Commentary

Gilbert's dedication, passion inspire players

Updated: May 15, 2009, 11:49 AM ET
By Jeff Miller | Special to ESPNRISE.com

BARNSDALL, Okla. -- Bob Kelley dutifully lined up with senior teammates like Tim Scully and Ralph Brown for the basketball team picture to be printed in the 1966 Echo yearbook at little Barnsdall (Okla.) Next to the team was coach Joe Gilbert.

Joe Gilbert
Ruth KaylerGilbert continues to serve as softball and girls' basketball coach, as well as athletics director.

Linda Gross graduated from Barnsdall in 1968 (and later married Kelley) after playing on the girls' basketball team. She and teammates like Linda Hope and Sandy McLaughlin are in the team picture in the '68 Echo. With their coach, Joe Gilbert.

The Kelleys reared two children, Dana and Bobby. Each played basketball for the Barnsdall Panthers, and Bobby was the baseball team's center fielder. Each team was coached by Joe Gilbert.

Dana is now Dana Crabtree and still living in Barnsdall, a town of about 1,300 located about 45 minutes north of Tulsa near the northeast corner of the state. Daughter Jessica, a junior, was the first basketball player off the bench this past season as the Panthers advanced through the Class A district playoffs into the regional round. Her coach? Yep.

What is this, "The X-Files"?

Joe Gilbert walked off the campus of Northeastern Oklahoma State in 1954 and was hired at Barnsdall High as a teacher, the head basketball coach for boys and girls, the head baseball coach and an assistant football coach. He has been there ever since, for 55 of the 102 years since Oklahoma was admitted to the union in 1907.

"I can't imagine Barnsdall High School or Barnsdall, Oklahoma, without Joe Gilbert," Dana Crabtree said. "He taught us a lot of about basketball, but he also taught us a lot about life."

Linda Kelley still sees plenty of Gilbert since she works the clock at basketball games and said he still amazes her.

"He'll remember people that I don't," she said. 'I'm thankful that my children and grandchildren have gotten to play for him."

Gilbert, who admits to being in his mid-70s, has coached multiple sports since day one. He currently coaches one girls' sport per season -- fast-pitch softball in the fall, basketball in the winter and the relatively new Oklahoma sport of slow-pitch softball in the spring -- and serves as the athletic director. For many years, he also coached baseball and boys' basketball. On three occasions, his boys' and girls' basketball teams both reached the state tournament.

When asked why he has coached so long at one school, he replied, "I just liked the place real well."

Russell McCauley was an all-conference basketball player for Gilbert in the early '70s, later was his assistant coach and is now the school principal. (His son was an all-state player for him, too.) Gilbert is like a second father to him.

"Barnsdall has no greater representative," McCauley said. "He has chosen to invest his life in the lives of countless young people and has taught them many life lessons, as well as how to play ball. Barnsdall owes Mr. Joe Gilbert a tremendous debt. We are beyond fortunate to have him a part of our community and school. His legacy will live on for many years to come."

An unofficial tally shows Gilbert with 3,362 victories in six sports, not counting junior varsity or junior high efforts. But to hear him tell it, he hasn't won any games and lost plenty. That's how he described his slow-pitch girls' 3-2 extra-inning loss Tuesday to Fletcher (Okla.) in the first round of the state tournament in Oklahoma City to finish the season 23-5.

"Any time you get beat by one run, I guess it's the coach's fault," Gilbert said. "Or one point in basketball."

Gilbert said the girls cried afterward, but he didn't say too much. "I don't say much to 'em until a day or two later. Afraid I'll say the wrong thing."

When the baseball team won the state title in 1980, star player Brad Bell remembers Gilbert refusing any credit.

"He never had anything to do with it. It was all the kids," said Bell, who later played at Oklahoma State. "All he did was show up and drive 'em there."

Barnsdall has no greater representative. He has chosen to invest his life in the lives of countless young people and has taught them many life lessons, as well as how to play ball. Barnsdall owes Mr. Joe Gilbert a tremendous debt.

-- Barnsdall principal Russell McCauley

He even served as head football coach for a year in the early 1980s when the previous coach quit just before the season began.

"My mother lived in Missouri, and I was visiting her," Gilbert recalled in the quiet, steady voice that Barnsdall residents have grown to know and appreciate. "The superintendent called and said I needed to start football practice the next day." Say no more.

