At the time Gilbertson was still going strong. But he had coached for a long time and was getting up in years, and Albertine was curious to know Gilberton's plans.
“So I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?' And he said, ‘This. This is what I want to do.' And it was kind of like that was the end of the conversation,” Albertine recalled.
To the very end of an extraordinary coaching career that reached 61 years, Gilbertson never lost his passion for the job, his love for the kids, or his desire to help them improve. There was nothing he wanted to do more, and nothing but failing health could keep him away.
The 83-year-old Gilbertson, who began teaching and coaching at Snohomish High School in 1950 and was still on the bench helping to coach girls basketball earlier this season, died Tuesday afternoon at Everett's Providence Regional Medical Center Colby Campus. He underwent quadruple bypass surgery in early January, had another surgical procedure the next day, and then for a time seemed to be recovering.
But he began experiencing additional cardiac and respiratory problems last week, and his condition declined significantly in recent days.
For the last several weeks, “it was really a hard, hard go for him,” said his son Keith Gilbertson Jr. “For a guy who'd been active and busy, it was tough.”
And yet even in the midst of a dire illness, Gilbertson never gave up the idea of getting better and getting back to coaching.
“In one of my last really significant conversations with him,” his son said, “he told me, ‘You know, I've been down for a while. But I'm going to take some time, get well, and then I'm really looking forward to coaching spring football.'”
Gilbertson grew up in Snohomish and was an outstanding athlete at the high school before graduating in 1945. After a year in the Navy, he attended the State College of Washington (now Washington State University) where he planned to play football, though a head injury forced him to quit after one season.
He returned to Snohomish and his new job at the high school, where he coached track and cross country, and for a time was the head football coach. But for most of his tenure he was a football assistant and an assistant in basketball, first for the boys team and later for the girls team.
Gilbertson retired from teaching in 1981, but continued to coach, albeit as a volunteer. For the last three decades he declined his coaching salary, explaining in a 2009 interview that “I wouldn't want to put (money) out front as the reason I'm there.”
But even though he was working for free, he was no less committed.
“He loved to coach, and he was really concerned for the young people in his charge,” said his son. “His mantra would be, ‘How can we do this? How can we get you better? And if you're not doing something well, what can we do to get it right?'
“He impacted so many young people. Whether you were the star player on the team and destined to do something great, or whether you were the least talented kid or even the manager, he had room for everybody.”
“One of the best words you could use about him would be caring,” said Ben Krause, who played on the school's 1970 state basketball championship team, which Gilbertson helped coach. “His caring for kids. His caring for people. ... If somebody wanted help with something, like a weight program, he was the guy to go to. Because if you were willing to show the effort, he'd spend time with you.”
“He was tough all the time,” said Ken Emmil, a member of Snohomish's 1976 and 1978 state championship football teams, which Gilbertson also helped coach. “You never had to guess what Coach Gilb was thinking because there was no hinting around about it. There were times he had me by the face mask and that's part of who he was. But you also knew why. Because when a kid knows you love him, you can be tough.”
“I don't even know how you'd calculate the number of lives he's impacted that way,” said Mark Perry, Snohomish's head football coach who worked with Gilbertson for many years. “The numbers are staggering.”
Added Ken Roberts, the school's girls basketball coach and a former Snohomish athlete himself: “Every person walking around Snohomish that ever played sports (at the high school) has been touched by him.”
Word of Gilbertson's death spread quickly through the community on Tuesday, and then to people elsewhere in the state and around the country. The grief was evident among many as they remembered a man who had impacted their lives profoundly.
Tom Cable played for Gilbertson at Snohomish, where he graduated in 1982 before going on to his own career in coaching. He spent the last three seasons as head coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders, and is today the offensive line coach and assistant head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.
“When they called me today and told me he was gone,” Cable said, “the first thing you do is just cry because you loved him so much. You only get a couple of shots with people like that in your life. People who kind of set you in the right direction and give you a chance to succeed. But that's what Coach did to me.
“And that's what he's done for so many people. I think there are so very few people in this world that you can ever look back at and say, ‘That guy changed lives.' But Keith Gilbertson did that. And he was very dear to me.”
Even near the end, as he worked with athletes who were young enough to be his great grandchildren, Gilbertson never wavered. Though the hair was grayer, the step a bit slower, the posture slightly stooped, his zeal was unchanged.
“He showed up to work every day without fail and no matter what the circumstances,” said Ed Lucero, who coached football with Gilbertson since 1977. “We went through some tough seasons, including last season, but that didn't stymie him at all. He was always looking to make things better and trying to make the kids better. That's just how he was.”
Over the years, Gilbertson had chances to go elsewhere to coach. When Keith Gilbertson Jr. was a child the family even moved to Pullman for a time so the elder Gilbertson could coach there. “But we didn't stay long,” said his son. “Looking back, I think he would've enjoyed college football. I think he would've enjoyed coaching the Cougars. But the Snohomish Panthers kind of came first.”
Likewise, Gilbertson had his own agenda whenever the talk turned to retirement.
“I can see where the wins, the losses, the criticism, the constant scrutiny on your program can sometimes wear guys out,” said the younger Gilbertson, who has 38 years of coaching experience and who returned to the coaching ranks Monday when he was named senior assistant offense of the Cleveland Browns after previously serving as the NFL team's director of pro personnel last year.
“But my dad was never in coaching for those reasons. His whole legacy is the people he impacted. He was there to interact with the young people, to see them get better, and to see them get something out of it.
“And if that's the case, then you stay in coaching for those reasons,” he said.
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