In the summer of 2006, Zach Stewart’s friends were agitated because he was never around and would turn down offers to swim or play whiffle ball.
Stewart, the starting quarterback at Abilene Cooper High School, was ditching his buddies to hang out with the new guy in town — Sterlin Gilbert, Cooper’s first-year offensive coordinator.
Gilbert, who 10 years later has been charged with fixing Texas’ offense and salvaging Charlie Strong’s tenure as coach, has overseen blinding offenses steeped in the genius of Art Briles at three different colleges. Yet some of his best work came in 2006 when Gilbert, then in his late 20s and just removed from a stint as a graduate assistant for Briles at Houston, inherited an eager high school quarterback who was more interested in making a splash on the football field than at the local pool.
“He has that effect on you,” Stewart said.
Perhaps unwittingly, Gilbert has taken on the identity of a fixer-upper, assessing problems under the hood, installing a high-powered engine, and getting the ride up and running in no time. Which, of course, is good news for Strong, who has yet to produce a winning season in two years at Texas and starts 2016 with questions about his security.
If Strong is feeling heat, Gilbert may have access to the thermometer.
In 2006 at Cooper, Gilbert authored the top passing attack in his district, and Stewart broke the district’s long-standing passing record with 3,136 yards to go with 21 touchdowns. The result was five wins. The following year, Cooper advanced to the Class 5A state playoffs.
“Not only did he develop me as a quarterback, but also as a competitor,” said Stewart, who landed at Abilene Christian and went 7-0 as the team’s starting quarterback. “He made me believe in myself and ultimately made me believe I was better than I really was.”
Aside from the 2014 season, when Gilbert was the offensive coordinator at Bowling Green, which was coming off of a Mid-American Conference title the year before, he has always stepped into a tough situation and found a quick solution.
At San Angelo Lake View — his only stop as a head coach — Gilbert took over a program that in the three previous years had gone 2-8, 0-10 and 2-9. The seniors were aching for success, and they achieved it, ripping off six wins in 2008 and winning a playoff game for the first time since Gilbert was the school’s quarterback 12 years earlier. According to Dave Campbell’s Football magazine, the school’s playoff-clinching win over Hereford was deemed the state’s upset of the year in Class 4A. It also helped solidify Gilbert as the West Texas coach of the year.
Prior to a game at Amarillo Caprock, Gilbert told his players that he had made the road trip for two reasons — “to chew some bubble gum and to whip some ass.”
He was all out of bubble gum.
“He instilled confidence in us we never had before,” said John David Baker, Lake View’s quarterback that season.
Gilbert’s first season at Lake View coincided with Briles’ first at Baylor, and to this day only a handful of coaches and schools possess the intelligence behind a system that has produced swift turnarounds and video game numbers at almost every turn.
“Whatever skill-set you have, they’re gonna use it,” Baker said. “They don’t put players in compromising situations.”
Gilbert’s reclamation tour continued at Temple High, which had averaged fewer than three wins in the seven seasons prior to his arrival. In 2011, Gilbert’s lone season before he jumped to the college ranks, Temple won six games and made the playoffs.
“He’s been able to cram for the exam,” Temple coach Mike Spradlin said. “He’s had a chance to do it quite a few different ways. It’s all fundamental from a standpoint of philosophy — speed, quickness, tempo and option-type stuff.”
In 2011, Eastern Illinois was picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference. Funny, the Panthers ended up winning their first of two straight league titles behind Gilbert, head coach Dino Babers and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2013 and now in his second season as Tom Brady’s understudy with the New England Patriots.
The following year, Gilbert lost his starting quarterback after one game, yet Bowling Green still won its division in the MAC. In 2015, Tulsa improved from 2-10 to 6-7 (Gilbert left prior to a bowl loss) and finished No. 13 nationally in total offense with 507 yards per game, 130 more than Texas averaged.
His partner in crime during the past three stops was offensive line coach Matt Mattox, Gilbert’s close friend who has followed him to Texas.
They have their work cut out at Texas, which failed under Shawn Watson (2014) and Jay Norvell (2015) to develop a franchise quarterback or to keep up with the Big 12’s explosive offenses. Watson, who was the coordinator for Strong’s first season, was fired last month, which was a mere formality after he was stripped of his play-calling duties just one game into the 2015 season. To this point, it looks like Norvell will stay on staff as receivers coach.
Unlike Watson, Gilbert will have a bevy of quarterbacks from which to choose, yet, frankly, it’s an undesirable group. Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes, the respective starters the past two years, have been underwhelming, and Kai Locksley and Matthew Merrick, who redshirted in 2015, are thought to be lagging behind. Arlington Lamar’s Shane Buechele, the state’s top quarterback prospect, will enroll this month.
Assuming Heard gets the nod, Stewart, who still keeps in touch with Gilbert and has joined him on hunting trips, has a message for him.
“I’d tell him to get ready because you’re about the reach heights as a person and as a quarterback that you’ve (never) dreamed of,” Stewart said.