INDIANAPOLIS— The name on the award reads “George Gilbert” but the recipient himself is accepting it upon countless people.
There’s the athletic director at Tri-Central who took a chance on Gilbert with a football program just trying to stay afloat.
There’s the community of Sharpsville, Ind. who railed around a football team, which had just one winning season in the previous 13 years.
There’s the players who put personal agendas aside, and in return they were the last ones standing with the blue medals around their neck on Thanksgiving Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium this season.
Gilbert doesn’t stop there but as head coach for the State Champion Tri-Central Trojans, the 33-year veteran was named a finalist for the 2013 Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year.
“It’s really neat for me to win this honor but it’s my top three assistants that have truly made the difference because they bought in to my direction, and they put in there vested interest, and the kids bought in to loving everybody and it’s quite a success story,” Gilbert says.
The story began back in 2008 when after 20 years as head coach at Clinton Central High School, it was time for Gilbert to move on.
He took a job a little more than 30 minutes to the east and in doing so, was in charge of a program that had won just 20 games in the previous 14 years.
“I had coached against (Tri-Central) and I always felt that they had quality athletes. They just never really played as a team, just as individuals,” Gilbert says.
“We had to break that individuality and that was a job. From the parents, all the way down to the kids, it was all about their kid. It was all about me and we had to change that. Well, we changed it by getting the kids to understand the importance of lifting weights, and working all year around. Being a three-sport athlete at a small school is important but also finding time to lift weights and do things you need is important.”
The tangible results did not happen overnight as the Trojans went winless in Gilbert’s first season, losing games by 59, 64 and 70 points.
Gradual progress was taking place though and Gilbert liked the direction he saw.
A three-win season in 2010 doubled in 2011.
A 10-win season in 2012 brought major momentum into this past fall.
The goal though started with winning a conference. Any thought of a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium still seemed distant.
But things began to change with a win over a Sheridan program that has dominated Class A in the state of Indiana throughout Gilbert’s coaching tenure.
“Winning a state title was the farthest thing from our mind,” Gilbert said of the mindset heading into the season. “Then as things came together and we defeated Sheridan twice, and got on a roll, the kids actually started to believe at the regional level that we could do this all.”
A two-minute touchdown drive at the semi-state level sent Tri-Central, and the town of Sharpsville, to the final weekend of the season.
Waiting was Eastern Hancock, a team that gave the Trojans their lone blemish during the 2013 season.
With a few players back in the lineup and some key defensive positions nailed down, Tri-Central turned in a title worthy effort.
Eastern Hancock’s top ranked offense was held 42 points below their state-leading average of 52.6.
The 20-10 Class A victory gave Tri-Central their first state championship in any boys’ sports.
“It has been incredible,” Gilbert says of the state title attention.
“The local press has been unbelievable in giving our kids all these accolades. Our community has just been outstanding. It’s really been a shot in the arm for our community.”
In being named one of the two finalists for the Don Shula Award, Gilbert received $5,000 for Tri-Central’s athletic program.
Tri-Central’s state championship came at the home of the Colts and thanks to Gilbert winning a Coach of the Week award, he made a visit to the actual home of the organization.
Gilbert took in a late December practice and watching the AFC South Champions practice helped reiterate how proud he was to represent Tri-Central and the Colts beyond the state of Indiana.
“When I went to practice and watch them work and do fundamentals and the comrade and how incredible they treated us, high school coaches…I was honored because it allowed our little school get national recognition,” Gilbert says. “My hats off to the Colts, the organization and everybody involved. I’ve said it time and time again, in our local papers, ‘We are so blessed to have a classy organization.’
“For a little, tiny school in Indiana, to have a program recognized in the nation, that’s pretty special and pretty humbling.”