PRYOR, OK —
Russ Gilmore will sit at the end of the Pryor boys bench Dec. 3 for his first game as a head basketball coach in the state of Oklahoma.
Outside the Sooner State? That's a different story entirely.
"Normally guys that take over for a legend, they never succeed," Gilmore said. "But I was at the point in my career where I really wanted to win a state title. What the heck did I have to lose? I figured the worst that could happen is I would head back to Texas."
Gilmore took the reins at Hobbs (N.M.) High School, one of the largest high schools in the state, in 1998. He replaced 79-year-old Ralph Tasker, the winningest coach in New Mexico high school history. Tasker's playing style was also the inspiration for former Tulsa and Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson's famed "40 Minutes of Hell" full-court press strategy.
In 49 years under the legendary Tasker, the Eagles won 11 state titles. Not easy shoes to fill.
"I didn't even know Coach Tasker until I took the job," Gilmore said. "One of our really good friends used to coach out at Amarillo. He got the athletic director job, and within a year they knew that Coach Tasker was going to be retiring. They needed somebody at Hobbs who could run and press and play a really fast pace. That's what Coach Tasker was known nationally for.
"I took it, and lo and behold, we went undefeated my first year."
Hobbs went 101-9 in Gilmore's first four years at the helm, all of which ended with state championships. "We won five state titles my first 10 years there. I was blessed to have really good players," he said.
While Gilmore never coached directly under Tasker, the two were friends until Tasker's death in 1999. After his stint with Hobbs, Gilmore coached for one season at Pecos (N.M.) High School before leaving for Pryor.
So why come all the way out to Mayes County, Okla., to coach basketball? Family.
"I'm originally from Arkansas City, Kansas," Gilmore said. "I've been wanting, for the last few years, to get a little closer to home. My mother is 86, and she lives in Ponca City. She's getting up there in age, and I was getting towards where I could retire in New Mexico ... It's a long ways away. I was over 11 hours away from her. It was an opportunity for me to get closer to her. I've got aunts and uncles all around, in Kansas, Oklahoma, Ponca City, Sapulpa. I've got them all around."
Russ and his wife, Debbie, have three daughters and a son to go along with several grandchildren.
"We're centrally located with our kids and grandkids. They're spread out all over the United States ... from Hawaii to Los Angeles to Amarillo, to Denver and Dallas."
Gilmore also had the opportunity to use his counseling degree at the Pryor alternative school, where he serves as the counselor.
"It's good to just be back into a normal high school again, to just be a normal high school coach," he said.
Gilmore has already had an incredible run as a high school head coach. His name is on display with Tasker's in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for his role in maintaining one of the top 10 high school programs in history. (Hobbs is sandwiched between the alma maters of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.) He's sent several players on to collegiate programs and has another former player, Jeffery Taylor, in the NBA. If he ever wanted, he could wear a state championship ring on each finger of one hand.
Despite his previous accomplishments, he insists he's not complacent.
"I just love to coach basketball, whether they're the type of athletes and players that I've had that play in Division I, or if they're just kids that love to play the game with heart, drive and desire," Gilmore said. "I just go out and coach. I love working with high school kids and helping them make it."