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Real-Life Coach Returns to ‘Friday Night Lights’ Team

ODESSA, Texas - Gary Gaines stands astride the 50-yard line swathed in the warm, sweet glow of the stadium lights - those lights, the most storied high-watt bulbs in all the land.

His eyes glisten as he points to the pines behind the end zones of Ratliff Stadium. "Those trees," he says, "were only fence-high the first time I saw them."

It is always a story when a coach comes back 20 years after walking away, but it is more so here, where a generation ago Gaines was coach of the Permian High School team immortalized in "Friday Night Lights," H.G. Bissinger's classic tale about one year and one team in the flatlands of West Texas.

None of Gaines' new Panthers, the ones he'll greet at Monday's first practice, was born when his 1988 team played under Bissinger's watchful eye or when Gaines' 1989 team, his last at Permian, went 16-0 and won a state title.

If anything, Gaines is more eager for Monday's practice than they are. He coached at two other high schools and two colleges after leaving, but lately he's had desk jobs - two years as an athletics director here, two more in Lubbock. And, oh, how he missed coaching.

"Those weren't bad jobs," he says, "but if you have a passion for young people and you have some gas in your tank, you might as well go for it."

And so here he is, at 60, back in the saddle again.

Gaines succeeds Darren Allman, one of his former players, who left to coach Austin's Westlake High, another power in 5A, the state's classification for its largest schools. Allman lifted Permian from a slide into mediocrity in the early 2000s.

"I knew that Gary missed it," says his wife, Sharon. "He's like a little boy who has just seen Santa Claus. He missed the players so much. This is probably the only place that I would have let him come back. There's no place like it. The tradition, I just love it."

She didn't always.

"Said who? I don't know where you get that. I never said that. So don't quote me as saying I did."

Ouch. The book is still a burr under the saddle, even after all these years. Sharon is portrayed as resenting the intolerable pressure of coaching in a place where only winning will do. But, like her husband, she rejects much of what the book says.

If Gaines had it to do over, he never would have allowed Bissinger the access to write the book that became the movie that became the TV show that collectively follow Gaines wherever he goes, like a tin can tied to his tailpipe.

He says the book painted Odessa unfairly as a city of rednecks and racists, where winning mattered more than learning. But Brian Chavez, one of the players on that team and now a lawyer in Odessa, says Bissinger's book is dead-on accurate, painfully so.

"A lot of the people who say the book got it wrong," Chavez says, "didn't read it."

Gaines maintains he has not; that he paged through it briefly at a bookstore once, is all. So how does he know it's wrong?

"I know everything that's in it," he says flatly. "My wife has (read it), and I talked to other people who have. It's no big deal."

Except that it is: "Friday Night Lights" is acknowledged as one of the all-time great sports books (No. 4 on a Sports Illustrated list of the top 100). Hollywood made it into the 2004 movie of the same name. And the TV show, which borrows title and mythology, if not the particulars of place (it is set in fictional Dillon), awaits fourth and fifth seasons on NBC in an unusual sharing arrangement with DirecTV.

Gaines says he has never seen the TV show but did watch the movie - once. His new players have seen the movie, uh, more.

Senior wide receiver Josh Tarin lost count after 20. Senior linebacker Lambert Riley figures 50, at least. And junior wide receiver Talon Smith sometimes gets a small check when it's on TV because he's in it, if ever so briefly.

Smith sort of played himself - a child of Odessa pining to be a Permian Panther someday. He and two other tiny wannabes are asked their favorite player in a quick, early scene. "Boobie Miles," they say as one.

Nickie Smith, Talon's mother, was a sophomore at Permian when Miles was a senior running back. He was her favorite player, too. "I think Boobie was everyone's favorite," she says.

'Boobie' Miles' bumpy road

Permian's Class of 1989 will have its 20th reunion this weekend. James "Boobie" Miles isn't coming.

Miles is a major figure in Bissinger's book as one of the top high school running backs in Texas, sought by dozens of college football powers. Then he gets hurt and is forgotten, as if there were no life after football. For him, in many respects, there hasn't been.

"That's how it's been," Miles says. "It's been hard."

He flunked out of junior college and had trouble holding jobs. His two children live in nearby Midland with their mother. Miles, 39, lives more than 300 miles away in suburban Dallas and is not working.

In May, he was charged with aggravated assault. Police said he struck his stepbrother repeatedly in the head with a beer bottle. "I got into a little problem," he says. "I'd rather not speak on that."

In July, he got five years' deferred probation in district court. The charge will be dismissed if he successfully completes probation, says his attorney, JR Cook.

