RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Bill Gentry’s distinct Texas drawl and Fedora hat were unmistakable personal trademarks during a spectacular 38-year Hall of Fame career at Highland and Eldorado.
He was prolific at winning football games, too.
Gentry, a towering figure in New Mexico high school football and one of the most iconic prep coaches the state has ever known in any sport, died during the night Saturday. He was 93, and had been in declining health over the last few days.
“I think you could legitimately say he was the father of high school football in the state,” said a former adversary, longtime (and now-retired) Clovis coach Eric Roanhaus. “There was a reason he had the longevity that he did, because he did it right.”
David Latham, who works in the Rio Rancho Public Schools’ Secondary Learning Center and is a guiding force in the district’s career-technical education path, played for Gentry in 1971 and ’72.
“He was a really tough man; a great individual,” Latham, a 1973 HHS graduate, recalled. “My mom thought he walked on water.”
Latham’s father die when he was just 6, and he was pretty much without a male role model until he went to Highland High School and started playing football.
“As a teen, you think you know a lot — I thought I knew more than I really did,” Latham said. “During the summer program, my mom went and talked to Bill Gentry. He told me, ‘If you don’t play football, do what your mom says; do home stuff.’
“He provided that male influence,” Latham said. “He was something special; he was tough to play for, he was a perfectionist.”
As a coach, Gentry “was ahead of his time,” Latham said. “We had two-hour practices — they never went over two hours, and he made sure we had water breaks. At a certain point, we didn’t really hit a lot — we called it hit with a thud.”
Latham said Gentry wasn’t one to lavish praise on his players; he expected them to do their jobs on the field.
“He didn’t have a lot of praise, but if you did something wrong, he would let you know.”
Gentry led Highland to three state championships — 1963, 1965 and 1986. The first two were undefeated teams, the third a memorable victory over Jim Bradley’s Roswell Coyotes at the Wool Bowl. Gentry coached five other teams at Highland and Eldorado into the state final during his career.
Clench-jawed, demanding and exacting, Gentry was the first New Mexico football coach to reach the coveted 300-win plateau. He arrived at the mark with Eldorado on Sept. 22, 1995, following a 21-2 victory over then No. 1-ranked Goddard at the Wool Bowl.
Gentry finished with a career mark of 305-102-5. His last game was a 35-21 state quarterfinal loss — ironically, at the hands of Highland and then-coach Judge Chavez. Oddly enough, the two final losses of his career both came to the Hornets.
Gentry won, prodigiously so, for nearly four decades, as he averaged just over eight victories a season over those 38 years. His teams qualified for the playoffs 25 times and suffered only three losing seasons (1961, 1983, 1987).
Gentry won 245 games at Highland from 1958 through the 1988 season. In that offseason, he stunned the state when he jumped from the Hornets to rival Eldorado, where he was 60-20 in seven seasons. Gentry coached the Eagles into the state championship game in 1990 and 1991, losing both years to Roanhaus’s Wildcats. The second of those games was an excruciating, 13-10 double-overtime loss for Eldorado at Wilson Stadium in 1991.
Gentry was named the national coach of the year in 1994 by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. He also is a National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Famer, and a member of the National High School Hall of Fame, New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame and the University of New Mexico Hall of Honor.
Latham was an offensive guard, defensive end and on special teams in his junior season of 1971, when the Hornets finished with a 7-3 record but missed the postseason. As a senior, the 1972 team finished 9-2 after a 21-0 loss to Hobbs in a Class AAAA semifinal; Latham was an outside linebacker on that Hornets squad.
Later, Latham coached the Hornets’ junior varsity team from 1975-77.
“He taught me a lot; he taught me how to teach, how to be prepared, how to run a classroom — stuff that carries over into everyday life,” Latham said. “I’d go and talk to him and he’d give you advice, sometimes, stuff you didn’t want to hear.”
Saddened by the loss, Latham said he was out of town last weekend and heard about Gentry’s death Monday morning, and then started calling former Hornets teammates still around the metro area.
“He was 93,” Latham said. “He led a long life; it’s hard, kinda like losing a parent. You know they’re not going to live forever, but you know it’s gonna happen.
Eric Roanhaus is now the only living member of the 300-win club in New Mexico, with the passing of Gentry and of Jim Bradley in 2015. Gentry ranks third on the list; Roanhaus has 343 victories, Bradley had 310.
Carl “Bill” Gentry was born in Slaton, Texas, in 1926. He played at Slaton High, later served in the Navy in World War II and eventually became a student athlete at UNM, where he was a guard and tackle for the Lobos in 1948 and 1949. He earned his degree from UNM.
Gentry is survived by his wife of seven decades, Mary, plus children Billy, Marcy and Tom. One of his grandchildren is Zach Gentry, a former quarterback at Eldorado and current tight end with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We’re gonna miss him — he did things right, that’s what I would say,” Latham said.
(Albuquerque Journal staff writer James Yodice provided the background for this story.)