Commentary

Gaines returns to Mojo land

Updated: June 2, 2009, 3:57 PM ET
By Jeff Miller | Special to ESPNRISE.com

ODESSA, Texas -- There are few high school football programs whose names are recognized across the country. The Massillon (Ohio) Tigers and Valdosta (Ga.) Wildcats might be near the top of any such list. But only one has made it to another level.

[+] EnlargeGary Gaines
Kevin Buehler\Odessa AmericanGary Gaines is back at Permian, 20 years after winning a state championship there.

Only one is part of the national sports culture and has been the subject of a book and a movie and the inspiration for a TV series.

The Permian (Odessa, Texas) Panthers. "Friday Night Lights." Mojo.

"I have family that's all across the country. We get Permian shirts sent out to them," said Steven Pipes, who will start fall drills as the Panthers' senior starting quarterback. "It seems like every camp that I go to in the summer, I show up with a Permian shirt on, people ask about the tradition. They want to know about Mojo."

At the visitors' bureau in Odessa, assistant Elizabeth Rowland recently fielded a call from Canada. A man plans to bring his fiancée down next football season because her dream is to attend a Permian game.

The man who coached the Panthers in 1988 -- the season chronicled from the inside by author H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger -- is back in town and wearing a whistle around his neck again.

Gary Gaines is 20 years removed from guiding Permian to an undefeated season and the 1989 Class 5A state championship. After 11 years away from high school coaching, Gaines is now coaching the sons of players he coached as a Panthers assistant.

"This is not about me," Gaines said on the eve of this past Friday's spring practice finale, the Black and White Game. "I've downplayed that as much as I possibly can. It's still about this school, the kids at this school. I want that to always be the emphasis.

"I just missed the game. Coaching kids. Talking to kids."

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On the 20th anniversary of the Permian Panthers' iconic season, ESPN The Magazine caught up with some of the players immortalized in "Friday Night Lights." Check out Jon Gold's story here.

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Pipes used the word "surreal" to describe playing for Gaines.

"You've heard all this stuff about Coach Gaines and what great teams he's coached," he said. "It's just an awesome thing to be playing for him."

Permian hasn't won a state championship since 1991 and had five other head coaches since Gaines left to become an assistant coach at Texas Tech. But he inherits a program that didn't lose a regular-season game the past two years under Darren Allman, a Permian player in the '80s. In the playoffs, the Panthers lost in the third round each of the three seasons under Allman. He is now at Westlake (Austin) and left behind three starters each on offense and defense.

"Friday Night Lights" readers learned that an ill-timed loss provoked some Permian fans to plant "For Sale" signs in Gaines' front yard in 1988. There weren't many opportunities; Gaines was 46-7-1 during his first go-round on the east side of Odessa.

Is the hunger to win at Permian the same a generation later?

"I think Coach Allman and his staff really raised the bar back to where it needs to be," Gaines said. "Obviously, we'd like to make another jump. But you've got to have a lot of good things happen to you to win a state championship."

Said Brennan Welch, who will be a senior starting safety: "We're not the best athletes. We're some of the smallest in Texas. But we put out the effort and work out and stay after practice. That's why Permian has always been so good.

Friday Night Lights
Courtesy Da Capo PressBuzz Bissinger's 1990 bestseller made Mojo a national phenomenon.

"I've wanted to play for Permian since I played pee-wee. I just get chills thinking about it."

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In the TV series, new coach Eric Taylor inherits a Dillon Panthers team that's rated No. 1 in Texas in the preseason. The Panthers beat the West Cambria Mustangs at Texas Stadium to win it all, but not before Taylor's players learn on the eve of the final that he might leave for a college job … just before his wife tells him that she's expecting. When we last left those Panthers, they lost the state final and Taylor appeared to be out at Dillon and headed across town to the dismal East Dillon Lions.

Pipes admitted "Friday Night Lights" is one of his favorite shows, though he finds some of it hard to swallow.

"Tim Riggins [the wild-child running back played by Taylor Kitsch] drinks after the game on the tailgate of his truck," Pipes said with a smirk. "After he's gotten out of the locker room, he's sitting on the tailgate drinking a beer. That would never happen."

The series began in 2006, two years after the release of the movie version of Bissinger's 1990 best-seller.

"I'm pretty sure everyone's seen the movie," Welch said. "I started reading the book when I was in, like, fifth grade. Never really got through it all."

