OSU football: Time at Tulsa and Texas was shortlived, but McNeese State coach Sterlin Gilbert regrets nothing
STILLWATER — Sterlin Gilbert moved to Tulsa with every intention of staying awhile.
"Bought a house and all that stuff," he said of his relocation five years ago. "Just was kind of excited about being able to be somewhere for a bit."
Stability is fleeting when you're a college football coach. Before joining Philip Montgomery's first staff at Tulsa as offensive coordinator, Gilbert spent two seasons at Eastern Illinois and one at Bowling Green. He was ready to put down roots.
Instead, he was barely in Tulsa long enough to germinate, leaving after only a year.
Now the head coach at McNeese State, he has been at four schools in five seasons. Needless to say, the stability he craved when he arrived in Oklahoma never materialized.
But as he returns to the state for McNeese State's game at Oklahoma State, Gilbert, 41, doesn't regret the circuitous course his career has taken. It wasn't what he envisioned. It hasn't gone as he planned.
"But I wouldn't change anything," he said. "I really wouldn't."
The change of course started in late November 2015. Tulsa won its regular-season finale and got bowl eligible, thanks in large part to Gilbert's offense. It scored 40-plus points in four of the final six games.
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That's when Texas came calling. Charlie Strong had demoted Jay Norvell, the former Oklahoma assistant, after stumbling and bumbling to a 5-7 record. Strong knew he was on a rapidly warming seat and went looking for an innovative offensive mind to invigorate the Horns.
He wanted Sonny Cumbie, then the co-offensive coordinator at TCU.
Cumbie said no.
So, Strong turned to Gilbert.
Gilbert said no.
Apparently, it was one thing to be turned down by an offensive coordinator at a Big 12 school and quite another to be shunned by one in the American Conference. To convince Gilbert to change his mind, Strong flew to Tulsa — and brought the Texas president and athletic director with him.
Gilbert admits it was a bit surreal.
"And I've told everybody ... that was all their doing," he said with a chuckle. "It didn't necessarily take all that for it to happen."
Gilbert, who was eventually allowed to bring along his offensive line coach and longtime friend Matt Maddox, was aware of the difficult situation in Austin. If the Longhorns didn't improve dramatically, Strong would likely be on his way out — and Gilbert would be, too.
The 2016 Longhorns finished in the top 20 nationally in total offense, but they only won five games, prompting Texas to clean house.
Despite the way that season went — and the coaching carousel he's been spinning on ever since — Gilbert doesn't regret going to Texas.
"That's a unique place," he said. "To get an opportunity to go coach at that level every Saturday at a place that's a national brand ... it's a special place."
It's the kind of place Gilbert hopes to return to one day. After two seasons as Strong's offensive coordinator at South Florida, Gilbert interviewed for several head coaching jobs. He has long had a goal of leading a program.
McNeese State felt like a good fit. The coach is from San Angelo, Texas, and the university is in Lake Charles, Louisiana, only about 30 miles from the border.
"Southwest Louisiana and Texas are very similar," said Gilbert, pronouncing it "Lew-zee-ana" and sounding very much like a longtime resident. "Just the kind of people and the culture and everything and just my connections down this way with high school coaches and people that I know was very appealing."
So was the chance to build up a program and put down some roots.
Gilbert admits he marveled this week when he read in some OSU notes that Mike Gundy is in his 15th season as the Cowboys' head coach.
"Fifteen years at one place," Gilbert said, "you're gonna start countin' like dog years now."
He laughed, then got serious.
"That's ultimately what you would like, to get somewhere and be there for a little bit."
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.