Ask anyone, player or coach, to describe Claude Gilbert, and the first word that comes to mind is “tough.”
It is followed by the words “honest” and “fair” in speaking about a man who spent 40 years as a football coach, most notably here as an assistant and head coach at San Diego State.
The toughness, Gilbert said, comes from his parents.
Gilbert’s family escaped the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s, leaving Oklahoma for Central California, where they settled in Bakersfield. His father worked in the oil fields, and his mother supplemented the family income by working in the agricultural fields.
“I came from a family that had to work hard and sacrifice,” Gilbert said. “If I had any toughness, it came from them. ... They expected us kids to be responsible and work hard, and through them I developed the values of hard work, being responsible and persevering.”
Those were traits that Gilbert, now 85, brought with him to the football field. He coached from the preps to the pros, highlighted by a stint with the Aztecs during their glory years in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gilbert came to SDSU in 1967 — after a year as head coach at Southwestern College — as an offensive line coach and then defensive coordinator under Don Coryell. He took over as head coach in 1973, when the legendary Coryell became head coach of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals.
“You’re not supposed to follow those guys like Don Coryell, because it’s always tough,” Gilbert said. “But I was dumb enough to do it.
“We had a great run. The first five years we won 45, lost eight, and tied a couple. Toward the end, it got a little tougher.”
Gilbert (61-26-2 in eight seasons) was second only to Coryell (104-19-2) in victories at SDSU before Rocky Long (64-29) passed him during the 2017 season. Gilbert’s .697 winning percentage trails only Coryell (.840), although Long (.688) is a close third.
“What I contributed was simply carrying on the tradition of what Coach Coryell started,” Gilbert said. “We had a bunch of wonderful players over the years.”
Gilbert will be honored tonight during the 72nd annual Salute to the Champions dinner when he is inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame, along with former Padres shortstop Garry Templeton and sailor Robbie Haines.
“It’s a wonderful honor, and I’m looking forward to it,” Gilbert said by phone this week. “I’ve been gone a long time. After all these years, it was quite a surprise.”
This is the eighth hall of fame that has inducted Gilbert. He has been enshrined at every school where he coached — Shafter High (just outside Bakersfield), Bakersfield College, Southwestern College, SDSU and San Jose State — as well as by the Kern County Hall of Fame, California Community College Hall of Fame and now San Diego Hall of Champions.
Gilbert retired in 1999 after a second stint at SDSU as defensive coordinator under head coach Ted Tollner.
“Those last five years I was with him were terrific years,” said Gilbert, who lives in Grass Valley, an hour or so north of Sacramento, where his daughter lives.
Gilbert and his wife, Mary Lou, have a ranch there, with three horses and an Australian Shepherd. He said his daughter and great-granddaughter saddle up when they come for a visit.
“We ride horses and have fun doing that,” Gilbert said. “That’s kind of my hobby these days. I’m getting a little old for that, but I haven’t been bucked off a horse in five years. I’m hanging in there pretty good.”
Ernie Zampese, who coached for years with Gilbert at SDSU before embarking on his own coaching career in the NFL, said Gilbert fits the image of an old Western cowboy.
“He’s a tough, tough hombre,” Zampese said. “He didn’t speak fast. He spoke slowly and was very emphatic about what he said.
“He’s a tough person, and he coached that way. The players knew it, and they appreciated it. Players loved playing for him. He was very straight and very honest.”
Rick Garretson, an Aztecs wide receiver from 1975-78, played on the 1977 team that went 10-1. As good as they were, Gilbert never took it easy on them.
Practices on the day before games are typically brief, light “walk-throughs” without pads, in which the coaches review things for the game. Garretson recalled the build-up to a game against Fresno State in which Gilbert thought the players were going through the motions.
“We had this walk-through practice, and we brought our pads,” said Garretson, who’s now the offensive coordinator at Arizona’s Chandler High. “If he wasn’t happy with us, then we were going to put on the pads. And we did ...”
