It has been 38 years — on Nov. 18, 1980, to be exact — since Claude Gilbert was fired as San Diego State’s head football coach.
It remains among the biggest public relations blunders in San Diego sports history. Example A on how not to handle a coach’s firing.
The lead-up: Gilbert came into the 1980 season as the NCAA’s sixth-winningest active coach, but the Aztecs lost eight of their first nine games that year. Gilbert’s dismissal had been rumored for weeks and reported days earlier in the local newspapers, although it still wasn’t official.
The venue: a banquet room at San Diego Stadium, where local sportswriters and broadcasters held a weekly get-together for local sports teams and/or promoters to speak about upcoming events.
This is where SDSU inexplicably sent Gene Bourdet, the school’s athletic director, to announce that Gilbert had been fired. Why the school would put an administrator in such a situation is lost to history.
In addition to the sportswriters and sportscasters seated in the audience, more than 50 Aztecs football players lined the back of the room in support of their head coach.
SDSU players, Gilbert and former Aztecs coach Don Coryell — by then head coach of the Chargers — would speak before Bourdet ever got behind the microphone.
SDSU cornerback Mike Fox presented a petition to Bourdet signed by all the players.
“We just don’t feel it’s the right thing to do, and we feel our opinion should have something to do with the verdict,” Fox said. “I guess it apparently doesn’t, though, because we were never asked.”
Added safety Johnny Moore: “If he leaves, and the staff leaves, you’re talking half the Aztecs’ body. I mean, that’s our heart, that’s our soul right there, Coach Gilbert.”
Gilbert’s firing had SDSU President Thomas B. Day’s fingerprints all over it, but it was Bourdet who was squirming in a seat 5 feet from the podium as this tragicomedy unfolded.
Gilbert followed the players to the microphone.
“It has been a rocky season and, at this point, a very painful one,” he said. “But I am proud of our achievements; we have nothing to be ashamed of. I think there are a lot of people who are better off for having gone through our program and, when you get right down to it, that’s a lot more important than winning and losing.”
Added Gilbert: “Life will go on. For our players and my staff and for me, life will go on. My hope is that someday we’ll all be better off for this particular experience.”
Then it was time for the star, Coryell, to take the stage, just moments after being informed in his office that Gilbert was to be fired. Coryell had brought Gilbert to SDSU in 1967 as an assistant coach and picked him as his successor.
Coryell usually came to the weekly gatherings to talk about the upcoming opponent. On this occasion, he never said a word about that week’s game in Miami.
He was too busy blasting the SDSU administration.
“I cannot believe how blind, how stupid, some people are,” Coryell said. “Here you have a coach — one of the best coaches in the country — and they fired him. I know the man, I’ve coached with him. I just cannot understand how the administration, the people responsible, can be that blind. They are absolutely blind.”
Coryell, working himself into a lather as he teared up with emotion, continued: “They do not know what the problem is. To get rid of this coach — the best damn coach they could possibly get here — is not going to solve their problems. They’ve got their heads so far into the ground they cannot see.
“I’ll tell you, that school should take stock of itself — the community, too — and decide just what the hell they want.”
With that, Coryell abruptly left.
When Bourdet finally got to the podium and made the firing official, he said: “It was not based on the single season this year, ah, of 2-8. The evaluation also was not made on the long haul but on the basis of San Diego State’s involvement in the WAC conference. We have to have a winning football program. That is pretty much a fact of life here.”
Asked what he was going to do when the season ended, Gilbert said: “I’m gonna drive into the mountains and talk to a cow. I’m gonna watch a butterfly and listen to a bird sing. And, after I’m done with that, I’m gonna find an ol’ coach another coaching job.”
Gilbert was hired the following season as a defensive coordinator at San Jose State.
Aztecs quarterback Mark Halda was among those in the room at San Diego Stadium on that memorable day 38 years ago.“Whoever was behind getting rid of him, and hindsight is 20/20, but what did it get them?” Halda said earlier this week. “It got them a lot of years of struggle. Firing him set that program back 20 years.”