Quarterbacks & quarter horses
The names he drops during the conversation seem to echo through the living room as a “Who’s Who” of football lore. The coaching circle in which he’s walked, and worked, nearly his entire life is one of legends.
He is a member of both the California Community Colleges Football Coaches Association and the San Jose State University halls of fame.
But after learning his own name was to be read as a member of the 2004 San Diego State University Hall of Fame class, 72-year-old Claude Gilbert wondered why.
How about his 1976 squad, considered by many to be the best in Aztec history, which produced not only a 10-1 record but also no less than 21 future NFL players, coaches and officials?
How about his 61 wins, second-most in school history, in his eight-year reign as head coach of the Aztecs?
How about the hundreds upon thousands of hearts he touched and lives he changed in 40 years as a mentor to the young men who played the game for him?
Why was the name “Claude Gilbert” etched forever into San Diego State football history?
“Well, you do know they fired us?” Gilbert said with a laugh from his Grass Valley ranch recently. “When you get fired from a place, you don’t ever expect that they’d put you in their Hall of Fame.
“So, yeah, it was quite of a surprise and quite an honor.”
Gilbert, now retired and living in western Nevada County with his wife Mary Lou, walked off the sideline – ending his second stint as an SDSU assistant – for the last time in 1999. But football – much like his newly found fascination with quarterhorses -is never far from his heart.
“It was a great love of mine,” Gilbert said. “I used to be able to keep track of all (the players) but when you get into the latter years, they really all start blending together.
“Mary Lou once accused me … well, she said I was able to remember the height, weight and 40-yard dash time for all of our players, so why couldn’t I ever remember her birthday?”
Whether or not she did during those days, Mary Lou easily laughs about it now. After all those years of the next practice, the next game, the next season … she knows the pressure of demands placed upon a Division I head football coach.
But she also knows her husband loved every minute of it, even if she now enjoys having him to herself – and their horses.
As a Bakersfield High School student, Gilbert didn’t have any grandiose ideas of being a star on the gridiron, but he did want to play. And, thankfully he says, Homer Beatty gave him that opportunity.
“I wasn’t a great athlete,” Gilbert said, “but I did have a terrific desire to want to do it. He recognized that and was able to give me an opportunity that changed my while life.
“I loved the game. I loved to play it. And when my playing days were over, it was kind natural that I still wanted to be part of it in some capacity.”
And so after he had played out his prep days, he followed Beatty to Bakersfield College and later lined up for San Jose State. But before he could follow in Beatty’s footsteps once more, by becoming a coach, Gilbert served for four years in the Air Force during the Korean War.
But upon returning home, Gilbert headed back to football, coaching teams at Tulare, Shafter and eventually Bakersfield high schools. It was during his tenure at Bakersfield that he met the only coach with more wins than him at San Diego State.
Don Coryell, the only head coach to win 100 games in both college and the NFL, is known as the man who revolutionized the passing game with his wide-open “Air Coryell” offense, first at SDSU and later with the hometown Chargers.
“When Don was at San Diego State, he’d come to Bakersfield to recruit our guys, that’s how I got to know him,” said Gilbert. “But he knew Homer.”
Beatty and Coryell matched wits in game while both were coaching at the junior college level, Gilbert said, with Beatty’s Bakersfield bunch beating Coryell’s Wenatche JC crew from Oregon.
“Later on, when I was working with Don, if I mentioned Homer’s name, Don would just look at me as if to say ‘Don’t you ever talk about him!'” Gilbert said. “I think Homer beat him 33-6, or something like that, at the ‘Potato Bowl’ in Bakersfield.
“I think Homer is the only coach Don Coryell didn’t beat.”
Ever heard of them?
Gilbert didn’t know it at the time, but when he joined Coryell’s coaching staff in 1967, he would be filling some shoes that only much later look quite so large. He joined the staff in place of a young offensive line coach by the name of Joe Gibbs.
Years later, Gibbs – who led the Washington Redskins to a pair of Super Bowl wins – isn’t alone in the legendary circle of coaches that kept company with the likes of Coryell.
John Madden, now of ABC and EASports fame after his Super Bowl winning stint as Oakland Raiders head coach, was on the staff just before Gilbert joined up.
Rod Dowhower, who was also inducted by SDSU in November, shared the same sidelines with Gilbert as an assistant under Coryell and later coached the Indianapolis Colts.
Ernie Zampese, who later became known as the offensive coordinator behind the Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl title in 1995, came to SDSU the same season as Gilbert.
“Back in those days, it was not about the money,” Gilbert said. “It was about winning a lot of games. Those were the best of times. It was really a lot of fun.”
Gilbert – who, as the name-dropping continued, had a teammate named Dick Vermeil and a junior varsity coach named Bill Walsh during Gilbert’s two-year playing career at San Jose State – was named head coach when the Coryell-era ended at San Diego State in 1972.
In his eight seasons at the helm, Gilbert racked up a 61-26-2 record. In his first three seasons, from 1973-75, the Aztecs won a total of 25 games. Then came back-to-back 10-1 campaigns in 1976-77.
“The more you win, the higher the expectations,” Gilbert said. “The more you win, the more they want you to win and sometimes, even if you do a really good job of coaching, you still can’t meet their expectations.”
In his final three seasons at San Diego State, Gilbert’s Aztecs sandwiched a pair of four-win seasons around an 8-3 record in 1979. In 1980, after a 4-8 mark, Gilbert was fired as head coach.
In his second stint at a Division I head coach, Gilbert took over the reigns at San Jose State, replacing Jack Elway in 1984.
Year one saw a 6-5 season, followed by a 2-8-1 record in 1985, but the best was about to come. In 1986-87, the Gilbert-led Spartans posted back-to-back 10-2 marks.
In all, Gilbert went 38-30-1 in six seasons at San Jose State. He is the second-winningest coach in school history, behind Dudley “Dud” DeGroot’s 70 win total collected between 1932-40.
It was in 1986 that the Spartans scored the most memorable win at San Jose State for Gilbert, who led his squad past rival Fresno State in a 45-41 thriller. The Spartans went on to beat Miami (Ohio) 37-7 in the California Bowl.
Gilbert said his most memorable win at San Diego State – where he returned as defensive coordinator from 1995-99 – came in 1977, when his Aztecs downed the Bobby Bowden-led Florida State Seminoles 41-16, earning the Aztecs a Top 10 ranking.
“That was one of the best games I was ever associated with,” he said. “And that win over Fresno State, we were down two touchdowns with 1:40 left. We scored, got an onside kick and scored again to win.”
Over the years, Gilbert said, the wins and losses still live in his memories but he’s most proud of the players he coached – including a couple with household names of their own.
Gilbert not only gave current NFL coaches Herm Edwards (New York Jets) and John Fox (Carolina Panthers) a chance to perform as his players, but also gave them their first coaching gigs.
The quarterback from his 1976 squad, Tom Craft, is currently the head coach of the Aztecs.
“It does bring things full circle,” said Gilbert, recalling how Homer Beatty had given him his start so long ago. “I’m very proud of those guys.
“I have to say I haven’t gotten the itch (to coach again), but I honestly do miss the good parts of it. I do miss associating with the players and coaches. That part I definitely miss.”
But, his wife says, not for long.
“And then,” Mary Lou said, “he goes for a ride on his horses and gets over it.”
“Yep,” he says, “I’ve gone from quarterbacks to quarterhorses.”
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