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Coach follows former students

Claude Gilbert watched last Sunday’s Seattle Seahawks-Carolina Panthers NFC championship game with more than a passing interest.

You see, the 73-year-old western Nevada County retiree is well-versed on football, having spent eight seasons as head coach at San Diego State between 1973 and ’80 (his record was 61-26-2) and six seasons as head coach at San Jose State (38-30-1). And on Sunday, his interest was focused on one of his former pupils, Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, who came up one game shy of the Super Bowl in a 34-7 loss at Seattle.

” I was really rooting for those guys,” Gilbert said. “Seattle is just a great team, and with them playing at home, that was a tough assignment. I think his team was worn out because they’d been on the road for all those games. It’s such a long season, such an arduous grind, sometimes they hit a wall and can’t get it done anymore.”



So, even though watching Fox coach in another Super Bowl would have been nice, Gilbert says he is looking forward to the Seattle Seahawks-Pittsburgh Steelers showdown next Sunday.

“I think that will be a good game,” he said. “Seattle can run it with (Shaun) Alexander, the quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) looks good, and they’re playing good defense. Pittsburgh is on a roll, too. Everybody is talking about the way they can run, but the last two weeks, (quarterback Ben) Roethlisberger has thrown it very well.




“I think it will be one of those games decided by breaks and turnovers. It’s all about turnovers at this stage because both teams are so good.”

Fox, who guided Carolina to the Super Bowl and a 32-29 loss to New England on Feb. 1, 2004, was an overachiever who played at San Diego State from 1976-77, so Gilbert is not the least bit surprised to see him have success as an NFL coach.

“John came to us as a walk-on from Southwestern College in Chula Vista. Nobody recruited him, but I knew his coaches and they said he was an outstanding player,” Gilbert said. “He was very smart and very tough, and he had two great seasons for us. After he graduated, I kept him on as a grad assistant and there he is now. He’s done a marvelous job of coaching (the Panthers).”

Fox played safety in a secondary that included cornerback Herman Edwards, who earlier this month left the New York Jets to replace Dick Vermeil as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Edwards was another overachiever who, even though he wasn’t drafted out of San Diego State, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and went on to play eight NFL seasons.

“We had heard that Herman was fast, but when he first came to us, we timed him in the 40 and he ran 4.8. We just looked at each other and said, ‘This can’t be right.’ So we timed him again, and he ran 4.9,” Gilbert said, chuckling. “He was just one of those guys who, like John, he studied the game and he studied receivers.

“Both those guys, if you put all their numbers in a computer, it wouldn’t spit out ‘superstar.’ They are both tough guys, intelligent guys, who had a great will to succeed.”

Gilbert succeeded Don Coryell as head coach at San Diego State in 1973 and started out with 9-1-1 and 8-2-1 seasons – good for back-to-back Big West Conference titles – followed by an 8-3 record in 1975 and back-to-back 10-1 records in 1976 and ’77. That 1977 team attained a No. 16 ranking and produced no less than 21 NFL players, coaches and officials.

Then again, Gilbert has seen his share of good football teams. That dates back to the days when he played at Bakersfield High School – a 1950 graduate, he was three years behind Frank Gifford in school. Gilbert played one season at Bakersfield College, then after he served in the Air Force during the Korean War, returned to play one more season at Bakersfield before he was recruited to San Jose State.

“Dick Vermeil was a teammate of mine at San Jose State and Bill Walsh was the J.V. coach,” he said.

Gilbert accepted his first coaching assignment as an assistant at Tulare Union in 1959 and worked his last game as defensive coordinator under Ted Tollner at San Diego State in 1999. In between, he won two Big West Conference titles at San Diego State and two more at San Jose State (1986 and ’87). He has also been inducted into the California Community College Football Coaches Association, San Diego State and San Jose State halls of fame.

These days, Claude and his wife, Mary Lou, live happily as retirees on their ranch. There’s time to work in the garden during the summer months, and with three quarterhorses, there’s time for the Nevada County Horsemen. Of course, he never minds taking time to reminisce on some great times.

“You betcha,” Gilbert said. “It’s still a great game, better than it ever was, but there are some things I don’t miss about coaching. I look at those guys on TV now with all the pressure and tension, but I do miss the fun elements, the daily association with the coaches and kids. I coached 40 years, there were a couple of train wrecks along the way, but when it all balanced out, the good times and good people far outweigh the bad times.”

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To contact sports editor Dave Price, e-mail davidp@theunion.com or call 477-4240.


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