The man whose name is synonymous with the Permian football program is walking away for a second time, and this time it’s for good.
Gary Gaines, who guided the Panthers to one of their six state championships and was a central figure in the bestselling book that chronicled the team’s 1988 season, said Tuesday he is stepping down as head coach.
The 63-year-old Crane native guided Permian to a Class 5A state title in 1989, the last season of his initial four-year tenure at the school and the year before “Friday Night Lights” was published. He returned to campus in 2009 and posted a combined record of 23-21 during the last four seasons, winning only one playoff game and no district championships.
“We came here to have some success and really didn’t do what I wanted to do, and it’s time for a change,” Gaines said. “They need to get somebody in here that can get the job done.”
Gaines leaves Permian with a 69-28-1 record in eight seasons as head coach. This past season the Panthers finished 5-6, rallying for a playoff berth but losing 34-33 in a first-round game against El Paso El Dorado.
Gaines, who compiled a 127-93-5 record in 20 seasons as a high school head coach and was 21-30 in four seasons as a college head coach, had been deliberating his future since Permian’s playoff loss and said Tuesday he still doesn’t know what’s next for him and his family. He said he doesn’t envision himself coaching again, but he also hinted that he might not retire completely.
“I don’t feel as old as I really am,” said Gaines, who has served as athletics director for ECISD and Lubbock ISD.
ECISD athletics director Todd Vesely, a former Permian gymnastics coach, called his longtime co-worker a “great man” and said, “We’re losing somebody that’s been a part of the Permian family.” Vesely said he expects the job opening to be posted on the school district’s website sometime Wednesday, and by law, the opening must be posted for 10 days before a hire is made.
Vesely said it’s important to secure Gaines’ successor as quickly as possible, because “every day that Permian goes without a head coach is a less-than-ideal situation.” He said no formal interviews had been conducted as of mid-afternoon Tuesday.
“This is a community hire. It’s important for the community,” Vesely said. “We want to get the best person for our athletes, the best person for our programs and the best person for our community. When you put those three things together, that is a tough bill to fill.”
Gaines said coaching at Permian was “great fun for me.” He cited the relationships he’s built, and the influence he’s had on generations of high school players, as the highlight of a career that has spanned more than four decades.
Even though less than a quarter of that time was spent as Permian’s head coach, Gaines identifies with the program as much as the program identifies with him.
“It is a special place. It really is,” Gaines said. “I’ve got a lot of great memories from here. I really do. It’s a unique place, and I’ve got nothing but good memories about it.”
Gaines began his head-coaching career in 1977 at Petersburg High School. He later made stops at Denver City, Amarillo Tascosa, Monahans, Abilene High and San Angelo Central, and also was an assistant coach at Texas Tech from 1990-93 and the head coach at Abilene Christian University from 2000-04.
Odessa High head coach Ron King, who once coached under Gaines and was hired to lead the Bronchos while Gaines was ECISD athletics director in 2006, called Gaines an inspiration and a mentor and said he was “sad to see Coach go.” Gaines also shared his wealth of wisdom with Permian’s current assistant coaches, one of whom expressed gratitude Tuesday and said those lessons will carry on with them.
“I think I speak for all the coaches here at Permian. It’s been an honor to be on his staff,” said Permian assistant head coach David Jones, who was with Gaines throughout his second tenure at the school. “He’s taught each and every one of us a great deal about coaching, but I think the thing that’s really endeared him to all of us is just the character that the man has and the way that he conducts himself in the business of athletics.
“You see kind of a gentle strength in the man,” Jones added. “He’s been in some adverse situations here, obviously, throughout this season and some others, too. And the way that he conducts himself, you never hear him say a bad word about anybody. Just a great man, a great man to work for.”
Gaines said he would continue working at Permian through Jan. 8, the date on his resignation letter. Jones, who was hired by former Permian head coach Darren Allman in 2008 and remained on staff when Gaines was hired, said he would apply for the head-coaching position.
Vesely said ECISD is “not closing the door on anybody” and is open to suggestions and input from fans and community members.
Whoever Permian tabs as its next football coach will be replacing a living legend, even if Gaines is reluctant to consider himself one. He was made a coaching icon, and somewhat of a celebrity, by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s book chronicling the Permian program and the football-crazy culture in Odessa and West Texas.
Gaines has said he hasn’t read the book but was told about its contents by his wife, Sharon. Gaines said he did watch the 2004 film by the same name in which he was portrayed by actor Billy Bob Thornton, who called Gaines at his Abilene Christian office before the movie was filmed.
“I’ve downplayed that ad nauseam,” Gaines said. “To us, it’s all about the kids and what they do. And they deserve the credit.”