Names and Faces of the Brazos Valley - Gary Blair

By: Jordan Meserole & Brenda Sims Email
By: Jordan Meserole & Brenda Sims Email

As Gary Blair sits behind his big oak desk, the frames and plaques all around him tout his accomplishments.

One plaque reads “Big 12 Coach of the Year”, while a Texas A&M jersey with the number 500 on it hangs nearby in a frame, commemorating his 500th win as a collegiate coach. And any eye is instantly drawn to the ornate ring on his hand, boasting his team’s Big 12 conference title.

But there’s one thing noticeably absent.

“I’ve won enough ball games. But I haven’t won enough championships. And that’s what I’m looking to do right now,” Blair said.

And so that’s why after 36 years of coaching, Blair isn’t slowing down. In fact, Blair might feel a sense of urgency more so now than ever.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been able to turn programs around and turn teams into top 25 teams – and even in a few instances top 10 teams. But at my age right now, national championships is what I’m looking for,” Blair said.

So that’s why Blair still rises at 6:45 every morning, and often times doesn’t retire to bed until well after 11 p.m.

It’s that dedication that has always defined Blair. Dedication to his team, to his school, and most importantly, to his community.

Blair’s journey to the women’s basketball court began during his days as a baseball player at Texas Tech, where the centerfielder realized that he probably wasn’t going to make it to the major leagues.

“I got into coaching, sort of thinking since my major league baseball career ended due to a lack of ability, I was going to be a major league baseball coach next. So of course I had to start in high school,” Blair said.

With an overflow of young teachers waiting to coach in men’s high school sports, Blair found the offers few and far between. So when South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, TX called and offered him a gig as physical education teacher, he saw it as an opportunity to at least get his foot in the door.

And then opportunity came knocking.

“I coached the golf team my first year because there was no openings in baseball, basketball, or football on the boys side at the time. And so the girls basketball team came over and knocked on my door the next year, and asked if I would coach them,” Blair said.

Within a couple of years, Blair had his girls basketball team competing for the state title. And in 1977, South Oak Cliff won its first 4A state title, the same year that the boys team won a basketball title as well.

And then they did it again in 1978. And again in 1980.

Over the course of Blair's high school coaching career, his squads compiled a 239-18 record.

"That was the best job I ever had. Not A&M, Arkansas, Stephen F., or Louisiana Tech, but South Oak Cliff. Because it gave me the confidence to do what I do today. And I wish more coaches today would start in high school. You have to learn how to teach before you learn how to coach. You have to learn how to communicate with young people and their problems before you want to be that rising football coach or basketball coach or whatever," Blair said.

Blair jumped at the opportunity to jump into the college ranks, when Louisiana Tech came calling. In just five years as an assistant coach with the team, he was part of the staff that helped the school make four Final Four appearances, an win two national championships.

His first collegiate head coaching job came in 1985, when he took the helm at Stephen F. Austin. And after a 210-43 record there, he landed the job at Arkansas, where he guided them to five NCAA tournament appearances and became the school's winningest women's basketball coach.

And then, he got a phone call that would have him packing his bags again.

"I came to A&M because of the vision of Bill Byrne. And I'm actually his first hire. A lot of people don't realize that, but I'm his first hire as a coach. And I believed in his vision, and he believed in my ability to communicate to the people whether they're recruits, or just normal fans," Blair said.

Blair's job wasn't going to be an easy one. He would be taking over an A&M program that hadn't had a winning season in the prior seven seasons, and was just averaging around 1,500 fans per home game.

One of his first big tasks -- getting people in the stands.

To recruit new fans, Blair would park his car in a Bryan or College Station neighborhood, and walk door-to-door, handing out free tickets to whomever he spoke with.

"I felt like that was the way to get my name out. And that was the way to get people to believe in Gary Blair before they could believe in women's basketball. And a lot of people around here had never been to a ball game before. So I said just come try it for the first time," Blair said. "And that's what we need to do on the women's side in all our sports -- is to get people to believe in us, to feel like they know us and they're part of us."

By the end of his second season, Blair had his team in the Women's National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), the first trip A&M had made to a post-season tournament in 10 years.

Blair kept adding more and more wins each season, including a 23-6 record last season, which included a trip the semifinals of the NCAA women's tournament, the fourth time the A&M women had made a trip to the tournament in Blair's six seasons.

And with each win, more fans started packing the stands, averaging more than 5,000 attendance per home game by the end of the 2008-2009 season.

A trend that Blair hopes continues, as he edges closer to that first championship.

"What sports gives you is hope. For example, my Texas Rangers won last night. That gives me hope every time. We've never been to a World Series, but every day I believe those Texas Rangers are going to get there someday. And [fans] need to feel that about my Texas A&M women's basketball team. We've never been to the final four, but we've been knocking on that door for the last few years. And if we keep getting the type of recruits we need here at A&M, we're going to be very special," Blair said.

But winning wasn't the only thing Blair brought with him to the Bryan/College Station community. He also brought with him his tireless dedication to community service.

"Within the community, I've been involved in just about everything there is. If people ask me to speak, I'm going to speak for you," Blair said. "And I've been a Rotarian for 20 years. But the number one charity is Special Olympics."

Blair's commitment to the Special Olympics is almost as great as his commitment to winning a championship.

His interest in the Special Olympics began during his coaching days at Stephen F. Austin, when he and his team was asked to help pass out medals. When he moved to Arkansas, he carried his love for the organization with him, and started a charity golf tournament. The golf tournament moved with to Texas A&M, where in just his six years in Bryan/College Station, his tournament helped raise more than $500,000.

"Until you've put that medal across someone's neck, and seen these kids compete to be the best they can be, it''s just the best feeling in the whole world," Blair said. "People have more than what we need. All we've go to do is look around at our home and everything like that. You could have a garage sale every other weekend. We have too much. Why not give back? Why not give them your time if you don't have the money or material things? Special Olympians don't care what your income is. They don't care how many championships you've won. They just want to see a friendly face out there."

Blair's involvement doesn't just stop at the golf tournament -- he often times is at many of the regional Special Olympic events, and even brings participants to the A&M games.

"I know he always comes out for Special Olympics. He's just an awesome man," said Wendy Erdman, who has been a Special Olympian for more than 10 years. "Sometimes he comes out when I swim in [the Special Olympics], and I remember one time I took a picture with his basketball team."

Erdman's relationship with Blair doesn't end at the olympics though. Erdman works at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in Bryan, where Blair stops in at least once a month for lunch and to talk with Erdman.

"He comes in here constantly to eat lunch. He talks to me, he gives me hugs all the time. And he gives me a hard time sometimes too," Erdman said with a smile.

And when Blair stops to visit Erdman, or any other special olympian he's come to know over the last six years, he doesn't see it as a charity visit -- he sees it as visiting a friend.

"Wendy and [her husband] aren't special. They're contributing to this community. Both have a job, both are paying taxes. And they're getting involved. And that's what it's all about. Many people just see it as a charity case. But it's not all charity cases. Give back. Find something that you can do to be useful," Blair said.

And while he enjoys giving back to his community through service, the biggest thing he wants to give to the Bryan/College Station community is a national championship.

"For a community that's around 200,000, what we're doing compared to other schools with 1,000,000 sized populations, we're getting it done. The people need to sit there and believe in not just us, but in all of our sports. And I think it is going to happen," Blair said. "We're going to do things the Blair way, and the Aggie way, and be successful."

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