Legendary. Dedicated. Iconic. Selfless. Compassionate.
Those words were used to describe Terry Gilliland by those whose lives he touched during his long coaching career.
Gilliland, who passed away on May 1, will be remembered as a father figure to anyone that came in touch with the former Mitchell High School activities director and football and track and field coach.
“I have many very fond memories,” former Mitchell athlete Jesse Cardona said. “His presence was noticeable all the time because he always had people around him and I wanted to be one of those people. From the first time seeing him walk the halls of Mitchell in 1984 (I was 12), throughout my life, he is someone I have looked up to, not only as a student-athlete but as a mentor/friend/father figure. He was part of our family having coached or mentored my brothers and I plus all of our kids.”
Another former Mitchell athlete, Chris Klein who played football, basketball and competed in track and field for the Tigers, said Gilliland had a huge impact on his life.
“He was a second father figure to me,” he said. “He will be missed by the whole community and not just Mitchell, but the Panhandle. He was one of a kind, and I’m glad he was my coach.”
Klein said Gilliland would go out of his way to help you.
“He was just selfless. He did anything for anybody no matter what he had to do to do it. He wanted to see every kid succeed in the summer,” Klein said. “We would have 6 or 7 a.m. workouts and he was always there and there would be 5 o’clock workouts for people who couldn’t make the morning ones. He was at the school year round making sure there was someone there to make sure kids had the opportunity to succeed.”
Cardona said he wanted to be like Coach G when he grew up.
“He was someone I idolized and wanted to be like, wanted to perform for, respected, loved,” Cardona said. “I could write a book about coach Gilliland and the many memories I have of him. He was great man. He will be missed.”
As a coach, Gilliland could be stern, but he also had a softer side.
“As a football coach, he was known as being tough,” former Mitchell athlete Ralph Paez, said. “As a teacher he was known as being tough. But if you really got to know coach, he was very tough. Probably too tough for his own good. He was the most kind, soft-hearted person. Compassionate is the one word that describes him to me.”
He was more than a coach and activities director at Mitchell, he also was coach, part-owner and organizer of the Nebraska Storm. The Storm was a semi-pro football that allowed former players a way to continue playing the sport they loved.
Former WNCC basketball standout Otis Frazier played quarterback for the Storm, where he formed a special bond with Gilliland.
Frazier said he saw the person Gilliland was as his son played alongside his grandsons.
“This comes to me with sad dignity in the loss of such a great man. Terry Gilliland or Coach G,” Frazier said. “Coach G was the face of Mitchell High School to me, a leader, passionate and dedicated individual to all the kids under his umbrella. He meant a lot to the parents and students of the communities of the Panhandle. He played the role of dad to a lot of athletes, young and old. One thing that was so significant about coach was his smile that could light up a room, and his direct approach to everything he touched or was around.
“I also used to live next door to his beloved grandkids in Scottsbluff and I got a chance to see them grow up from small kids to adults as they played with my kids in the yard, at times. Funny, some of the best athletes in the area played in that yard like Tim McDavid, Drew Gilliland and my son Otis Frazier 3.”
Cardona said Gilliland would keep tabs on his athletes in the offseason to make sure they were doing things the right way.
“Coach made sure we played football and ran track. He would tell us, ‘you don’t play football for me if you don’t run track’ sarcastically but he meant it,” Cardona said. “I wrestled in the winter but Coach G was there in some capacity making sure we were eating and sleeping right and that we were still lifting. I know he would tell all his student-athletes that ‘playing sports is a privilege,’ so we had to make sure our grades were up and that we stayed out of trouble. He would always be on us about being humble, show some class (sportsmanship). He would yell ‘Act like you’ve been there before’ when we scored. I do remember playing football, and I could see the intensity and passion as if he were orchestrating a symphony where everything was clicking and I was amazed by it and made me want to play harder. I know our relationship was special throughout high school and even now. He was a major influence on my success in life.”
In addition to his coaching career, Gilliland also had an outstanding athletic career of his own at Sidney High School where he excelled in football and track and track and field. In 1960, he even had a faster 120-meter High Hurdle time than NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. Gilliland’s fastest time he ran that year was 14.9 while Sayers’ was 15.1.
At the state meet, Gilliland finished second in the 120 Highs prelims. Sayers was running for Omaha Central. In the finals, Sayers finished fourth and Gilliland took fifth in a time of 15.5. He also held the Western Conference record in 1959 in the two hurdle races, running a 15.7 in 1959 in the 120 Highs and a 21.6 in the 180 Low Hurdles.
After graduating from Sidney High School, Gilliland went on to receive his bachelor’s and master’s at Kearney State College. After college, Gilliland taught and coached at Scottsbluff High School and moved on to Peru State College where he coached football and baseball from 1978 to 1982.
After Peru State, Gilliland landed at Mitchell for the next 27 years, where he became a coaching icon in the Panhandle.
Former KNEB sports director Rob Barney said it was coincidence that he met Gilliland one day while Barney was working in Kearney and he stopped at Kearney State to chit-chat. Little did Barney know that he would be working with Coach G when both returned to the Panhandle in the early ‘80s.
“I remember meeting Terry for the first time when I was working in Kearney. He was passing through and stopped off at the then Kearney State College. He was talking with some of the coaches and I was listening in. I noted he had a great sense of humor and I thought he would be a fun coach to work with,” Barney said. “Little did I realize, I would be working with him just a few years later. The coaches at KSC loved him and said it was always a great talk when he stopped by. When I moved to Scottsbluff-Gering, we covered a full slate of Legion baseball games and he was the head coach (of the Mitchell Marauders Legional team) my second year at KNEB. He was fun to travel with. He was a great storyteller and he could coach some baseball, too. Terry always went out of his way to help me. He never refused an interview and he always treated me well when we went to Mitchell for a broadcast.”
