'Friday Night Lights' coach returns to lead team

ODESSA, Texas -- Nearly two decades after he left Odessa Permian, the coach at the center of the "Friday Night Lights" book and film is back on the sidelines for the famous high school team.

Gary Gaines moved into college coaching just after leading the school to a state title in 1989, then worked in athletics administration.

Now he's returned to help turn around a storied high school football program that has fallen far from the days he first led the team. The school board voted to rehire Gaines, who had been helping search for a new coach, in March.

The urge to return wasn't just about coaching football in a state where fans' fervor for Friday night games is quasi-religious.

"The thing that I missed more than the competitive side of it was just being around young people," said the 60-year-old Gaines.

Gaines' career journey has brought him full circle to the high school program he guided to a state 5A championship in 1989. It came just one season after H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, a Philadelphia writer, spent a year in town researching his best-seller, which chronicled how high school football binds Odessa, a West Texas oil patch community.

Made into a movie in 2004 and now an NBC television series that's less about football than the community depicted, the book was a hit everywhere but Odessa. Locals felt Bissinger betrayed their hospitality by writing about the sociological woes surrounding the team and town, including allegations of racism and a win-at-all-costs mentality.

After leading the Panthers to that state title 20 years ago, Gaines left Permian to become linebackers coach at Texas Tech. He left coaching in 2005 after five years at Abilene Christian to return to Odessa as the school district's athletic director. Two years later, he moved north to take a similar post in Lubbock.

Along the way, others who'd given up coaching for a desk job told Gaines the yen to be on the field would wane.

"But it never did with me," Gaines said. "It was just a great opportunity to come back here. I really wasn't looking necessarily to leave. It just worked out that way."

Much has changed in high school football, however, since Gaines last coached.

He remembers his Permian teams running more than passing. Those Panthers teams averaged about 18 passes a game, "which I thought at that time we were airing it out," Gaines chuckled. "Nowadays if you don't throw 35 [passes] you're sitting on it."

Don Billingsley, a tailback on the championship team, said Gaines' character -- his ethics and values -- sets him apart.

"He wasn't a screamer or a yeller," he said. "There was no cursing. He expected respect and I think got as much out of his players as he could."

Permian has won six state championships in 50 years, three of those coming in the 1980s, when the Panthers lost only 11 games.

But the once-vaunted Panthers haven't won another state title since 1991, and lost an unthinkable 49 games between 1997 and 2006. That included a six-game skid to finish 2004, the longest losing streak in school history.

More recently, the Permian program has enjoyed something of a revival, making it to three region finals the past four seasons while compiling a 38-11 record under Darren Allman, a former Permian player and Gaines protege who left this year to take another coaching job.

Gaines still maintains he's never read the book that vaulted his team and town into the spotlight, though he acknowledged "probably" having recovered a little from the hurt he initially felt, to the point that he "thumbed through it at the bookstore one time."

Bissinger called Gaines numerous times in spring 1990, telling him, "You're really going to like the book. He said, 'It's good,' " Gaines recalled.

Bissinger then called to say he'd mailed a copy of the book to Gaines' home in Odessa, where his wife had remained with their son for his senior year.

Shortly after the book arrived, Sharon Gaines called her husband. She was sobbing.

"I said, 'What's so bad about it?" Gaines recalled asking his wife. "She said, 'He acted like we're a bunch of racists.' "

Gaines said he believes Bissinger talked to scores of people during his year in Odessa.

"Buzz heard it somewhere. I don't know where he heard it. I'm assuming he did," Gaines said. "There's rednecks all around here just like there is in Lubbock. You can go anywhere you want and hear the 'n' word."

Gaines has seen Bissinger only once since. Bissinger traveled to Abilene in 2004 to visit Gaines.

"I was civil," said Gaines, who in retrospect regrets giving Bissinger permission to spend the 1988 season with his program.

For his part, Bissinger said he holds Gaines and his coaching ability in high esteem.

"He knows how to win, how to motivate," Bissinger said. "I think they could not have found a better replacement."