Miles says he doesn't keep up with many of his classmates. An exception is Chavez, a graduate of Harvard and Texas Tech law school, who has represented him on occasion.

"I'm really not OK," Miles says, "but it will have to do, I guess."

Several other football players will be at the reunion. Chavez plans to be there. Reunion chairwoman Amy Hooks says Stan Wilkins, Jerrod McDougal and Don Billingsley are expected, too. They were gods in high school, though perhaps with the passage of time their celebrity has waned.

"No, still the same," Hooks says, laughing. "That never changes."

Billingsley has. He drinks heavily and chases girls in the book and movie. Today, he is a born-again family man who testifies for church groups on his formerly dissolute days.

"I was a person you wouldn't have invited to church or anywhere else," Billingsley says. "But somebody can be one way in high school and truly change."

The reunion will have a special guest - Buzz Bissinger, who spent enough time with seniors on that 1988 team to be an honorary member of the Class of '89. (His new book, "Shooting Stars," written with LeBron James, comes out next month.)

Bissinger rarely has been back to Odessa. He was supposed to come in 1990, when the book came out, but didn't when local bookstore owners warned him of threats. He visited quietly a couple of other times and appeared publicly one other time, in 2004, when the movie was filming.

Bissinger wrote about that trip for Sports Illustrated. He took a side trip 175 miles to Abilene, where Gaines was then coach of Abilene Christian University, to talk to the man who felt betrayed by his book. Bissinger told Gaines he did not regret writing it but did regret the pain it had caused him. They left it there.

"I think Gary Gaines' return to Permian is great," Bissinger says now. "He is a fine coach and an even better man, as 'Friday Night Lights' so clearly reflected."

Neither man cares to say much else about the other.

A 'difficult look in the mirror'

Those end-zone pines are taller now, one measure of time passed. Here's another: Gaines saw some of his former players last month at a gathering for the 50th anniversary of the school.

"They grow up and age; so do I," he says. "I don't have any hair anymore. Some of them don't, either."

Yet another gauge of time passing: Bitterness over the book is fading, though not with everyone. "We're not a bunch of hicks with oil rigs in every yard," booster club president Bill Anderson says.

"I think that over time, not nearly as many people hate the book," Bissinger says.

Chavez sees the movie as a turning point: "A lot of the same people who hated the book loved having Hollywood in Odessa."

Bissinger says some people approached him on that 2004 trip and told him, "We did hate you. It was a very difficult look in the mirror. But when we thought about it, we knew we had to change, and we did."

Football players don't get academic preference these days, according to Nickie Smith, Talon's mother. She says her biracial son does not face a racially tense setting, as depicted in the book.

Chavez notes schools were not integrated in Odessa until 1983, so students of his day had parents who had not attended integrated schools. Students now, he says, have parents who did.

"That makes all the difference," Chavez says. "I'm not saying racism is gone. This is still West Texas. But it is so much better than it was."

The movie streamlined the story, meaning it mostly left out themes Odessans found troubling, such as race and academics. The TV show tackles tough issues, but in Dillon, not Odessa - fictional characters in a fictional place. What remains are the archetypes, the mythic mood, an acute sense of place and the fleeting glory of Friday nights.

'FNL,' Odessa linked forever

Gary and Sharon Gaines are eating dinner at Texas Roadhouse, not far from Permian. Old friends stop by their table. The waiter wishes them luck.

It doesn't feel like a place where anonymously mean-spirited fans would plant for-sale signs on their front lawn after a rare loss, but that happened in 1988. At the point where Sharon takes umbrage at the notion she didn't always love Odessa, Gaines reminds her of that.

Well, sure, she says, but "that happens anywhere in Texas."

Over their shoulders, on the far wall, is a mural of Permian vs. crosstown rival Odessa, with the words "Friday Night Lights" spelled out in light bulbs. They can't really escape "FNL." Gaines must have known that when he agreed to come back.

"It is a part of the fabric of the town now," he says.

It is also a part of the fabric of his life. Three years ago, Gaines says, he accepted an invitation from a high school near Richmond, Va., where he talked to literature classes about a book they had read and he hadn't.

Monday, he will greet a pride of Panthers weaned on the movie he has seen all of once. Last season, Permian players watched it during long bus rides. That was news to Gaines.

Will he let them watch it on trips this season?

That sort of thing will be decided later, after captains are elected and a leadership council set, Gaines says. But he's open to it.

Talon Smith hopes so. His room is decorated in "FNL" memorabilia, including framed movie tickets and a stub from one of his royalty checks. He says not a week goes by that someone doesn't come up to him and tease, "Who's your favorite player?"

Some day soon, Smith hopes, little Odessans will say him.

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