Claude Gilbert couldn’t believe his good luck.
At age 28, he was named the head football coach at Shafter High School in the San Joaquin Valley. When he met his players for the first time, he was well aware it was a very special group.
“We had six major college players,” recalled Gilbert. “We all know that in high school there are cycles and it was an up cycle. I was so lucky—my timing was impeccable.”
Timing? Maybe. Lots of coaches are blessed with talent but not all of them know what to do with it. That first talent-laden Generals team went 7-2 and celebrated a league championship. The next year Shafter went 8-1 and then 9-0 the year after that.
Gilbert certainly knew how to win, a few years later at Southwestern Community College and then starting in 1973 at San Diego State where he posted a 61-26-2 record, including back-to-back 10-1 seasons in 1976 and 1977.
He even won at San Jose State, not exactly a college football powerhouse then or now, returning to his alma mater from 1984-89 where he was 38-30-1.
That 99-56-3 overall college record, not to mention a trainload of players who went on to earn their living playing professionally, is why Gilbert is a proud member of the 2018 Breitbard Hall of Fame class being inducted this evening.
“Every place I’ve coached has been special,” said Gilbert, 85, who now lives in Grass Valley in Northern California. “I love coaching players. I love coaching good talent. I love coaching good people. It’s fun and I’ve had good success.
“San Diego State was very special. I got to learn (as an assistant) under Don Coryell (1967-72). He taught me how to throw the football. We had a great run. It was my first go-round, coaching first with Don and then with Ted Tollner (1995-99).”
Regressing a bit, Gilbert said he fell in love with football early. Born in Oklahoma, the family had to move, one of the many who migrated west during the Dust Bowl. He was six weeks old.
His father decided to work in the oil fields of Bakersfield so Claude went out for football at Bakersfield High and finally made the Driller varsity as a senior. He went to Bakersfield College where he learned under one of the great community college coaches, Homer Beatty.
“He taught me fundamentals,” said Gilbert. “It was 110 degrees in Bakersfield and we weren’t allowed to have water, so I learned how to have fun—by winning. That makes it fun.”
Assistant coaching for Coryell was an experience.
“He was such a great man,” said Gilbert. “He was the kind of guy who let you coach. I’d come in as a ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ kind of coach and he wanted to throw the football on every down. It was a great opportunity to blend my philosophy with his.
“His defensive philosophy was simple. He said he didn’t care how we did it, just get the ball back for the offense. We won. It was fun but he was driven to win. The thing is he had no sense of humor in public but after a couple of beers he was funny—I enjoyed that.”
While all of those experiences were positive and exciting, one season and especially one game stood out.
“In 1977 we beat Florida State (41-16),” recalled Gilbert, his eyes dancing and his voice quivering of the victory almost anyone associated with San Diego State will tell you moved the Aztecs into national prominence.
“It was Bobby Bowden’s second year and they were nationally ranked, having already qualified for the Citrus Bowl. It was their last game of the regular season and they expected to just finish us off.
“We had a good football team and we weren’t going to any bowl, so this was our bowl game. Now no one had any idea we’d beat them by that margin.”
It was a rout. Florida State was major college football. San Diego State was—well—unproven.
“That is the most perfect game I’ve ever been associated with,” said Gilbert. “Everyone at San Diego State knew the gravity of that win. (Athletic Director) Ken Karr always wanted to play up, so we’d play programs like Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Miami.
“Beating Florida State was huge.”
There was a problem. First, the Aztecs were able to attract top-rate talent by heavily recruiting the junior college ranks. Although the Aztecs only had those players for a couple of years, as long as the flow kept going it was OK.
Then the NCAA, which had allowed unlimited scholarships, started limiting programs, putting an emphasis then on getting good high school players who would be around for four years.
That, and the Aztecs were playing with short deck of cards.
While the major programs had dazzling facilities, the Aztecs were doing it with ceiling wax and string.
“We were getting TV money and we were drawing well, but our facilities were not very impressive,” said Gilbert. “We had no offices, we didn’t have a weight room and when they finally did get one, it was outdoors. We never complained but high school recruits noticed.”
In 1980, the Aztecs, trying to transition from unlimited JC players to high school players, slipped to 4-8 and in a highly controversial move, Gilbert was let go.
San Jose State gobbled him up as the defensive coordinator and three years later he was the Spartans’ head coach.
He returned to San Diego State from 1995 to 1999 with Tollner, coaching the defense, before retiring.
Asked to evaluate college football now, he says money and dreams of playing in the NFL have changed players and their parents.
“I can’t blame them, many of those guys grew up with nothing and now they can make a lot of money,” says Gilbert. ‘The players are bigger, stronger and faster. We had one head coach and four assistant—now there are nine. A college football coordinator can make millions. It affected the loyalty of the players and coaches.”
While the scene changed, the pressure to win didn’t and that never bothered Gilbert.
“The biggest pressure is from within, we all create our own pressure,” he said. “I was never afraid of pressure because I was confident I could do whatever I had to do. We went 10-1 twice at San Diego State and we won 10 games twice at San Jose State.
“You can always get better. I would have loved to have gone 11-0, but even then, you’re never fully satisfied because you know there are ways to get better. That’s what coaching is all about.”