Back in February, after two seasons with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, Keith Gilbertson resigned his position and returned with his wife Barbara to their Woodinville home.
Three days later, the phone rang. An executive with another NFL team was calling to talk about a job.
No thanks, Gilbertson said. At age 64, and after 40 years in coaching with nine different college and pro teams, he was ready for a fall without football.
“I made the decision to come back home, and so far I’ve really enjoyed it,” said Gilbertson, a 1966 graduate of Snohomish High School. “It’s been nice. My wife and I have been relatively busy with a lot of social things, so I’m OK. Everything’s good.”
The obvious question, of course, is whether this is a one-year hiatus or a true retirement.
Ask Gilbertson and he shrugs.
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball. It would really depend on the situation. If it’s the right thing, I will (coach again).”
The right thing, in Gilbertson’s mind, is a West Coast coaching job. The geography is important because he has three grown children and two grandchildren, all of them in Washington and California.
“When you’re coaching, your kids kind of take a backseat to your teams and your career,” he said. And at this point in his life, “I need to make some time for my kids.”
Through the spring and early summer, Gilbertson kept in touch with many of his coaching friends. But it changed in July “because everybody was back at training camp and suddenly the phone wasn’t ringing,” he said. “And you keep thinking, ‘Geez, I should be somewhere.’”
But as much as he enjoys coaching, “I don’t want to bounce around the league. So many guys I know just hang on to hang on, and that’s not getting done what I want to get done. And it’s also not the closeness I want with my kids and grandkids.
“I have a lot of interests. My life doesn’t have to be just football.”
That said, the idea of Gilbertson stepping away from the game, even for one season, is strange indeed. The son of longtime Snohomish High School coach Keith Gilbertson Sr., who died last year, he knew even as a boy that he wanted to be a coach someday, too.
And for every season except one in the past 41 years, coaching is what he did.
After graduating from Central Washington University in 1971, Gilbertson was hired as a graduate assistant at Idaho State University. His first full-time position was at Utah State University in 1977. Nine years later, he became a head coach for the first time, succeeding Everett native and lifelong friend Dennis Erickson at the University of Idaho.
In 1989 Gilbertson became an assistant coach at the University of Washington, and he would spend 16 of the next 20 seasons in Seattle with either the Huskies or the NFL’s Seahawks, putting in two stints with both teams. He was part of perhaps the two best seasons in Seattle football history — Washington’s 1991 national championship season, when he was the team’s offensive coordinator, and the 2005 Super Bowl season for the Seahawks, when he was an offensive consultant.
His only season away from football came in 2009, when head coach Mike Holmgren and his staff, including Gilbertson, left the Seahawks. After sitting out a year, Holmgren and Gilbertson went to Cleveland in 2010.
“It was kind of weird to be out (in 2009), but I knew I was going back,” Gilbertson said. “But this is different because there’s no guarantee that I’ll go back or that I’ll even have the chance.” But even if he doesn’t return, “I’m OK with finding something else to do,” he said.
Gilbertson spent the spring and summer honing his golf game at Bear Creek Country Club, where he and Barbara have lived for nine years. Playing and practicing a few times a week, he has dropped his handicap into single digits.
With Erickson also out of football now (he was fired at Arizona State after last season), the two have reunited on the golf course. “I like playing with Dennis,” Gilbertson said. “We have fun together. We’ve played a thousand rounds of golf and we have a good time.”
But with the start of a new football season, Gilbertson is also looking forward to seeing several games a week. He will travel to Pullman, where his son David is a backup quarterback at Washington State University, and he will watch other college and pro games on television.
“I’m anxious to see the Huskies play,” he said. “I think Steve (Sarkisian, Washington’s head coach) has done a great job with his guys. And I’m anxious to watch the Seahawks. I’ll keep a special eye on the offensive line because that’s Tom Cable (a fellow Snohomish native and close friend) coaching them.
“I’ll have to grade his guys every week,” he added with a smile.
Though Gilbertson could be out of football to stay — “I’ve done everything you’re supposed to do to retire with the IRAs and the Social Security,” he said — his passion for the game is barely diminished. Give him an hour to recollect some of the great moments in his long coaching career, or to reminisce about special games and players, and his face grows bright with delight.
Consider, too, that career longevity is a family trait. His dad coached into his 80s and was planning to resume coaching right up to his death.
“I liked working, though I probably shouldn’t use that word because I never felt like I had a job,” the younger Gilbertson said. “Except for a few instances, I was never thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go do this.’ Most of the time I couldn’t wait to get the car started in the morning so I could get there.”
When he looks back at four decades in coaching, he can recall “a lot of highlights. We won some championships, so I’ve got a lot of rings and a lot of nice watches. But it’s the guys you coach and the guys you work for that you really remember and appreciate.”
And for the most part, he said, “it’s been real good journey.”