High school sports' winningest coach, Joe Gilbert, and six decades of impact at Oklahoma's Barnsdall

Joe Gilbert has spent 66 of his 87 years coaching at Barnsdall High School in Oklahoma. September Dawn Bottoms for ESPN

ON A VARNISHED floor in a 1970s prefab metal building, Joe Gilbert pushes his broom back and forth, back and forth in the quiet Barnsdall High School gym.

Slightly hunched with a weathered face and tightly cropped white hair that takes 10 minutes to trim -- "Timed it the other day," he says -- Gilbert, 87, keeps a brisk pace so he can make sure the place is tidy and ready.

His final lap complete, Gilbert stashes the broom and flips on the overhead lights in Joe Gilbert Fieldhouse. Soon, the girls' basketball players arrive for a scrimmage on this unseasonably chilly October day. A chorus of "Hi, Gilb!" precedes the drumbeat of dribbles.

Gilbert lugged 3,907 varsity coaching victories into his 66th year at this tiny school in Northeast Oklahoma. The National Federation of State High School Associations can't find anyone with more. It also can't find anyone who can match his longevity at the same school. Gilbert took the job in 1954, back when there were 48 states and Elvis Presley was launching his music career, and never left.

He has coached baseball, softball, basketball (boys' and girls') and football. He has coached during the terms of 12 U.S. presidents. He has coached three generations of Barnsdall families. One of the players on his first boys' basketball team went on to become an assistant secretary of defense under George W. Bush. One of his baseball players won the Jim Thorpe Award as the state's top male high school athlete.

But winds of change blow in this former oil boomtown. Gilbert used to teach physical education and health and served as the school's athletic director. Until recently, Gilbert walked the two blocks to school from his one-story home on Main Street. Until now, Gilbert always coached multiple sports, even doubling up with boys' and girls' basketball during the winter and baseball and softball in the spring. This year, he's down to just one.

Gilbert spent much of the winter dodging a question with the agility of a much younger man. Could the man who helped shape the future for thousands of Barnsdall's children, the man who has been the face of their shrinking community, the man with the most wins in the history of high school sports, be ready to walk off the court for good?

THE 1959 DISTRICT boys' basketball playoff game was slipping away from the Barnsdall Panthers, and with it the end of senior captain Thomas Hall's high school hoops career. He wasn't handling it well. Hall flailed around the court in the futile hope that sheer energy could somehow prevent what appeared to be certain defeat.

Hall had been a 120-pound incoming freshman who believed he was too small to play football. So he approached the high school's new basketball and baseball coach and expressed his desire to play both sports.

"All you've got to do is try," Gilbert told him. "Give me everything you've got."

Now, with the clock tick, tick, ticking toward zero, Gilbert subbed out Hall, who crash-landed onto the bench. "Coach," he blurted. "I can't get up. I gave it all I've got."

"That's all I could ever expect," Gilbert replied.

It's a memory Hall took with him to his graduation from the Naval Academy, through 60 missions in Vietnam before retiring as a two-star rear admiral, and to his appointment as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs under George W. Bush and his service under Barack Obama.

"I gave it everything I had because of him," says Hall, now retired in Jacksonville, Florida. "And whatever success I've had I owe to him. ... He was my role model."

Hall contributed to Gilbert's 801 wins in baseball and his 649 in boys' basketball. Gilbert also has 1,140 wins in fast-pitch softball, 922 in girls' basketball (counting five this season), 395 in slow-pitch softball and five in football. (On the eve of the 1980 football season, the Panthers' head coach abruptly left for another job. Gilbert reluctantly held down the fort until a replacement was found.) Gilbert's teams have won two state championships -- baseball in 1980 and slow-pitch in the spring of 2013.

By all accounts, the players always came before the numbers for Gilbert.

"I don't think there has been a better ambassador for Barnsdall," says Russell McCauley, a combo guard for Gilbert in the early 1970s, his assistant basketball coach for 20 years until 2003 and his boss as principal before retiring six years ago.

That's why the BHS gym built in 1973 is now named for Gilbert. That's why Barnsdall's athletes and even its competitors refer to him as "the legend." That's why most of the people in town can't imagine him not coaching there.

Says Hall: "I heard a person once say if you stick your finger down in a bucket of water and pull it out, it'll fill up. He's the one person I think if he sticks his finger in a bucket of water and pulls it out, there'll still be a hole that'll never get filled."

A FEW BLOCKS from Gilbert's bungalow on Main Street, a once-active oil pump jack sits smack dab in the middle of the street (traffic can squeeze by carefully on both sides). Dug in 1914, it stopped midpump sometime in the mid-1960s. Nearby businesses are shuttered. The train depot that anchored the town, originally named Bigheart in honor of revered Chief James Bigheart of the Osage, closed years ago.