Gilbert’s intensity could be almost comical. If the players were inclined to laugh, though, they knew not to show it or it would just make things worse.
“Claude was the kind of guy who would get upset, throw his hat,” Garretson said. “We had a punt drill once, and Greg Roeszler punted a ball into a 20-30 mph wind, and that thing went probably 10 yards.
“All of the sudden, Claude took his watch off and threw it to the ground. It blew up in 10,000 different pieces. No one said a thing, but inside everybody was rolling.”
The players knew that Gilbert simply wanted things done right, said Mark Halda, an SDSU quarterback from 1977-80.
“You think about his toughness, you think about his competitiveness, you think about his integrity,” Halda said. “He had all the things you could possibly want.”
The highlight of Gilbert’s SDSU career was back-to-back 10-1 seasons, in 1976-77. The latter season included what is regarded as the biggest victory in school history, a 41-16 home win over No. 13-ranked Florida State.
“That was the most perfect game that any of my teams ever played,” Gilbert said. “It was a magnificent performance by the Aztecs. When I look back and have to pick one game in my 40-year career, that’s the one.”
It also signaled a turning point in the program. The Aztecs went 4-7 the following season. They rebounded with an 8-3 season, although it ended with an infamous 63-14 home loss to BYU in a game for the Western Athletic Conference championship and a Holiday Bowl berth. In 1980, Gilbert knew he was gone even before the 4-8 season had concluded.
SDSU’s success had been built on recruiting junior college players. An NCAA rule change capping recruiting classes at 30 players a year put an end to that. The Aztecs switched their emphasis to freshman recruiting just as they entered the WAC and beefed up their nonconference schedules to include the likes of Missouri, Wisconsin, Miami and Arizona.
Gilbert was assured that he would be given time to complete the transition. He wasn’t.
When the team lost eight of its first nine games in 1980, Gilbert was told he would not be back the following season.
“The thing that bothers you is they indicated you would be OK because we had proven ourselves,” Gilbert said. “But when people start grumbling and the administration hears the grumbles, you know how it works.
“It hurt, of course, but that’s the nature of the business. People think you dumb up awful fast when you lose.”
Gilbert and his assistant coaches didn’t lose their sense of humor. He said the school wasn’t planning to give the team a postseason banquet, so they had one on their own — at the San Diego Police Department firing range.
“It doesn’t do any good to be bitter,” Gilbert said. “You just accept it and go on. We knew we were good, and we knew we could coach. You just go onto the next thing and start over. And that’s what we did.”
Gilbert wasn’t out of work long when he left SDSU. He was hired the following season by San Jose State, where he served three years as defensive coordinator before becoming head coach. He went 38-30-1 at his alma mater — including 10-2 seasons in 1986-87 — coaching the same tough, honest and fair way he always had.
“Coaching football, to me, was kind of like raising your own kids,” Gilbert said. “When they do good, you praise them, hug them and kiss them. When they do bad, you kick them in the butt. I kind of coached that way. Fortunately, it worked.”
Coryell and Gilbert won 165 games between them over 20 seasons at SDSU. It would take eight head coaches and another 32 years to match them.
“Claude’s old-school,” Halda said. “He believes in running the ball. He believes in toughness. He believes in defense. Interesting. Who’s the coach now down there?
“I see the exact same blueprint. It’s so funny how it’s come full circle, and the guy they have now who’s winning championships is doing it the same way Claude was doing it when they got rid of him.”
Halda is among those who believe that the Breitbard honor should have come years ago for Gilbert.
“Sometimes when it’s way overdue, it’s even a bigger honor,” Halda said. “Now people are like, ‘Finally.’ I’ve never met a man who’s commanded more respect from more people. He didn’t just say it. He lived it.
“Whether he’s in the Breitbard Hall of Fame or the Aztec Hall of Fame, he was in our hall of fame a long time ago.”