Former players, coaches reflect on Gary Gaines ‘Friday Night’ legacy

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 7:27 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 23, 2022 at 10:35 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - With the 2022 high school football season days away from kickoff, one of the sport’s best-known legends, Gary Gaines, best known for his time at Odessa Permian from 1986-89, has died at 73.

While many recognize him as the friendly face of the book, and subsequent film, “Friday Night Lights,” which documents Odessa Permian’s 1988 season, those close to him say he was even a better man than the way he was portrayed.

“When they did the film, they interviewed and talked to him a bunch and it really bothered him,” said David Thetford, who is the on-air voice for Lubbock ISD. “The humility that he had, he did not want to draw attention to himself.”

Thetford says he got to know Coach Gaines much better, once he came to Lubbock to be the school district’s athletic director from 2007-09.

He would soon return to Permian for his second run as head football coach from 2009-12. Gaines started his coaching career in Petersburg in 1977, and would take on the same role in Denver City in 1978, and Monahans, 1983-85.

Prior to becoming a news anchor in Lubbock, Kurt Kiser worked at KOSA-TV in Odessa, where he was the “Voice of Permian” from 1985-89. Before Gaines became one of the sport’s most-celebrated coaches, it took years to earn respect- especially with a school that had already claimed four state championships.

“Gary had a tough job. He inherited a program that had already been successful, so there was a greater level of success expected at Permian, and that first year was tough for him,” Kiser says. “Then he went on to win the national title, (with a record of) 16-0!”

“He became world renowned for Friday Night Lights, and he was so proud of that team and what they accomplished with the state championship, and really the national championship,” Thetford said.

Permian’s well-documented 1989 title was presented by ESPN.

“I didn’t even know back then that they that there was such a thing as a national championship, and so it came as a surprise to me,” said Doug Hendrick, who was Permian’s Booster Club president in 1988.

His son, Trent, who wore No. 10 as a Panther defensive back from 1987-89, says the team was just trying to win every week- just like every other program in the nation. Nobody expected all the attention that would follow.

“The book and the movie sure makes for good cinema, but a lot of that stuff wasn’t really the way it worked. We were just a bunch of young kids playing football in West Texas, and the next thing you know, they make this book and everybody’s pretty famous, or they think they are,” he joked.

While the 2004 film, which stars Billy Bob Thornton, made $62 million at the box office, Texas Tech head football coach Joey McGuire says the life and culture is very much real across the Lone Star State.

“It’s a lot of different drama with Friday Night Lights, McGuire says, “But I tell everybody, a lot of that drama was true. It might not be true in Odessa, but it’s true throughout the state. Some of that stuff happens every night. (Gaines) was a legend, and he meant a lot to Texas high school football.”

While the 1988 squad suffered three losses, Kiser believes that the team was just as talented as the 1989 counterpart. They just caught a rough break in a rain-soaked Darrell K. Royal Stadium, against a team who has also found a place as a legendary part of football lore.

“It’s ironic that I think the ‘88 team was maybe even better than the ‘89 team, but they ran into Dallas Carter and lost a very controversial game,” he said. “Their season came to an end one game before the state championship. I still feel like the ‘88 team deserves to be state champions as well.”

That year’s semifinal was marred by a controversial catch, which helped Carter advance to the state championship game.

After winning state in 1989, Gaines moved to Lubbock, and served as an assistant for Spike Dykes 1990-93.

On the gridiron, Gaines taught X’s and O’s from his playbook. Off the field, he had a similar approach with the Bible - as Kiser would learn.

“I did reconnect with him here in Lubbock, and that’s where he invited me to a Bible study,” he said. “He didn’t just teach his players how to play football. He taught them how to do life.”

Unlike many other high school teams, where players go their own way after graduating, Trent Hendrick says he and his teammates have stayed in touch during the last three decades.

“I’m on a group text with tons of people, and everybody’s just telling everybody how much they love each other, because that’s what he brought everyday. He was just a good man.”