The book portrayed Odessa, a West Texas oil-patch city of nearly 100,000 with two 5A high schools, as a place engrossed with high school football, at best. At worst, obsessed to the point of looking the other way when football success took precedence over education and racial tolerance.

"Friday Night Lights" wasn't well-received locally. Years later, some folks conceded the public scrutiny might have helped bring about needed change.

Bissinger said he simply reported what he saw while spending the season with Permian players, coaches and fans. He later said Gaines could have felt burned, given that Bissinger indicated to him the book would be similar to the upbeat movie "Hoosiers."

Bissinger's description of Gaines was generally positive. He wrote about Gaines giving inspirational addresses and accompanied the coach to the late-night coin toss that decided the Panthers' playoff fate.

Peter Berg, a cousin of Bissinger's, directed the "Friday Night Lights" movie and is the executive producer of the TV series. He was allowed to shoot the film in Odessa and specifically at Ratliff Stadium, the 19,302-seat municipal field shared by Permian and crosstown Odessa High. The film didn't allude to some aspects of the book that many locals found most offensive.

Toward the end of the filming, Gaines received a voice mail from actor Billy Bob Thornton, who played him in the picture: "He said, 'We're working our butt off to make this a movie to be proud of.'"

[+] EnlargeSteven Pipes
Kevin Buehler\Odessa AmericanSteven Pipes heads into the fall as Permian's starting quarterback.

When the film premiered in Hollywood in October 2004, Gaines was into what would be his final season as head coach at Abilene Christian University. Wife Sharon and their son used the two tickets that they were provided.

Gaines said he was petrified of what might be in the movie. Sharon called him right after seeing it and told him it was "fine."

"To me, that was just like an Academy Award," he said.

Bissinger has said that if Permian didn't qualify for the 1988 playoffs, the book wouldn't have been nearly as successful. But what if he had dropped in for the 1989 season, when Gaines' Panthers went 16-0 and claimed the school's third state championship of the 1980s? What would that have revealed of Mojo and its devoted followers?

That was Gaines' fourth and final season as Permian's head coach. He became an assistant coach at Texas Tech and moved through four different coaching positions in college and high school before returning to Odessa in 2005 as the athletic director for the Ector County school district that oversees Permian and Odessa High. He left in 2007 for the same job in a larger school district in Lubbock. Last winter, he told his successor at Ector County, Leon Fuller, that he was interested in succeeding Allman.

Permian's enrollment of about 3,300 is about what it was in 1989. Under Allman, the school built an indoor practice facility with about a half field of artificial turf plus a new weight room. Permian is now part of a 10-team district, which means scheduling only one nondistrict game before the pressure of district play begins before Labor Day.

Terry Brown played for Permian in 1979, when Gaines was an assistant coach. He'll have two sons on the 2009 team -- senior Carson and junior Barrett, and Brennan Welch is his nephew.

Brown enjoyed being a fullback and flanker for the Panthers, who finished second in the district behind Cooper (Abilene) and missed the playoffs under the postseason format used then. "But it's crazy," he said. "I never realized watching the boys play would be more fun."

Gaines arrived in March and spent spring break interviewing assistant-coaching candidates since half of Allman's staff accompanied him to Westlake. Because of the time frame, Gaines decided to keep Allman's general system intact.

"Why go teach 109 kids a new offense and defense when it's much easier for five new coaches to learn one?" Gaines said. "I'm glad we did it that way. I like what they've done."

Allman is quiet but intense and gets in a player's face when necessary. Gaines is considered less vocal and a delegator but in full control of the program. For any players tempted to test Gaines' boundaries, he has mentioned that his own son didn't start for him at Permian.

"If I can be objective enough not to start my own son, who I love dearly, I can be objective enough not to start you," he told them. "I think he [Gaines' son] got all the same values and benefits from playing the game. His contribution just happened to be on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Not on Friday night."

For Gaines, this is his third stint on the Permian sideline, second as the head coach. He moved his parents here when he was the district athletic director, before he took the job in Lubbock.

This stint might be as much about Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday as it is about Friday night and the lights.

"As I thought about it, the things that I remember more than anything was just helping a kid," he said. "Having a talk right across a table. A youngster that had an issue, had a problem, needed somebody to talk to.

"If we can't stop what we're doing to help the lowest of the low on our team, a player that may never get in a game -- that's what I remember."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com

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