Celebrated coach did not seek attention

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

BARNSDALL — Speakers at Coach Joe Gilbert’s memorial service on Saturday recalled that the much-heralded sports mentor preferred to shift attention and credit from himself to people around him.

“Joe Gilbert never entertained conversations about himself,” Jason Byers, pastor of Barnsdall Assembly of God, said in his memorial sermon.

Byers, who drove a sports bus for Gilbert and his players, described the coach and his widow, Joyce, as “private people who lived in a humble home.” Byers also described Joe Gilbert, who died July 13 at the age of 87, as someone who “bloomed where he was planted” and “lived a quiet life.”

Barnsdall Public Schools held a memorial for Gilbert at the football field, on what turned out to be a sparkling, sunny summer morning.

For all of his aversion to accolades, the coach received plenty of them. He was a member of numerous halls of fame, including the National High School Hall of Fame. His Barnsdall Panthers and Lady Panthers teams claimed 3,912 victories: 1,140 in fastpitch softball, 922 in girls basketball, 801 in baseball, 649 in boys basketball, 395 in slowpitch and five in football. He guided two state title teams: 1980 in baseball and 2012 in fastpitch softball.

Gilbert also became the gold standard for coaching performance at Barnsdall, and the school district’s best-known employee. Former players and colleagues said Saturday that wherever they went, people mentioned or asked about Gilbert.

“Everywhere I went, that’s how people identified Barnsdall,” Superintendent Jeff Lay said, explaining that he did not personally know Gilbert before being hired to lead the district. Lay said Gilbert’s death created a “huge hole,” but added that the coach left behind a sparkling example of a life well-lived to fill that hole.

“I didn’t win those games. The kids won those games,” Lay recalled Gilbert responding when people talked about his coaching record.

Pastor Barry Gott, who played for Gilbert, clarified that stance on Gilbert’s part by explaining that the coach was responsible for turning him into the young man who struck out the final hitter in a baseball state championship game in 1980.

“I cannot imagine that anyone will ever, ever come close to being the man that he was in Barnsdall, Oklahoma,” Gott said.

In sharing Gilbert’s obituary details, Barnsdall High School Principal Sayra Bryant noted that Gilbert had been offered a contract by the Cleveland Indians professional baseball organization in his youth, and had visited with his mother to tell her about that remarkable opportunity. His mother wanted young Joe to get an education, and so he asked the Indians to tear up the contract.

Instead of embarking on a quest for athletic glory in Major League Baseball, Gilbert took the long road to fame. He coached high school sports teams for 66 years in the same small Oklahoma town. He was thoroughly consistent — he was married for 56 years to the same woman and had five bulldogs named Duke. He never retired, and had already been thinking about his next Barnsdall girls basketball team.

Gilbert’s athleticism is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that he was a four-sport athlete in college, at Northeastern State, where he played baseball, basketball and football, and ran track. He is recalled as a gritty, determined person who might just slap a little duct tape on a minor injury and keep moving. Coaching colleagues and former players also characterized him as a gentleman, who never got onto game officials and may have been called for one basketball technical foul in his entire career. Gilbert was also a man with a lively wit who knew how to make a memorable joke, his eulogists said.

Coach Wade Corder elicited laughs from the crowd by talking about how he was called for a technical foul in a basketball game while working as Gilbert’s assistant coach. Corder said Gilbert made a humorous production of having Corder stop a sports bus so that he could purportedly get off and look for a roll of duct tape to fasten Corder’s behind to the bench, so he couldn’t draw any more technicals.

More important, Gilbert inspired players to give a complete effort, “their all,” during sporting competition, as well as in other life pursuits. Chance McGill, a 2020 Barnsdall High graduate, read to the crowd a eulogy prepared by Thomas F. Hall, who played for Gilbert before going on to a career of more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy during which he reached the rank of Rear Admiral.

“He did not play favorites and all he asked was that his players give it their all,” Hall said, adding that he made use of that advice during his service in Vietnam.

Along with personal humility, professional dedication to duty, and success in the process of making competitive athletes out of raw youth, Gilbert retained a love of sporting prowess that occasionally led him to conduct spur-of-the-moment tests of ability. According to one account, he gave an instruction to a pitcher late in a baseball game in which Barnsdall trailed 14-1 to “groove” a pitch to an opposing hitter. The hitter drilled it for a home run. Asked what he had been thinking, Gilbert reportedly said, “I just wanted to see how far he could hit it.”