By Joel Weckerly, Sports Editor
Last week I relayed one side of the stir that H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s 1991 book, Friday Night Lights, created. I talked to now-ACU head coach Gary Gaines and his wife, Sharon, who are still feeling the sting from Bissinger’s portrayal of Gaines’ 1988 Odessa Permian coaching staff as racist.
The only fair thing to do was to get Bissin-ger’s side of the story. So, on Tuesday, I talked to Buzz himself.
“The truth hurts,” Buzz said of the negative reaction from several Odessans. “I wasn’t trying to be sensational. This is what I saw. I was a professional reporter, and it had to be written about.
“It wasn’t like I went down there knowing that [black running back] Boobie Miles would get hurt and people would hurl all these racial epithets at him. It wasn’t like I knew when I interviewed people they were going to use the N-word. It wasn’t like I knew Permian would lose two games by a single point and ‘For Sale’ signs would be planted into the yard of Gary Gaines and people would write letters into the newspaper asking for his resignation,” he said. “I didn’t plan any of that, but I’m a journalist. What am I supposed to do?”
Buzz acknowledged that the racism present in Odessa wasn’t unique to that single community.
“The racism was written about because it was more obvious and blatant than anything I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that Odessa was the only community in America that was racist. There were plenty of them. But I also think that the book has been successful because it’s clear that I love the kids I was writing about and I think it’s clear that I have a real affection for Odessa while exposing its warts.”
But because he did show those warts, Buzz said he understands why Odessans, including the Gaineses, were bothered by the book.
“Look, they have a total right to be upset because I didn’t write the book for them,” he said. “I wrote the book to be honest in terms of depicting what I saw based on documents and hundreds of interviews.”
Bissinger denied a claim from Sharon that he had to send Lights back to the publisher because it wasn’t juicy enough.
“That’s completely wrong,” he said. “It was sent back to the publisher because in the initial writing of the book, the first several chapters were not that good.”
Bissinger also shot down Sharon’s accusation that he had made on-air claims suggesting Gaines received free furniture and house payments.
“First of all I don’t remember saying it. I frankly don’t know what she’s talking about.”
Buzz dodged a question about his desire to debate Gary on air after the book came out.
“No, I mean, I’ll never shy away from defending the book, but people have had 14 years to find a factual error in this book and they haven’t.”
Bissinger and Gaines haven’t spoken in 14 years, and Buzz said he was surprised at Gaines’ negative reaction to the book.
“The reaction that did surprise me was Coach Gaines’,” he said. “He came off as he should; as a man of great character and it was clear I had tremendous admiration for him.
“It is ridiculous of Sharon Gaines to suggest that the portrayal of her husband was anything less than glowing in this book. That’s a really silly road to go down.”
Bissinger said he has had no direct involvement with the production of the movie Friday Night Lights, starring Billy Bob Thornton, which will hit theaters in mid-October. His second cousin, Peter Berg, is directing the film, and Buzz said he was only privy to a few scenes that were filmed in Austin and Houston.
“I’ve seen little bits and pieces of what was shot, and it looked very powerful,” he said. “Based on the scenes I’ve seen, Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Gaines is wonderful.”
As far as Bissinger’s relationship with Gaines, he said he’d like nothing more than to patch it up.
“I have a biding affection for both [Gary and Sharon],” he said. “What I’d like to do is bury the hatchet with Gary Gaines. But I also want to make it clear that he has the right to feel any way he wants.”
Would he like to be on regular speaking terms with Gaines again?
“Yeah. And the reason for that isn’t that I’m upset that he’s upset. The reason is because I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. I’ve followed his career from afar. He’s doing good at Abilene and I’m not surprised. I’ve seen that man coach and I know he’s a great coach.”