A surprise 80th birthday party will be held for Lebanon High coaching legend Hester Gibbs on Sept. 30 at the Castle Heights Elementary School cafeteria.
Players, coaches, officials and friends are invited to stop by anytime between 1-5 p.m. No gifts, please.
If everyone who was impacted by Gibbs during his 31-year coaching career or whistled while they worked with him during his 44 years-plus as a football, basketball and softball official, those five hours won’t be enough to get in all the stories.
An Ashland City native who played football and tennis at what was then called Middle Tennessee State College (now University), Gibbs was a Golden Gloves heavyweight champion in 1958.
Coming to Lebanon with Clifton Tribble in 1960, the pair worked quickly to turn around Blue Devil football. During the next three decades, he was head coach of four sports and won district championships in all of them, including baseball (a sport I remember him telling my freshman PE class he played, but not very well) in 1961 and golf 20 years later.
More than a decade after leaving the football staff as an assistant, he returned to the gridiron as head coach and using the same system with the seniors as he did on their freshman team three years earlier, turned around years of losing seasons and led the Blue Devils to the playoffs via the only means of getting to the postseason at the time, by winning the district.
But his biggest legacy came with basketball, a sport he led Lebanon to 500 wins over 28 seasons. The floor at the current LHS is named in his honor.
One of his basketball stars may be his greatest protege, Troy Bond, who successfully nominated his coach for the TSSAA Hall of Fame in 2005. After failing to make the team at Walter J. Baird Middle School, Bond became a high-flying (with the locks to match) forward on the last of Gibbs’ three state tournament teams, the 1985 squad which entered the tournaments below .500. As a senior, Bond was a leader on the last of his five substate (now sectional) teams before embarking on a junior-college and college career.
“Most people would say ‘Do something else’,” Bond said of his transition from middle school to high school as he often accompanied his late stepfather, LHS coach Randy Vanatta, to the gym where Gibbs saw him. “He saw a light in me. He would give me things to work on, put me in situations to make me better.”
After college, Bond embarked on a coaching career which took him from being a Lebanon assistant under Gibbs’ successor, Randall Hutto, to unveiling the program at Wilson Central before moving to Oakland a couple of years ago.
“Definitely a huge influence on me,” Bond told me Thursday. “He was a guy who taught me how to work and instilled a will to win and to not give up on anything you want to accomplish.
“When I played for him, it was definitely a love-hate relationship. But when I got older, I appreciated what he helped me become. At the time, it was crazy some of the things he made us do. I try to bring that to my teams. From Wilson Central to Oakland, our teams have had that MO. That comes from me and from Coach Gibbs. I don’t think anybody could question Coach Gibbs’ toughness.”
Gibbs became a frequent visitor to Wilson Central, often sitting at the end of the Wildcats’ bench while Bond was the coach. When Bond called in scores or just during postgame interviews, he often injected some old quotes from his coach which no doubt his players had just heard themselves.
“There was a method to his madness,” Bond said. “He was as close to Bobby Knight as you got around here. It went to those crazy conditioning drills he put us through to make us tougher.
“He’s been a big influence on me as far as what I want my team to play like and to be like, better mentally, the toughness and the competitive drive to be good, to succeed.”
Those who bought into Gibbs’ coaching were backed by him during the heat of battle.
“He would stand up for his players, his team,” Bond said. “He was not scared of anything.
“He was hard on us, but he had our back.”
Many of Gibbs’ peers, those who played with or against him and/or coached against him, recognized the competitive fire. The late Jim Painter knew Gibbs from MTSU and recruited Bond to Columbia State Community College. During conditioning drills, most of the Charger players were getting gassed, but not Bond.
“I forgot, you played for Gibbs,” Bond recounted Painter saying. “You don’t count. Gibbs was a different breed.”
Even today, Bond is reminded of his mentor by his peers.
“Other coaches call me Hester,” Bond said. “I always take that as a compliment.”
Gibbs was a multi-sport athlete when he was young. But he is still active. He farms and played tennis well into adulthood (for all I know, he might still play). Bond and Hutto said Gibbs would often play one-on-one with his players, at least until they were seniors or until they could beat him.
“He’s always been active,” Hutto said. “He’s not one to sit around.”
I always thought he had a soft spot for the kid who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, but worked to get the most out of whatever ability he might have.
“He liked heart guys, hustle guys, high-motor guys,” Bond said.” “He saw something of himself in those guys.”
Bond’s other mentor was Hutto, who joined the LHS faculty right out of MTSU and worked as Gibbs’ freshman coach and varsity assistant. When Gibbs retired in 1991, Hutto took over as coach for the next 13 seasons.
“He gave me a good opportunity to start,” said Hutto, now in his second term as Wilson County mayor. “Took a chance on me, had no idea who I was. I came from Watertown and didn’t play for him.
“He was a great competitor. Winning over 500 ballgames in any sport is a lot. He instilled fortitude in the men who played for him. He talked to them about CG, competitive greatness.”
But he also knew how to take pressure off a team.
“He was the kind of coach who made sure the guys who were playing for him gave it everything they had,” Hutto said. “He also had a way of taking pressure off kids by telling them there were 10,000 people in China who didn’t care whether you won or not.
“He had a way of putting things in perspective, but also expecting them to give it everything they had.”
Gibbs also had a sense of humor. In PE class, he often referred to himself as “the great Coach Gibbs”.
Hutto recounted this from his time with Gibbs: “He said, ‘I took a survey of myself and it was positive’. When you’re coaching, you learn your team takes on your personality. when you’re confident, that bleeds over to them.”
The mayor also reminded me of this trait from Gibbs: He loves to read. Many was the time when during a quiet moment, I would catch Gibbs reading a book. In fact, he once loaned me his copy of Pete Maravich’s autobiography, written a couple of years earlier, not long before Pistol Pete’s sudden death at age 40 when he collapsed from heart failure while playing in a pickup game.
“He always found a book to reach,” Hutto said, noting Gibbs was a fan of Westerns, particularly Louis L’Amour.
I could call dozens more who were influenced by “the great Coach Gibbs”. But this is already too long.
Those who are planning to attend the party are asked to RSVP his wife, Eleanor, by phoning 561-251-3416 and leave a message, texting 615-202-2503 or emailing [email protected]
And again, if you see him before Sept. 30, mum’s the word.