Winningest High School Coach Ever Remembered Fondly

Coach Joe Gilbert, Barnsdall High School
Coach Joe Gilbert, Photo Courtesy: Barnsdall High School

The term “legend” gets tossed around way too often these days, especially in the sports world. A player has a couple of good seasons or a coach wins a couple of titles and they’re suddenly mentioned as one of the all-time greats.

There’s no debate, however, about whether or not Barnsdall High School coach Joe Gilbert deserves that moniker.

Gilbert passed away on July 13th at the age of 87 (allegedly) after an amazing 66-year run as coach and mentor to hundreds and hundreds of kids in Barnsdall.

Unofficially, he’s considered the winningest coach in national high school history. It’s hard to imagine anyone even coming close to winning as many games as Gilbert.

Barnsdall Panthers Baseball Team, Photo Courtesy: Barnsdall High School

Gilbert amassed an incredible 3,912 victories during his storied career, while coaching virtually every sport at one time or another for the Panthers. He won two state titles; baseball in 1980 and slow-pitch softball in 2013. His teams finished second 11 times (3 in baseball, 8 in softball).

To put that win total in perspective, if you were to combine the total number of wins of the winningest high school football, boys basketball and baseball coaches of all time, you would still be several hundred victories short of Gilbert’s total.

“It was an honor to know Joe Gilbert,” said Barnsdall Superintendent Jeff Lay at Gilbert’s memorial service, which was held recently at the school’s football field. “He left an example for us of how we should work for the betterment of kids and families every day. He taught us about loyalty. He taught us about humbleness.”

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“What he achieved as a coach in the win-loss column is unheard of,” said Barnsdall Principal Sayra Bryant. “The impact he has had on the hearts and lives of his students and players is truly legendary. The world is a sadder place without him in it, but will forever be a better place because of the many lives that he touched.”

Gilbert was inducted into the National Federation of High Schools Hall of Fame in 2019 and was a member of several Oklahoma high school hall of fames.

Believe it or not, Gilbert planned to coach girls basketball this fall. His 922 wins in that sport are the second-most in Oklahoma history.

The potential mystery about Gilbert’s age was brought up during his memorial service. A birth certificate was found that claimed he was two years older, but it’s believed it may have altered in order for Gilbert to enlist in the Air Force early.

Barnsdall Panthers Baseball Team, Photo Courtesy: Barnsdall High School

That story and many more tales and memories were shared by former players, opposing coaches and community members during the service, which was attended by many in the community and streamed online for hundreds more.

“Coach Gilbert changed my life,” said retired U. S. Navy Admiral and Barnsdall native Tom Hall in a written eulogy. “He taught me to give it my all in sports, but more importantly, to give it all in the challenges in life that one faces.”

“There will never be another Joe Gilbert,” continued Hall. “God bless you for what you have done for your family, your friends, your players, and most of all, for what you have done for mankind. Until the moment I draw my last breath on this earth, I will remember and miss you.”

“Long live the memory of Coach Joe Gilbert.”