Gillis takes El Campo to the brink of state title
Bob Gillis File
• High School: Rockport-Fulton
• College: Wharton County Junior College, Howard Payne
• Assistant: Tidehaven, Pleasanton, Klein Oak
• Head Coach: Columbus (4), El Campo (15)
• Record: 155-54-2
EL CAMPO - Bob Gillis gathered the El Campo players after practice on a cold and windy Monday at Ricebird Stadium and scolded them for a lack of focus.
The Ricebirds are a day away from traveling to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington to play for the school's first state football championship, but the El Campo coach wants his players to stay completely in the moment.
"Yes, we're on the biggest stage there is in high school," Gillis said. "It's a special deal and I'm sure once it's all over we'll kind of sit back and hopefully we're happy. I mean, we've had a wonderful year. I still think these kids aren't through, though."
Gillis appreciates what the Ricebirds (14-0) have accomplished as they prepare to play Stephenville (12-1) for the Class 3A, Division I state championship.
He enjoyed the greeting the team received when it returned from its 29-25 semifinal win over Carthage.
But it wasn't until his daughter Stacey, who had driven in from Katy, said to his wife, Lisa, that he would be playing for a state championship that it hit home.
"We got back from Beaumont early in the morning and there were a lot of people here," Gillis said. "It was 2 in the morning and there were sirens going off and it was a neat feeling. I went home and couldn't sleep, got up here early and watched film. The kids came up and business as usual we worked that day. So really, it's just been like we've got another football game."
The next game has been paramount to Gillis, who was virtually born into the coaching profession.
His dad was a coach and the doctor who delivered him was his uncle. His uncle warned Gillis' parents that their son better not be born on Friday because he was going to the game.
Gillis started coaching at Tidehaven and worked at Pleasanton and Klein Oak before becoming a head coach at Columbus in 1988.
He went to El Campo in 1992 when Ed Hickman left to become the head coach at Euless Trinity.
After missing the playoffs his first two seasons at El Campo, Gillis led the Ricebirds to three consecutive postseason berths before becoming an assistant superintendent for the El Campo school district.
He become the athletic director for the Victoria school district when Victoria High and Stroman were consolidated into Memorial in 2000, shortly after his older brother, Clay, who was also a coach, was killed in a plane crash.
Gillis continued to reside in El Campo and returned as the the athletic director and head football coach in 2003, which gave him the opportunity to coach his son, Kyle, for two seasons.
"When I was here the first time, we got beat by Clear Brook and La Marque three years in a row," he said. "We had good football teams, but they were really good too. It was real frustrating.
"When I got back into it, I kind of said, 'OK, I'm not going to get as frustrated.' The first year we went to the quarterfinals, the next year we went to the third round and the next year we didn't make the playoffs. We were 4-6 and it kind of made us rethink some things and made us do some things different in the offseason. From then on, we've been in the playoffs."
During his 19 seasons as a head coach, Gillis has a 155-54-2 record that includes 12 playoff appearances.
But a winning percentage of just under 75 percent doesn't begin to tell the story of what Gillis has accomplished or the respect he has earned from his peers, who elected him president of the Texas High School Coaches Association in 2008.
"He makes you feel good coming to work in the morning," said assistant Mark Woods, one of a number of El Campo coaches who have been on Gillis' staff for over a decade. "He makes the kids feel good about themselves. He knows every single one of them. Every kid is a part of the program. Every coach is a part of the program from the first-year coach at seventh grade all the way up to coach (Wayne) Condra the defensive coordinator.
"Everybody is special to him," he added. "I've been fortunate that my three sons have been able to play for him and I wouldn't want them to play for anybody else."
Gillis has been blessed with talent. Michael Perry (Rice), Arkeith Brown (Texas A&M) and Joey Hunt (TCU) are among the El Campo players who have gone on to play for NCAA Division I schools and this year's squad includes Rice commits Cole Hunt and Trey Martin.
But the number of El Campo players who have been recruited pales in comparison to many of the teams the Ricebirds have played.
"He teaches you the game and gets you to play hard," said linebacker Brett Prihoda, who stands barely 6 feet and weighs around 200 pounds, but leads the team with 155 tackles. "He knows what to do to get you prepared to play."
The preparation paid off in the semifinals when the Ricebirds rallied from a 25-14 deficit in the fourth quarter against Carthage.
"Our kids play hard, hard, hard," said Alan Roberts, who has known Gillis for almost 40 years and joined the El Campo staff this season after coaching at Texas Lutheran University last year. "Friday was a perfect example. The third quarter was a nightmare. A lot of people would have given it up. These kids just kept fighting. Coach Gillis keeps the ship afloat."
The Ricebirds will play Friday to do what no other El Campo team has ever done.
"I told the kids, we're going up there," Gillis said. "We might as well try to win the thing."
Mike Forman is a sports writer for the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6588 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.