Chris Gilbert almost wrecked his car on the highway when he read a text from Jeff Banks that said new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian was going to call the long-time high school coach to offer him the job as the new director of high school relations for the Longhorns.
Gilbert was on the hunt for a new gig after 10 years coaching at Lancaster High School south of Dallas. Gilbert was on his way home from Office Depot with a packet he planned to use for a job interview at another high school when Banks, a Texas assistant and long-time friend of Gilbert, sent that text message.
“I took my eyes off the road for like 15 seconds because I had to read it twice,” Gilbert said. “I felt like people had forgotten about me and I had essentially given up on moving to the college level. I was prepared to take a different head coaching job at the high school level before that text.”
Relationships are everything in coaching, and Gilbert has plenty of those. Following him around at the Texas High School Coaches Association Convention and Coaching School was like being with a Beatle. Even Sarkisian and hot-shot assistant Brennan Marion were passed by without second looks as dozens of high school coaches shouted greeting at Gilbert as he walked the halls of San Antonio’s convention center.
“He’s a rockstar,” Sarkisian said over lunch. “Chris is a great sounding board for me, and he knows everybody in this state. He’s a tremendous asset for our team and a crucial part of our organization.”
The road to Texas wasn’t a straight path. Gilbert bounced around nearly every corner of the state on his journey to college football. He graduated from South Oak Cliff before playing college ball at San Angelo State. The early part of his coaching career was spent as an assistant at Dallas Carter, Greenville, and Bryan before taking over as a head coach for the first time in 2006 at his alma mater at 29 years old. He spent three years leading the Golden Bears until he took the same job at Terrell prior to the 2009 season.
His success at Terrell landed him the job at Lancaster in 2011. He’d stay there for 10 years, going 83-30 overall and 16-7 in the playoffs. He led the Tigers to the Class 4A Division II state championship game in 2012, his second year on the job, and to the program’s first undefeated regular season since 1941 in 2020, which proved to be his last season as a head coach at the high school level.
“I reached a point at Lancaster where I knew I wanted to do something different,” Gilbert said. “I had been there 10 years, so it felt like my time to try something else.”
The college game felt like the next step for Gilbert. He just needed an opportunity. He built relationships across the state as a successful coach, and as a member of the board of directors for the THSCA. Sarkisian saw those relationships as valuable. The new head coach of the Longhorns didn’t possess a ton of in-state connections. He spent most of his coaching career in the southeast or on the west coast. Gilbert would serve as a bridge between the new coaching staff and the old guard of high school football coaches who are so vital for programs to be successful in the state of Texas.
Gilbert took the job in Austin and went to work. He was the third person to hold the title of director of high school relations, which was created at Texas in 2016. He followed Bob Shipley who had himself followed Hardee McCrary. Sarkisian didn’t provide Gilbert with any specific instructions or a road map for the job. Like most good leaders, Sarkisian knew what he didn’t know. Gilbert had a better grasp of the state’s dynamics than almost anyone else in Texas. Why dictate the terms? Instead, Sark let Gilbert find his own footing and path that worked best for him, and ultimately the Longhorns.
“If there is a job description, I haven’t seen it,” Gilbert joked over barbecue. “But I wanted to dominate the role by bringing value to the organization. If I’m not coaching, I need to make it easier on these coaches to coach. I can assist these guys by taking a few things off their plates that allows them to focus more on the top items on their agenda. That’s what I would want.”
Gilbert’s selflessness is why he’s such a loved figure in the Texas high school coaching community. He’s a friend and a mentor and a role model and a heck of a ball coach. That combination is rarer than one might imagine in a ultra-competitive environment such as high school football in Texas. Gilbert went 121-58 in 15 seasons as a head coach, and he racked up even more wins off the field by helping young, black coaches get the opportunities that weren’t available for him and his peers.
“He always got that respect, and not just because of how he wins football games, but because he’s in it to change kids’ lives,” Lubbock Coronado head coach D.J. Mann said. “To see guys like him and Emmett Jones doing big things at the next level motivates the heck out of me.”
A day in the life of Gilbert is a busy one. He’s relishing his role as an assistant to the assistants by helping on the recruiting trail, specifically by connecting to the parents. He says that his experience dealing with parents as a high school coach allows him to understand their wants and needs for their children.
Gilbert also hosts coaching staffs from around the state multiple times a week, especially during the spring and the offseason. He’s part guide, part recruiter, and part uncle to the current roster. At any time, you might catch a fellow coach at Texas or a player or a recruit or a high school coach in his office.
But no matter what he’s doing on a given day, the coaches across the state view him as an invaluable member of Texas’ movement back towards national prominence.
“He’s invaluable because he knows everybody,” Cedar Hill head coach Carlos Lynn said. “He has a state-wide reach and that’s huge in recruiting. The more coaches you know, the more ears you have, and he’s using that to his advantage for the University of Texas.”
The movement of Texas high school coaches into meaningful positions on college staffs is well documented at this point. After all, former Texas high school coaches Jeff Traylor and Joey McGuire were featured on the cover of the 2022 summer edition of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine. Gilbert, who does admit to missing the on-field aspect of coaching, is another face that young coaches can look up to as they attempt the same journey. A face that allows marginalized groups of people hope in a white-dominated landscape.
“I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of people who look like me coaching college and NFL games as a kid,” Marco Regalado, Rice’s executive director of player personnel and recruiting innovation said. “It is a 'when I win, you win' mentality, and I think that is true for all minorities. We root for each other and hope we succeed.”
Gilbert helped the Longhorns sign the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country during the 2022 cycle, helping land players such as Derrick Brown, Kelvin Banks, and Devon Campbell. The current 2023 class ranks fourth in the nation, and includes players such as five-star quarterback and four-star wide receiver Johntay Cook II, whose father grew up with Gilbert. Winning on the recruiting trail is nothing new for the Longhorns. Following a 5-7 season, however, it is impressive that Texas has kept momentum off the field. Now, the goal is to parlay that added talent – 35 of Texas’ 85 scholarship players in 2022 are newcomers – into more wins as the Longhorns gear up for a move to the SEC in a year or two. Gilbert is confident in Texas’ ability to turn that corner under Sarkisian’s leadership.
“If it is Kool-Aid, I guess I’m guzzling it,” Gilbert said. “This is the University of Texas, man. Ain’t no direction in front of it, and ain’t no initials behind it. The people are what makes it special. We’re going after the biggest whales in the country.”
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