a freshman on the team.
“I couldn’t believe how nice and how honest he was,” Lively said.
“That was a really big pull for me. He just attracts people to him with the way he acts. He’s a blast to be around.”
As a result, Lively followed his brother to ACU campus, and is glad he made the decision he did.
“Coach Gaines is involved in our lives,” he said. “He’s pretty much all business on the field, but when he comes off the field, he’s a friend. It’s nice to be able to have a friend as a head coach, and that’s something I didn’t’ have at A&M.”
Freeman, who also transferred from College Station, felt the same way.
“Coming from A&M, I took advantage of playing for a guy who really cares about you,” Freeman said. “He’s definitely a player’s coach; I really enjoy playing for him.”
Gaines said he enjoys being a part of the ACU community, not just for the atmosphere, but also to be a part of his players’ lives.
“There’s a great opportunity here to grow as a Christian,” he said, “and also to be a positive role model for these kids, and watch them grow and develop.”
That attitude is something Freeman said he wished all coaches would have.
“He’s always asking us how our personal lives are,” said Freeman, “and I don’t understand why more coaches don’t do that. It makes the players want to play harder for him because they all respect him.”
Even though Gaines has struggled to win at ACU, he still has the same goal as when he started of winning a Lone Star Conference championship.
“That’s always the team’s goal, and that’s what I want,” he said.
Gaines said he doesn’t know how long he wants to coach or what exactly he wants to do after coaching, but for now, he loves what he does.
“If I ever cease to have fun with it or cease to enjoy it- that’s when I’ll stop,” Gaines said. “But I still have a lot of energy. Being around young people helps you stay young.”
Just like the days with his uncle.