Barnsdall's population had already dipped below 2,000 back in 1954 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and a 21-year-old Joe Gilbert accepted a job as the PE and health teacher and was asked to coach multiple sports. Gilbert said he mulled four other job offers before accepting the one at Barnsdall, which included coaching boys' and girls' basketball. (He was completely unfamiliar with the girls' basketball rules in Oklahoma in the 1950s -- six players per side with three each never crossing midcourt.) His starting salary was $2,400, with an additional $500 for coaching.

"This town used to be a pretty good-sized place," Gilbert says. "We had four grocery stores. Two big hotels. A train comes in town. Get on a bus. Had four doctors."

Barnsdall still celebrates Bigheart Day each Memorial Day weekend with a parade down Main Street. Gilbert served as a co-grand marshal one year.

About 10 years ago, Barnsdall, along with many other school districts in Oklahoma, went to a four-day school week to save money. Jimmy Hatfield, who runs Hatfield's Grill on the south edge of town, explains that Barnsdall's economic struggles are no different from those in other area towns -- except for the upswing in Pawhuska.

"They've got the Pioneer Woman," he says of the Food Network star's hometown.

Gilbert grew up some 300 miles away, the second of four siblings in Buffalo, Missouri ("Miz-zou-rah," he pronounces it), during the 1940s, idolizing Stan Musial, Enos "Country" Slaughter and the St. Louis Cardinals. It seemed as if there was always some kind of game going on outside when the weather was nice; there was no television to watch at home.

He was recruited to Northeastern State Teachers College in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to play football and became a four-sport standout at what's now called Northeastern State University.

One member of Gilbert's first girls' basketball team at Barnsdall was Joyce Infield, who was also a cheerleader and in the state honor society. Ten years after Infield graduated, she became Joyce Gilbert. She was a teacher at Barnsdall's elementary school until retiring in 1992, the same year that her husband was inducted into Northeastern State's athletic Hall of Fame. She often supervised the concession stand at her husband's home games and kept the scorebook at his away games.

The Gilberts have owned several family bulldogs over the years, all named Duke, but they never had any children.

"I think we were all his children," McCauley says.

Gilbert laughs at the idea. "I don't know about that."

MILES FROM HOME, hungry and in need of a break, Joe Gilbert parks the bus. The boys' and girls' basketball players beeline for the restaurant's entrance. For years, BHS players have referred to this place as "Gilbert's Steakhouse" -- except they serve burgers and you'd recognize it by the golden arches.

The players jostle in line as if they haven't eaten in days.

One player (take your pick of a name) hangs back. Gilbert recognizes this isn't a case of a player who lacks an appetite. Far from it. Instead, it's a player who lacks the means to buy a burger and a soda. Discreetly, Gilbert pays for the player's meal. The boys and girls climb back onto the bus trading fries and barbs as the Barnsdall brigade heads for home.

Whether in Bartlesville, Glenpool or Skiatook, it's a scene replayed time and time again over the years.

"I'm a lucky guy. I got to do what I liked." Joe Gilbert

No one has tracked the number of burgers bought on the sly or the number of sneakers or cleats or gloves that have been quietly provided to a player who couldn't afford proper equipment. Wilma Logue certainly hasn't kept a ledger, but she could probably venture the best guess. She arrived at Barnsdall High School in 1955 and still teaches AP English; the school library is now named for her.

"His influence has been the glue that has held everything together athletically," Logue says.

It took 25 years -- until 1980, when Jimmy Carter was president -- for Gilbert to claim his first state championship, the Class A boys baseball title. His Panthers edged Fort Cobb High 2-1 in the final. Cleve Javine was the team's senior third baseman and recalls his coach's celebration: "Excited -- for us. ... He didn't really take any of the credit."

Brad Bell was the star. The senior pitcher-shortstop won the state's Jim Thorpe Award in 1979-80 after excelling in football and basketball. Later, he was part of four College World Series teams at Oklahoma State.

"He was very much a teacher," Bell says from his home in Denver. "More than anything, he wanted you to learn from your mistakes."

Sport seasons don't overlap at little BHS. That baseball team began practice on a frigid Sunday in February only hours after many of its players ended their basketball season with a state semifinal loss. Well, baseball practice started that day only after Gilbert and his players reinstalled the outfield fence; the field was used for parking during basketball season.

Gilbert said he had multiple opportunities over the years to leave Barnsdall for a job at a larger high school or a junior college. "And then I looked, and I'd think, 'Sports is sports wherever you're at,'" he says.

The Gilbert approach has been relatively low-key, with humor and honesty mixed with discipline. His go-to motivational phrase? "Get meaner! Eat raw meat!"

"He doesn't have a filter," says Jasmine Shores, a senior on the 2018 and '19 softball teams. "He made practices fun. I loved playing for him."

Some who are unfamiliar with Gilbert's relationship with Barnsdall students are unnerved by how his players address him. It's never "Coach" or "Coach Gilbert." Not even "Joe." It's typically "Gilbert" or "Gilb." BHS T-shirts at last spring's softball state tournament included the hashtag #doitforgilb.

