Gary Gaines, an iconic and successful Texas high school coach whose five-year career at Abilene Christian University was a table-setter for the Wildcats’ success in NCAA Division II and eventual move to Division I, died Aug. 22, 2022, in Lubbock, Texas. He was 73 and had battled Alzheimer’s disease for five years.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2022, at Crossroads Church in Odessa, Texas (6901 East State Highway 191, Odessa, Texas 79762).
Gaines, who was portrayed as a major character in the best-selling 1990 book and popular 2004 film, Friday Night Lights, was never comfortable with either account, especially author H.G. Bissinger’s book. Friday Night Lights was based on the 1988 season at Gaines’ Odessa Permian High School, and the prominent role high school football plays in the culture and ethos of West Texans. A popular TV series loosely based on the book followed from 2006-11.
“He told me he never read the book and didn’t plan to read it,” said Lance Fleming (’92), sports information director during the Gaines era at ACU. “He felt betrayed because he believed the author was going to write a book about this high school football program that bound the community together, even comparing it to the basketball movie, Hoosiers. But some of the negative elements in the book really hurt Coach Gaines, and it was hard for him to get past what he felt like were unfair portrayals of him.”
Fleming said Bissinger came to ACU one morning in Fall 2004 to try and make peace with Gaines, sitting in his office in the Teague Center.
“Coach Gaines was gracious to talk to him and treated him with respect, like anyone who knew him expected he would,” Fleming said. “We have lost a great man with his passing and I, along with so many others, will miss my friend.”
Overall, Gaines led Odessa Permian to one state title and a 69-28-1 record. When he first left PHS following a 16-0 season and Class 5A state championship in 1989, he had compiled a 46-7-1 record.
He had a 127-93-5 head coaching record in 20 seasons at Texas high schools: Petersburg (1977-78), Denver City (1978-79), Amarillo Tascosa (1982), Monahans (1983-85), Odessa Permian (1986-89 and 2009-12), Abilene High (1994-95) and San Angelo Central (1996-99). He was ACU’s head coach from 2000-04 and the linebackers coach at Texas Tech University from 1990-93.
Gaines’ Wildcat teams won only four games his first two seasons on the Hill (2000-01), but rebounded to win the Lone Star Conference South Division title in 2002, the football program’s first championship since a NAIA Division I national title in 1977.
“He not only recruited some really good players but also laid a great foundation that helped us be successful in my time as the head coach at ACU,” said Chris Thomsen (M.Ed. ’00), assistant head coach and tight ends coach at Florida State University who followed Gaines and built ACU’s successful years in Division II, including six straight appearances in the national playoffs. “The best part for me, however, was the relationship we developed over the years after he left ACU. He is someone I really looked up to and had tremendous respect for. I called him for advice when it came time to make career decisions and he became a mentor to me in the coaching business.”
“Everything you’ve ever heard about this man, including his high ethics and moral integrity, were true,” said Texas Rep. Stan Lambert (’75), who hired Gaines to coach at ACU in 2000 when Lambert was the Wildcats’ director of athletics. “The positive influence Gaines had on thousands of young men is immeasurable.”
Gaines left ACU in 2005 to become the director of athletics at Ector County (Texas) Independent School District, which includes PHS. In 2007, he took the same role for the Lubbock ISD before returning as PHS head coach in 2009. He retired in 2012 and announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2017.
In 2013 he was inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor.
Born May 4, 1949, in Crane, Texas, Gaines played quarterback at Angelo State University (1967-70) and earned a B.Ed. degree in physical sciences. He married Sharon Hicks on June 27, 1970.
He was preceded in death by his parents, O.D. and Dorothy Gaines. Survivors include Sharon, his wife of 52 years; a son, Bradley Gaines; a daughter, Nicole (Gaines ’00) Strader; and five grandchildren.
– Ron Hadfield