Gilliland has been recognized in many ways for his contributions to youth and high school sports. The Nebraska High School Athletic Association honored his long-time service and contributions by awarding him the Athletic Director of the Year honor. He has coached the Western Nebraska All-star football game and served several terms on its board. He has been so dedicated to his time coaching that a track award has been created in his name: The Terry Gilliland Outstanding Male and Female Athlete for the Mitchell Track Invitational.
He coached his sons Todd and Troy, and his grandkids Drew and Drake while at Mitchell.
Julie Klein, who took over as track and field coach for Gilliland, said he made Mitchell High School what it is today.
“Mr. G was a huge advocate for activities, he pushed the benefit of every activity and he was visible at every event, not just sports,” she said. “Whenever we hosted events he went all out to make sure everybody felt welcome and wanted to return. Those events were a huge asset for the community of Mitchell.”
That is why Julie Klein said he was a legend in the area.
“One of his greatest beliefs was that of loyalty. Coach was firm about being loyal,” she said. “And, if I had to choose one word to describe Terry Gilliland, it would be legendary. Coach was well known across the state, many people knew him and respected him and there will always be unforgettable stories to tell.”
Cardona said Coach G brought excellence to the Mitchell school system.
“Coach brought a culture of excellence second to none, starting with our facilities,” Cardona said. “He went to work right away on building a new weight room, which we never had, with the support of the community. We used to have an old black, cinder track, but he quickly changed that with an Olympic-style asphalt track. I remember our facilities being the most state of the art in our state for years. He made sure that we had the tools and equipment to help his student-athletes excel. The culture he built was as passionate to his student-athletes as it was for him. Made everyone believe with hard work we could achieve anything. Was fair and honest throughout his career.”
ardona and Coach Klein said that he was not afraid to go after what the school needed to be successful.
“Coach G coached baseball, football and track and was a part of all teams in some capacity being the athletic director,” Cardona said. “I know coach would reach out to the community on helping build up our facilities and keeping them clean and up to date. Fund raising comes to mind. We used to do ‘labor auctions’ where we traded our labor for funds to get equipment, uniforms, travel expenses.”
Coach Klein said he wasn’t afraid to get a pie in the face or egged for the betterment of the athletes.
“Some of my memories of Mitchell and Coach G were pep rallies,” Julie Klein said. “He got pies in the face, egged on the hea, and he took it all in stride. He liked to lead cheers to get all of the students involved. He made the environment fun for everyone.”
That is what everyone remembers about Gilliland. He was fun to be around even though he was strict and stern.
“He really thought he was funny. His humor and sarcasm were great. He was a passionate, competitive man that could bring that out in about anyone that was willing to try. He would say, ‘Cream always rises to the top.’ He was definitely smarter than he looked,” Cardona said with a laughing gesture. “Every once in awhile, when we joked around, he would use Abraham Lincoln’s “It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” as if he coined the phrase. Most importantly he was a family man. Loved his wife Sonja, his children, grandchildren and extended family/friends unconditionally and proved that with his actions and words.”
“Coach G also loved to play the devil’s advocate, whether it was a dispute or argument with each other or someone else he would ask the ‘what if, how do you know that, or you don’t know that’ to make you look at every angle. What was funny is it could have been over something as simple as a bad call during a game. But I always appreciated it because it made us be open-minded to the situation and to emphasize. Kept us from overreacting.”
Chris Klein’s memory of him was his joke about Grape Nuts cereal.
“His jokes are always a great memory,” Klein said. “He had this joke about Grape Nuts cereal that I swear he would tell every year during warm-ups at practice that he just thought was the funniest joke and we would all laugh and be like, ‘Yeah, coach you have said the joke 15 times a year for the past 4 years.’ Probably my best memories were my senior year of high school and I was a student aide for him and I always looked forward to that period. That’s where I really got to know more about him. I would always ask him about him running track while he was younger or just ask things about him most kids didn’t know about him that was and always will be my best memories of him. He was Mitchell sports and you can’t say Mitchell Tigers and not think of Coach G.”
Klein added that his coaching abilities really shined during his stint with the Nebraska Storm, where Klein played alongside many former Mitchell football players and other players from the area.
“Him coaching that showed you the love coach had for football and for his former athletes. He coached that voluntarily, not getting paid to spend his summer coaching adults,” Klein said. “I think he really enjoyed coaching the Storm. You didn’t have parents of kids hovering over you wondering why their kids aren’t playing. He could just coach. No pressure, no limits, just coach, and you could just see the joy it brought him. I think me being older at that time you could appreciate and understand just how much knowledge he had about the game. He ran mostly the offense my whole career and I’m sure he had input on defense but he was mainly offense. For the Storm, especially the early years, you could tell he used to be a defensive coordinator. He came up with game plans and schemes that were just unbelievable at times.”
Julie Klein summarized up what Gilliland meant to everyone he touched the best – devoted to kids.
“Terry was easy to be around and he would always tell it like it is and oftentimes would repeat that over and over again in coach’s meetings,” she said. “He was funny and 100 percent devoted to kids. He touched the lives of hundreds of kids and worked to make a positive change in their lives. That is all evidenced in the fact that so many of those kids are now adults and still remained in contact with coach.”
A celebration of life for Terry Gilliland will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 7 at the Mitchell High School football stadium. Casual attire is encouraged. A reception will he held at the 16th Empire after the services. Memorials may be made to The Carpenter Center in Scottsbluff or CASA of Scotts Bluff County.