By Brian Roe, Sports Writer
Gary Gaines lives in a world few will ever experience. His resume includes district championships, playoff appearances and even a 1989 high school state championship. Even more surreal, the coach was featured in a best-selling book, Friday Night Lights and that portion of his life from 1988 will also be shown in the big-screen version of the book.
Today, though, Gaines sits in his office reflecting on his own life. As a coach, Gaines moved from town to town every few years with wife and two young children.
“I’ve been blessed so much with my wife, Sharon, and with my family,” Gaines said. “This job it isn’t always fair to the kids.
“Every coach understands his job is on the line,” Gaines said. “You’ve either just been fired or fixing to be fired.”
The life of a coach brings different destinations, but through it all, Gaines said he always trusted that God would provide.
Gary Gaines was born in 1949 in the small West Texas town of Crane. Oil fields fueled the economy in Crane, but football fueled the lifeblood of the community. Naturally, Gary Gaines played football.
Gary looked up to many coaches in his youth but none more than his uncle: Richard Gaines. Sadly, Richard died at the age of 28 from a brain tumor.
“I had many great coaches growing up but my uncle was kind of a hero to me,” Gary said.
Gary Gaines excelled in athletics but his passion was clearly football.
“He’s so into football he even stretches with the players,” said ACU football player Mike Caudle. “He cares about the players too. He prays before and after every practice with us.” Eventually Gaines became the starting quarterback at Crane High School. His successful high school career led him to play college football at Angelo State University.
After graduating from ASU in 1971, Gaines landed his first coaching job at Fort Stockton High School as an assistant coach. A year later he became the assistant coach at Monahans High School and stayed four years before becoming the head coach at Petersburg High School.
“Petersburg was fun. It was a great place to get my feet wet,” Gaines said. “The town was only 1,300 people, but every Friday night was like the Cotton Bowl for me.”
Gaines went from Petersburg, to Denver City and then to Odessa to become an assistant coach at Permian High School. The move paid off as Permian won the 1980 state championship. Gaines left Permian for Tascosa High School in Amarillo and then returned to Monahans as the head coach.
Gaines spent two years as the head coach at Monahans. He left because another coaching position was available at Permian. This time the opening was for a head coach.
Gaines never knew his decision to leave Monahans and become the head coach at Permian would still be discussed more than 15 years later.
Before the 1988 season, a newspaper editor from Philadelphia named H.G. Bissinger pitched the idea to Gaines that he move to Odessa, follow the Permian football team and write a book about how this football team could bring a community together.
“He said it would be like ‘Hoosiers’,” Gaines said.
At first Gaines balked at the idea of a newspaper guy documenting the town and the team. But Bissinger convinced him this book would positively capture the essence of high school football in Texas.
Bissinger moved to Odessa and followed the Permian team to practices, meetings, games and everywhere in between.
“He always carried his notepad and pen with him writing everything down,” Gaines said.
The season ended with Permian losing a disappointing game to the Dallas Carter Cowboys in the semifinals of the state playoffs. The Panthers rebounded the next year and won the 1989 state championship. The book featured the 1988 season, but the film has Permian playing for the state championship that year.
Friday Night Lights was released in 1990. Gaines was one of the first to receive a copy of the book. Bissinger called Gaines and said, “You’re going to like it.” Gaines, however, said he never read the book.
Gaines recalled his wife Sharon calling him in tears over what she had read in the book. The pages were filled with racist accusations and personal details about the lives of players and coaches.
“People said that my family and I weren’t even portrayed in a negative light,” Gaines said. “Maybe not, but I was the captain of the ship. And the negative reflects on the head coach too.”
Gaines left Permian after the release of the book for Texas Tech to be the Red Raiders linebackers coach. He recruited some players from Permian and even talked to one about the 1988 season.
“When I went to Texas Tech I had a guy who played for me at Permian and I asked him if he ever heard anything racist from me or any of the other coaches. He said, ‘No coach, I wouldn’t have played if there was.’ That was reassuring to hear that from one of my players,” Gaines said.
After four years in Lubbock, Gaines returned to the high school level in 1994, spending two seasons at Abilene High and four in San Angelo at Central High School.
In 2000, Abilene Christian University offered Gaines a new career opportunity: coaching college football.
ACU was the opposite of almost every other team Gaines had coached: unsuccessful. The dismal Wildcats had never even participated in a Division II post-season game and hadn’t been to the playoffs since winning the NAIA Division I national championship in 1977.
Regardless, Gaines said ACU was a dream job.
“This is something I had not done before and that appealed to me,” Gaines said. “When I went back to San Angelo I was 47 years old and I didn’t think there was any possibility for professional advancement. This job is a dream come true.”
Wildcat football player Clayton Farrell said he admires Gaines for his demeanor.
“He’s such a great coach because of his calmness,” said Wildcat player Clayton Farrell. “He demands respect but his calm demeanor really keeps our team together.”
In 20 seasons as a head coach, Gary Gaines has compiled a 121-96-1 record. His record at ACU is 18-28, but the Wildcats posted back-to-back winning seasons in 2002 and 2003for the first time since 1997.
Gaines gets out of his chair and moves carefully toward the wall on the right side of his office. Hanging on the wall is a cluster of pictures. He points toward the pictures and proudly looks at his four grandchildren. He stares at the pictures and smiles before going back to his desk.
“What we went through with the book was difficult, but compared to other things in life it was nothing,” Gaines said. I think everyone has trials in their life but it’s your faith that
can get you through.”