Like the Permian football players before him and after, moving from the junior varsity locker room to the varsity space came with a rite of passage for Bobby Knott.
He found out in the spring of 1981, as a sophomore, that he would be part of the Panthers’ top squad the following year. So Knott was called into the locker room one day and greeted by the team’s seniors, who performed a seemingly strange initiation ritual.
Permian’s three senior captains, one after the other, put the palm of their hand over Knott’s face, with their middle finger stretched across his forehead. Then they pulled that finger back with their other hand and let it spring forward, giving Knott a hearty thump on the noggin.
The ritual was inspired by former Permian assistant coach Gene McCanlies, who had retired from coaching a few years earlier but was still a fixture within the program. McCanlies used the middle-finger thump on the forehead as a disciplinary measure for players and students alike, and he did so while wearing his state-championship ring from 1965, when Permian won the first of its six titles.
“That was Coach Mac’s discipline thing, and you never wanted to have Coach Mac pop you in the forehead with his finger,” Knott said. “You knew you’d screwed up if Coach Mac was going to give you a thump.”
Such a tactic might seem harsh nowadays, but at the time, Knott said it was a preferred alternative to a paddling. It also was one of the more memorable things about McCanlies, who left a lasting impression on athletes, students and fellow faculty members during his four decades on the Permian campus.
McCanlies, a Littlefield native who died Nov. 9 at age 83 and will be honored with a memorial service at 10 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church in Odessa, came to Permian in 1965 with then-head coach Gene Mayfield. McCanlies remained on the football staff through the 1978-79 school year and was the head baseball coach beginning in 1967 — compiling an overall record of 224-114 in 13 seasons on the diamond — and he helped the Panthers win their first two state championships on the gridiron.
He stayed on as a history teacher through 1992, when the school’s baseball field was named in his honor, and McCanlies continued to serve as a substitute teacher until just a few years ago. Throughout that time he might have been the staunchest supporter of Permian athletics, attending nearly every football, baseball and gymnastics practice and the home games of just about every Permian team.
“Coach Mac was a true friend to everything that’s Permian,” said ECISD athletics director Todd Vesely, who coached the gymnastics team for 23 years. “The people, the traditions, he was a true friend.”
McCanlies was at least partly responsible for many Permian traditions, many of which were his own superstitions. Former Permian registrar Liz Faught said McCanlies insisted on being the last person out of the Panthers’ locker room after Friday night football games, home or away, and he couldn’t attend the Friday afternoon pep rallies until finding a penny in the campus parking lot.
Permian athletic trainer Randel Vaughn, who served as the head student trainer in 1999, said McCanlies would give the head student trainer score predictions on the Thursday before every game. Vaughn said the predictions had to be kept secret until after the games, and he said McCanlies’ estimates were accurate more often than not.
Vaughn said McCanlies also had an unusual habit while watching football practices. When he asked the trainers to bring him a cup of water, he asked that they put a bug in it first.
“He’d drink it down, too,” Vaughn said. “He wouldn’t think anything about it.”
His friends and former pupils and co-workers said McCanlies, a lifelong bachelor, had many other quirks and atypical interests. Former Odessa High baseball coach J.E. Pressly, the namesake of the Bronchos’ field, said McCanlies had an uncanny command of the English language and was quick to correct spelling and grammar mistakes made by his students.
Pressly also said he and McCanlies made a habit of sitting together during Permian-Odessa High baseball games, but only the ones played on the Permian campus. When the teams played at Odessa High, Pressly said McCanlies insisted on sitting on the Permian side of the bleachers.
Leldon Hensley, who was part of the coaching contingent that came to Permian from Borger along with Mayfield and McCanlies, said McCanlies was a huge fan of the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Tech and Howard Payne but never liked Notre Dame because he thought the Fighting Irish were perpetually overrated. McCanlies also had a copy of every painting done by Texas-based artist Larry Dyke, one of McCanlies’ players at Borger in the early 1960s.
McCanlies liked to sing, too, and he bellowed his baritone in church, in class, in the fieldhouse, wherever.
“We could never get him into a choir, but he could sing and sing very well,” Hensley said. “Even in his classroom, he occasionally would break out in a little diddy of some sort. Even these last few years, when he’d been in a nursing home or convalescent homes, he would entertain people by singing. If he found someone to play piano, he’d sing for the little old ladies over there.”
Dyke and Knott said McCanlies sang to a different tune than most coaches. Knott said that while commanding respect from his players, McCanlies was more of a nurturer than a disciplinarian and made players feel important by looking them in the eyes and remembering their names.
Dyke said McCanlies liked to start trivia games, including “Name That Tune,” on bus trips.
“He was very caring and sweet-natured,” Dyke said. “He wasn’t the typical prototype coach. He was somewhat of an intellectual.”
McCanlies endeared himself to his fellow coaches as well. He became good friends with Pressly even though the two men never coached together or against each other, attending church together and talking baseball as often as they could, and Hensley said McCanlies was a mentor to him early in his coaching career.
McCanlies also was a friend and mentor to John Wilkins, the winningest coach in Permian football history, and he literally took Wilkins in when he first moved to Odessa in the spring of 1971.
Wilkins said he slept on a cot in the coaches’ office his first night in town, which was a Sunday preceding the start of a school week, but didn’t get much sleep at all. So McCanlies offered Wilkins a spot on the couch in his apartment, and Wilkins said he stayed there five or six weeks before finding a place of his own.
“He was one of a kind, really,” Wilkins said. “Just a great person, a great man, a great coach, all those things.”
Above all else, McCanlies was a Permian Panther. And from the time he arrived in the mid-1960s until his health started to decline in recent years, he was on campus as a coach, teacher or fan.
Faught said McCanlies liked to park next to a portable building near the Permian Fieldhouse — it wasn’t officially a parking spot — and she said the side of the building still has some scrapes made by his Cadillac.
Faught said McCanlies’ longtime chair in the Permian cafeteria remains as well, with a sign on the back of it instructing people to leave it in its place. Faught said she and the school’s current registrar, Kristy Bandeber, plan to find another chair, paint it black, decorate it with panther paws and attach a commemorative plaque in honor of McCanlies.
That would be a fitting tribute for a man who in 1999 told the Odessa American, “If you were to take me and cut me open, I know what would come out. It would be just a lot of little bitty black Permian Panthers coming out.”
Knott, who at age 48 still cherishes the impact McCanlies had on his life, wouldn’t argue with that assertion.
“I don’t think there’s a person that cared more about Permian High School and Permian football and sports than Gene McCanlies — ever,” Knott said. “He cared about us and what made Permian, the kids. That was his life was being with us.”