The real Gary Gaines was much more than the Odessa Permian football coach. He was an icon.

The death of a former Texas high school football coach does not generally qualify a 900-word obituary in The New York Timesfar fewer ads from Boston, Chicago, Wichita, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, people magazine, “Entertainment Weekly”, “Good Morning America”, even TMZ. But Gary Gaines was more than a coach. He was a national icon, the bittersweet result of “Friday Night Lights,” a book he never read.

Buzz Bissinger’s best-selling account of the 1988 Odessa Permian football season shocked a city, fascinated a nation, and changed the way we worship the state religion.

By the time the story was made into the 2004 movie and later turned into a beloved TV series, the message had lost most of its force. But it didn’t change Gaines’s opinion of the book or fame.

Before Alzheimer’s robbed him of his memory and then his life as recently as age 73, Gaines remained as determined as he was in his faith. He was, by all accounts, too humble to put stock in the celebrity.

“I’ve thought about it,” said Lance Fleming, a friend of Gaines’s in Abilene. “He would say that everyone is wasting their time. That’s not who he was he.

“He always said, ‘I’m just an old country boy from Crane, Texas.'”

Another old acquaintance was equally sure of Gaines’s feelings about the book.

“I know you felt betrayed,” Bissinger told me, with no little pain in the feeling.

Not exactly Hoosiers.

Jeff Garrett recalls walking to his car the morning after a one-point loss to Midland Lee in the fall of 1988 and seeing signs in a neighbor’s front yard. “For Sale” signs. He guessed his neighbor, who happened to be his head coach, was used to it. Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from Philadelphia who spent a year in Odessa collecting what the locals hoped would be their version of “Hoosiers,” would write about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Gary Gaines wouldn’t be the first or last high school football coach to wake up to flourishing signs the next morning, but otherwise it’s rare that someone has won 86 percent of their games.

Gaines did not create the Mojo monster in the Permian, but he did keep it alive or at bay. The coach who brought it to life was Gene Mayfield, who, in 1965, installed the Wing-T offense and 4-3 defense that the high school, middle school and all of the city’s youth leagues ran for decades. When a child came to Permian, he knew the systems inside and out. Mayfield won the program’s first state title, which became a tradition carried on by each of his next four successors.

When Gaines arrived as head coach in 1986 after head coaching stints at Petersburg, Denver City, Amarillo Tascosa and Monahans, as well as a stint as an assistant at Permian, the pressure on staff and players to maintain a “state or bust” level of excellence was practically fuel.

Not that the head coach let it show.

“One thing that struck me about Coach Gaines,” said Garrett, who now lives in Flower Mound, “is that he had a huge responsibility as head coach in that city at the time. But he didn’t let it affect us too much.

“He did a great job of insulating us from that.”

“A sensitive topic”

Gaines was not bombastic, combative, direct. The fact that he barely raised his voice intimidated Lloyd Hill, a junior wide receiver on the ’88 team. He never knew what his trainer was thinking.

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Bissinger says that in the entire ’88 season, he heard Gaines yell at a player maybe once. Bissinger would know. He spent hundreds of hours with Gaines and the team at practices, meetings, games, pep rallies. He was in the story. He even moved his family to Odessa, where he had Thanksgiving with the Gaineses.

Throughout the year, Bissinger found more to write about than just X’s and Os’s, W’s and L’s. He wrote about the relentless pressure on players and staff and football about education. He also didn’t ignore evidence of racism, not when some Odessans felt too comfortable using the N-word around a stranger.

Bissinger dutifully recounted it all, right up to Permian’s loss to Carter in the state semifinals. When the book came out in 1990, after the Permian had avenged the disappointment of ’88 with a 16-0 run to a state title and a legendary national championship in ’89, the reaction was seismic.

But the players, almost all of them, found little fault with it.

“I think Buzz hit a lot, honestly,” Garrett said. “He captured a lot of the spirit of what Odessa was like at the time.”

Hill, one of the few black players on the team and perhaps its biggest star, says he doesn’t hold a grudge against anyone, particularly Bissinger, but has never read the author’s most celebrated work.

“I lived through it,” he said, “and I just want to keep that memory of what I lived through in my head.

“Because everything was good for me.”

Gaines had his own reasons for not reading the book that made him famous. He learned everything he thought he needed to know from his wife, Sharon, who called him, crying, about the Odessa characterization. Gaines felt that he had unknowingly been complicit in an act of deception. He wanted no more of that.

He didn’t even attend the Hollywood premiere of the film. But his wife, his son, Bradley, and his daughter, Nicole, went. She had a great time too, although the movie took so many liberties that Nicole says she can’t watch sports movies anymore.