"My goal never was just commitment to one school forever," Gilbert says. "I wasn't trying to prove anything: Just be happy doing whatever you're doing. I'm a lucky guy. I got to do what I liked."

HE COMMANDED THE steering wheel, but Joe Gilbert wasn't happy about where he was headed. An event on his calendar last summer called for attire that could be found in no closet in his house and in no shop in Barnsdall. Begrudgingly, he buckled up for the 40-mile trip to Tulsa and nudged his 2004 Malibu closer to the 200,000-mile mark.

Gilbert had spent 65 years employed at one school. He had shed 20 pounds, down to 170, since his arrival in 1954. He had worn plenty of jackets (mainly of the windbreaker variety for softball and baseball games) and donned plenty of ties (he likes to pay tribute to the game of basketball by wearing a dress shirt and necktie on the sideline). And, by his count, "I've swept more floors and mopped more floors than anybody that ever lived."

But he had attended exactly zero black-tie affairs.

Minutes before the National High School Hall of Fame 2019 induction ceremony in Indianapolis, former major league All-Star (and new Houston Astros manager) Dusty Baker volunteered to help Gilbert put on his bow tie. Gilbert and Baker were two of 12 honorees that night. Former Indiana basketball star Damon Bailey was honored. So too were former NFL All-Pro Derrick Brooks and current WNBA star Seimone Augustus.

Gilbert could only shake his head.

"What's Joe Gilbert from Barnsdall, Oklahoma, doing with these kind of people?" he said. "Ol' country boy from Barnsdall."

THE TEMPERATURE HOVERED near triple digits when the Barnsdall fast-pitch softball team took the field for its first game of the 2019-20 season. For the first time, Joe Gilbert sat out. For the first time, a Barnsdall softball team played a season without Gilbert as its coach.

Gilbert still helped maintain the field and lent his hand with the scheduling, but Brooke Curtis, who had served as Gilbert's assistant for softball and basketball the year before, took over the softball coaching duties this past fall.

"It was different, I'll put it that way," Gilbert says. "I don't know really how to say it. You know that you could still be doing it -- you wanted to -- but you didn't elect to do it."

"He didn't even really come to practice," Curtis says.

"I stayed completely out of the way," Gilbert says.

That's not the case back at the basketball scrimmage on the unseasonably cool October day. Gilbert paces the baseline and chatters, cajoles and coaches his players. Among the players is senior point guard Kyndal LeFlore.

In the stands are two former Gilbert protégés: Kyndal's mom, Mikki LeFlore, and Kyndal's grandfather Dale Javine. "Things he says now is just like hearing him back in the '80s," Mikki says.

But Gilbert notices the passage of time and the change in his players.

"I adjust with the kids, and I study the game a lot," Gilbert says. "I scout, scout and scout some more. The games have gotten a lot faster. And the kids have more things to do; that's the biggest change. Used to be if you played sports in high school, that was it."

Dale Javine, Kyndal LeFlore's 77-year-old grandfather, isn't surprised that his junior high coach from 65 years ago is still at it. "Hadn't buried him yet," he says.

JOE GILBERT SPREADS his lean arms as far as possible, corrals an errant pass, pivots and shoots. The ball swishes through the net. "Play big," he instructs a post player at a recent practice.

The Lady Panthers lug a 5-15 record into Monday's regular-season finale at Caney Valley and are unlikely to advance far in the state playoffs. Injury and illness have left the team with just seven players for much of the season. Plenty of opposing coaches, Gilbert jokes, have gotten payback on him this season.

This past Friday, on Valentine's Day, a group of about 80 "Gilb alumni" gathered at Joe Gilbert Fieldhouse for the team's regular-season finale to pay tribute to their former coach. Principal Sayra Bryant told the crowd she wanted Gilbert to see the impact he has made in Barnsdall over 66 years. She presented him with a new warm-up jacket and a gift card to "Gilbert's Steakhouse."

"I kind of fell into a gold mine here," Gilbert says, facing his players who helped push his win total to 3,912 this season. "Each boy and girl was very, very important to me whether you sat on the end of the bench or whether you were the top dog."

It feels like a sendoff, but school board president Carl Kelley (naturally, a former Gilbert athlete) says there's an understanding that Gilbert alone will decide when his Barnsdall career will end. And that time is not now, Gilbert says. Not with the way this season has played out. Not yet.

"I've told them that I'm going to coach the girls for one more year," Gilbert says in the days leading up to the home finale. He barely takes a breath before detailing how excited he is about next year's roster.

McKenna Bryant will be a sophomore in 2020-21 and recently told her mom she wants to play her entire high school career for "Gilb." Bryant, basketball mom and Barnsdall principal, did the math and made sure her daughter understood that Gilbert would be 90 years old when she's a senior.

McKenna replied with the speed of a touch pass.