Gary Gaines Death: Famed “Friday Night Lights” Coach Passes Away at 73!
For four years in the 1980s, he led the football team at Odessa, Texas’s Permian High School, one of which became the focus of a best-seller at the time.
The high school football team’s coach from West Texas, Gary Gaines, passed away on Monday in Lubbock. His story was told in the best-selling book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream,” which was later turned into a film and a television series. He was 73.
His wife, Sharon (Hicks) Gaines, verified his passing in a dementia care center, citing Alzheimer’s disease as the cause.
Before Mr. Gaines was hired as head coach in 1986, the Odessa, Texas-based Permian Panthers had already won four state championships. His reputation as a teacher and coach had earned him the job with four other Texas high school teams.
Don Billingsley, a running back for Permian in the 1980s, described him as “a quiet leader who trusted his coaches to do their jobs and viewed the game from all viewpoints, not just one side of the ball or the other” on a phone interview. When asked about his coaching and mentoring skills, people always praised him.
In 1988, Buzz Bissinger was enticed by Permian’s prominence in Texas and the team’s potential for success to temporarily relocate to Odessa, follow the team, and write what would become “Friday Night Lights,” released in 1990. When Mr. Bissinger found out that the squad sometimes drew as many as 20,000 fans on Friday nights, he was captivated.
He penned the number 20,000 down. My gut told me I needed to check it out.
He painted a picture of Mr. Gaines as a man who felt immense pressure to succeed in a state and a community that was both infatuated with high school football and expected success from their team. At the end of the season, when the Panthers lost a heartbreaker by a single point, Mr. Gaines returned home to discover many “For Sale” signs posted on his lawn, “a not-so-subtle signal that maybe it was best for everyone if he simply got the hell out of town,” as Mr. Bissinger put it.
The Panthers’ chances of winning a fifth state championship were dashed when their top running back, James Miles (aka Boobie), suffered a season-ending knee injury in the state playoffs. Mr. Gaines gathered his distraught team in a circle after the game and led them in prayer.
According to Mr. Bissinger’s account, he told his dad, “it hurts so much because we did so many things nice and came up short.”
Mr. Gaines said he felt deceived by Mr. Bissinger after “Friday Night Lights” came out because Bissinger didn’t paint a more optimistic picture of how football brought the people of Odessa together. Mr. Gaines confessed that he had not read the book but, based on what he had been told, he said he objected mainly to its account of racism in Odessa, in particular against Mr. Miles, who is Black and whom an assistant coach at Permian referred to using a racial slur.
In 2009, Mr. Gaines revealed to The Marshall News Messenger of Marshall, Texas, that his wife had contacted him crying after reading the book because she felt it portrayed the neighborhood as a “bunch of bigots.” Just like in Lubbock,” he said, “there are rednecks all over the place here. As far as I know, the N-word is completely ubiquitous.
He thought I had betrayed him because it wasn’t a puff article, Mr. Bissinger said in a phone interview, “but I’m not the one who said what was said about Boobie.” Finally, he said, “It’s a challenging situation to be a coach, and he handled it with wonderful dignity.”
The role of Mr. Gaines in Peter Berg’s 2004 film adaptation of “Friday Night Lights” was played by Billy Bob Thornton. “neither a my-way-or-the-highway tyrant nor a rah-rah motivator,” as New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott put it, “Mr. Thornton represented Mr. Gaines in a smart and complete performance.”
The fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and the high school football coach Eric Taylor both made appearances in the television adaptation of “Friday Night Lights,” which aired two years after the film’s release (played by Kyle Chandler). The coach’s wife was played by Connie Britton, who also starred in the movie and the TV show.
On May 4, 1949, in Crane, Texas, Gary Alan Gaines entered the world. His dad, Durwood, was a plant superintendent for Gulf Oil, while his mom, Dorothy (Burnett) Gaines, stayed at home to raise their family. Gary started out as a quarterback but switched to wingback during his time at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He graduated that same year (1971).
He got his coaching start in Texas at the high school level as an assistant in Fort Stockton and Monahans. After serving as the head coach at Petersburg and Denver City high schools, he joined the Permian coaching staff in time to assist the Panthers in their 1980 state championship run. Amarillo’s Tascosa High School, Monahans High School, and Permian High School all hired him as their head coach afterward.
Mr. Gaines’s 1989 Panthers went undefeated and won the state title. As head coach at Permian, he oversaw a record of 46-7-1. However, he quickly moved to take a position as an assistant coach at Texas Tech University.
Ms. Gaines, his wife, said in a phone interview, “He loved coaching and he loved the kids,” which accounted for his nomadic lifestyle. Right after graduation, he started looking for his first job. However, following that, everyone began to hunt him down.
He coached high school football in Abilene and San Angelo for four years after leaving Texas Tech before taking over as head coach at Abilene Christian University. He quit after compiling a 21-30 record and went on to serve as the athletic director in the Ector (which includes Odessa) Independent School District for two years and the Lubbock Independent School District for another two years.
Returning to Permian in 2009, his second stint as head coach saw the Panthers’ record drop to 23-21 over four years, with only one postseason victory. In 2012, Mr. Gaines left his last coaching position.
“We’re going to give it to someone else and, maybe, they can make more out of it than we did,” Mr. Gaines said to The Associated Press. “We came here with the expectation of making deep playoff runs and that did not happen.”
He was identified as having Alzheimer’s disease in 2017.
Surviving family members include his wife, five grandchildren, daughter Nicole Strader, son Bradley, sisters Dana Howland and Tamra Reidhead, and brother Michael Strader.
In an interview, Mr. Bissinger revealed that he paid a visit to Mr. Gaines at Abilene Christian University roughly 20 years after the book’s release.
“I went into his office, and he looked like he’d seen a ghost,” Mr. Bissinger remarked. We talked for 15 minutes, and he was quite pleasant throughout the whole thing.
He continued, though: “He kept insisting I had betrayed him. He’s entitled to his opinion.