Bell described the Barnsdall phenomenon of all-Gilbert, all the time, which often extended beyond formal high school activities: "When I was a kid, I'd follow my two brothers up to the baseball field on Saturdays. We'd play impromptu baseball games, 18 to 20 kids show up. And there's Gilbert -- got the field ready and he was umpiring. We'd play for an hour, hour and a half. Get done, go home and eat. Go to the pool, and there he was lifeguarding."

As Bell stated, Barnsdall's longtime coach is known to one and all as Gilbert. Not Coach Gilbert. Not Coach Joe. Just Gilbert or "Gilb."

"You grew up calling him that. It's just been handed down," Bell said. "When he first came in, he was almost the same age as the seniors. He was so young that everybody, instead of calling him 'Coach,' called him 'Gilbert.' "

Barnsdall's Class of '55, Gilbert's first year, numbered 33, according to the Echo. This year's figures to be 30. And Gilbert doesn't look all that different, the buzz cut now fully gray. He still looks lean like a Marine, standing 6 feet and about 175 pounds. He used to play a lot of tennis, but now he attributes his good health and trim build to "just kinda staying busy."

He and Joyce, his wife of 42 years and a former Barnsdall teacher, live a block away from the school and the field house that now bears his name. Most days, he cuts through a yard or two and through an alley and walks over.

He has coached with a firm hand ("He doesn't take much off of people," said young Jessica) but a low voice. No one could remember him being ejected from a game or getting a technical foul, expect for the time one of his girls was hurt on the court and he disobeyed the ref and left the bench area to attend to her.

If anyone on the Barnsdall faculty knows Gilbert well, it's Wilma Logue. She has been at the school since 1955 and has done just about everything there, including serving as principal. Logue is now a librarian in a facility that bears her name.

"A parent would not mind sending your child out on an icy night on a bus because you know he's going to be in complete charge," she said.

The people of Barnsdall celebrate "Big Heart Day" over Memorial Day weekend and once invited Gilbert and Logue to serve as grand marshals of the town parade. Gilbert bristled at the attention and wouldn't do it until threatened that Logue couldn't ride if he didn't.

"He complains whenever we take pictures of him," Logue said with a laugh, "when we do something to make him look important to the world."

Two generations of Kelleys cited instances when Gilbert went out of his way to help students. Bob Kelley remembered a teammate who couldn't get rides home from practice to his house out in the country, maybe five miles from school. He said Gilbert gladly played chauffeur.

Said Dana Crabtree: "He'd do things behind the scenes for kids -- meals, shoes. He'll kill me for saying this."

Joe Gilbert
Ruth KaylerJoe Gilbert has coached three generations of players.

And Gilbert worried that she was underweight.

"On the road, we'd usually stop at McDonald's -- which we called 'Gilbert's steakhouse' -- or a convenience store," she said. "He'd get some peanut butter crackers or white [powdered-sugar] doughnuts and a Pepsi and have somebody pass them back to me."

Gilbert denied ever buying those things, but conceded that he doesn't like his players to get jostled around on the court.

Jessica Crabtree, having heard all the Gilbert stories from her mother and grandparents, was nervous about playing for the man when her turn came.

"I was so nervous that I actually rolled my ankle in practice," she said. "But once you got into the rhythm of practice, like, 'You need to do this. You need to do this,' everything worked out.

"He'll make you run if we giggle too much, if we're goofing around. 'Get on the baseline.' Run it out of us."

There has been a time or two that Gilbert considered offers from other schools. But he hasn't pined much to be anywhere else or do anything else.

And there was an episode in the early '90s, when some folks in town were unhappy with him and pushed the school board to release him. Brad Bell's father, Bill, was a board member then. He said two or three of Gilbert's critics were asked to specify before a standing-room only gathering why they wanted him out. They cited no real specifics -- basically said it was time -- and the matter was dropped.

Gilbert has already declared his intention to return for the 2009-10 school year, which will stretch into his seventh decade with the Panthers. He plans to keep coaching and refinishing the basketball floor and lining the softball field as long as his health is good.

Joyce Gilbert retired in 1992 and can't say when her husband will join her. "I've quit asking," she said with a laugh.

With the end of the softball season this week, it would seem Gilbert has earned a deserved break.

Not quite.

"We'll check in stuff today," he said, "and then tomorrow we'll start summer basketball practice."

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