It’s hard to believe these days, but Snohomish coaching icon Keith Gilbertson Sr. was once fired from an SHS coaching job.
It happened more than 50 years ago, but the firing and Gilby’s comeback underscore the mettle of a young coach who would go on to earn near-unanimous community and national respect as a mentor, motivator and role model.
Fresh out of college, Coach Gilbertson returned to his alma mater in the fall of 1950 and began coaching football as an assistant under his own high school mentor, the late Stan Bates. Three years later, Bates left Snohomish after 11 highly successful years to take a job at Washington State University, and Gilby was named to succeed him as head football coach.
Keep in mind that in 1952 Bates was every bit as revered in Snohomish as future SHS coaching great Dick Armstrong, who would retire in 1995 after 32 seasons as the winningest prep football coach in state history. Bates still boasts the highest winning percentage (.843) of any Panther football coach, winning or sharing eight league championships in 11 years while compiling a glittering 77-11-8 record.
Replacing such a legendary coach was no easy task, but Gilbertson took what for him was probably the opportunity of a lifetime. The Panthers went 5-3 and 4-5 in his first two seasons, but discontent mounted when Gilby insisted that his boys observe year-round training rules. Just 29 players reported for the first workout of the 1955 squad that failed to win a single game. At the end of the season, complaints were made with the school board, and on grounds that “the kids aren’t having fun,” Gilbertson was fired as football coach.
History shows that Gilby rebounded in grand fashion while coaching track and building a club-level cross country program into a state powerhouse between 1956 and 1965. And when he returned to football coaching as a member of Armstrong’s staff in 1964 – yes, he continued to coach cross country for two years in the fall while simultaneously coaching football – he revived a career that in 1985 would earn him a spot in the Washington State Coaches Association Football Hall of Fame, one of the few men to earn that distinction as primarily an assistant and not a head coach.
Dick Rodland and Perry Stangvik were assistant coaches on Gilbertson’s SHS football staff from 1953-55 and remained teaching and coaching colleagues throughout their Snohomish careers.
Rodland said that in 1955 he rebuffed feelers from the school board about any interest in succeeding Gilby as head coach. “I told them, they wouldn’t want me, because I’d do everything the same way as Gilbertson,” Rodland said.
Stangvik commented on the issue in a 1993 letter supporting Gilby’s nomination for a place in the Snohomish High School Hall of Fame.
“Following a couple of successful seasons, it became necessary for Keith to make a hard choice. In order to maintain team discipline and integrity, several key players had to be suspended,” Stangvik wrote. “The resulting poor season’s record was not accepted by the community, and Keith lost the coaching position. But Keith’s decision was the correct one, and he had the courage to stand by his convictions.
“In the ensuing years, Keith has proven to be an excellent coach in many sports. The outstanding success of Snohomish football over the recent past is founded on the same principles Keith has supported through good times and bad. Discipline and dedication have been the hallmarks of the program.”
In his later years, Gilbertson said that he learned from that firing that “you can’t be inflexible as a coach when dealing with young people.” Yet when accolades and vindication later came his way for coaching cross country, his general response to well-wishers at that time remained the same: “I’m the same coach now that I was back then.”
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