Still, he once made an exception for his father. Turns out she saw “Friday Night Lights” after all.

(L to R) Boobie Miles (DEREK LUKE), Coach Gary Gaines (BILLY BOB THORNTON), Chris Comer (LEE...
(L to R) Boobie Miles (DEREK LUKE), Coach Gary Gaines (BILLY BOB THORNTON), Chris Comer (LEE THOMPSON YOUNG) and Mike Winchell (LUCAS BLACK) on the sidelines in Imagine Entertainment’s adaptation of HG’s award-winning book Bissinger, Friday Night Lights.

“Actually, I convinced him,” Nicole said. “We were in Abilene one night and I told him it would be fine. No one will see you in the smallest theater you can imagine.

“Of course, we walk in and someone he knows sees him right away.”

Father and daughter watched in silence as Billy Bob Thornton played someone they didn’t recognize. They didn’t talk about it after it was over either.

“It was such a touchy subject,” Nicole said.

His father was near the end of his long and itinerant career. After leaving Permian after the ’89 championship, he went to Texas Tech as an assistant for four years, took high school jobs in Abilene and San Angelo, then became head coach at Abilene Christian from 2000-04. He served as athletic director at Odessa and Lubbock before a final coaching job at the Nexus most successful for him. But it was not the same. His second round at Permian, he went 23-21 and resigned in 2012.

By then, friends and family had noticed the little things she couldn’t remember. Names of attendees, mostly. She would tell a story and then start repeating it. They knew something was wrong. In 2017, they announced that she was Alzheimer’s.

He was eventually admitted to a memory care facility, where Robert Clark, the photographer who took the images that accompany Bissinger’s text, visited for a follow-up. Among the many images on “Friday Night Lives,” Gaines’s may be the most disturbing. clark said Mayor he was grateful that the family gave him the opportunity, but it was a sad reunion. Gaines did not know him.

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He didn’t remember the book either.

‘I never met a finer man’

On a fall morning in 2004 at Abilene Christian University, where he worked for more than 20 years as director of sports information, Lance Fleming arrived early, but not early enough to beat Gaines, ending what would be his final season as head coach.

Passing by Gaines’s office, Fleming noticed that he had a visitor. The boy looked familiar.

Buzz Bissinger had shown up unannounced to pay off an old debt.

“I thought Gary was a really good man and a good coach in an almost impossible situation and I wanted closure,” he told me. “I needed to look him in the eye and say, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you.'”

The 15-minute conversation, according to Bissinger, was polite, pleasant, and not exactly what he expected.

“I gave him the opportunity to say what he needed to,” he said. “He was a very nice man, so he wasn’t going to get into it.

“He was just saying that I had betrayed him.”

Asked if he regretted not telling Gaines that it wouldn’t be a feel-good story, Bissinger said, “I don’t know. Yes and no. Should he have given more information about what is going on in the book? I decided not to because I didn’t want to be influenced by his opinion. The story is based on observations and reports. I was going to do? Not report it? I had to

“But I felt sorry when I heard he said he felt betrayed and would never speak to me again.”

That Bissinger had treated Gaines fairly and compassionately did not matter. No one quite understood Gaines, friends and family say. That’s what bothers Fleming, who said of him, “I don’t think I’ve ever known a better man.” Nicole listens and reads how her father was quiet, almost stoic, and instead remembers a happy, goofy boy who made his family laugh.

“He was a great coach,” Hill said, “but I wish people had known him off the field. So it wasn’t about football. He would ask, ‘How are your grades? How is your mother? How is your dad? It wasn’t just about football. He was about the human being.”

Hill, the older brother of former Texas and NFL wide receiver Roy Williams, became a first-team All-America wide receiver at Texas Tech. Genes are strong. Lloyd’s son, Keanu, is a 6-4, 215-pound catcher at BYU. Before Keanu left Bedford for Provo, Lloyd took his son on a recruiting trip to Lubbock, where they met Gary and Sharon Gaines at a coffee shop.

Most teenagers might not have been thrilled at the prospect of meeting an old high school football coach from Texas, but Keanu was practically beside himself. Not only had he heard stories about Gaines from his father, but he had seen actors play him. Now here he was in person, the man made famous by book, movie, and television.

A man who couldn’t care less about any of that.

“That’s him,” Hill said. “The only.”

FILE - Odessa Permian head coach Gary Gaines walks off the practice field after a...
FILE – Odessa Permian head coach Gary Gaines walks off the practice field after a high school football practice in Odessa, Texas, on May 21, 2009. Gaines, coach of the Permian football team Texas high school, made famous in the book and movie “Friday Night Lights.” , “he has died. He was 73 years old. Gaines’ family says the former trainer died in Lubbock after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.(Kevin Buehler / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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