ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Winner of 5 state titles at Hobbs is building at Class 2A school
PECOS – Two years ago, Russ Gilmore didn’t know – couldn’t know- that he’d one day be trading in the flatlands and oil fields of Hobbs for the pine trees and serenity of the Santa Fe National Forest.
“A year ago, I didn’t even know there was a Pecos, New Mexico,” Gilmore said with a laugh. “I knew there was a Pecos, Texas.”
The man who has won nearly 700 career games as a high school basketball coach in Kansas, Texas and New Mexico stealthily reappeared earlier this year when Class 2A Pecos hired the former Hobbs coach.
After a 13-year stint in Lea County that included five state titles at Hobbs – the last one coming in 2008 – Gilmore, 59, was out of basketball last season.
Admittedly, he said, Pecos seems an unusual locale for him to put down new roots.
“You hear all the time about coaches going from a small school to a big school. I’ll tell ya, it’s an adjustment going from a big school to a small school. And I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Gilmore said, smiling. “I’m in the latter stages of my career, and I wanted to go someplace where basketball was important, and where year in and year out it’s pretty good.”
Pecos was 12-2 going into Friday’s home game against Mesa Vista.
“I’ve still got a great passion to win,” said Gilmore, who last week won his 300th career game in New Mexico. He won 288 games wearing the black blazer for Hobbs as the successor to the iconic Ralph Tasker before resigning in May 2011. “I still want to be at a school where I can make a run at (a state championship).”
Pecos hasn’t won state since 1966. It last played for a title in 2005.
Are the Panthers, with a pedigreed coach like Gilmore, a viable challenger in 2A? Why not?
“He’s fit in perfect here,” said senior guard Darren DeHerrera.
The Panthers’ two losses came to a couple of the division’s strongest teams – Bosque School in the season opener, and Laguna-Acoma last week.
“We were worried about (having a new coach),” junior guard Elijah Varela said of the transition. “But it was a blessing in disguise. He didn’t just change us as basketball players, he changed us as men. A lot of us, like me, were troublemakers.”
Gilmore said his coaching style remains as it always has, even if his school colors are different.
“I’m teaching the same way I always did,” he said. “And these kids are good at it.”
Dressed casually in a white polo shirt with a forest-green sweater vest Friday, Gilmore is beginning to understand the nature of this sliver of north-central New Mexico, which features the most hoops-crazy corridor of fans anywhere in the state.
Geographically, you could scarcely find two spots on the map more diametrically opposite than Hobbs and Pecos. But, as Gilmore sought re-entry into coaching, Pecos fulfilled two major requirements:
A job opening and a loyal fan base.
“The fans here have a great passion for the game,” Gilmore said. “Am I more comfortable at a bigger school? Yes, I am. But basketball is basketball. Besides, what else do I have to prove on a 5A level?”
Not that Hobbs is a sprawling metropolis, but even Gilmore was caught off guard by the quaintness, and quiet, of this town built near the Pecos River.
It didn’t take long for Gilmore and his wife, Debbie, to realize that there were no traffic lights in Pecos. (There is a four-way stop, though.) Restaurants to cure those late-night cravings? Forget that. There’s no McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, but there is a Dairy Queen. Otherwise, it’s a 20-minute drive to Santa Fe.
“We were looking for someplace to retire,” Gilmore said, “and when we got looking into this job, lo and behold if this area wasn’t what we kind of envisioned.”
He said Pecos has welcomed him with open arms – fans and players.
“These kids, they’re quick and athletic for a 2A school,” Gilmore said. “And they’ve got a high basketball IQ. They’ll also eat dirt for you. They’re a coach’s dream.”
It is clear that his time at Hobbs remains a somewhat sensitive issue for Gilmore, and that living under that constant spotlight sometimes played out like a harsh reality show.
“Hobbs is very unique,” he said. “I never appreciated what we had accomplished down there until I moved up here.”
Gilmore admits his pulse gets racing at the prospect of returning to the Pit in March, although Pecos will only get there if it reaches the 2A state final.
“I think about it quite a bit,” he said. Expectations, he added, are dangerous. He hopes the community and his roster don’t get caught up in what he did at Hobbs and get to thinking that it’ll be easy to duplicate that in Pecos.
“I still have the fire, the passion, the hunger, the drive for it,” Gilmore said. “That hasn’t changed. It really hasn’t.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal