Lone Star Gridiron

Odessa, Permian shining again on Friday nights

ODESSA — On the first morning of practice, Darren Allman counted the boys in white helmets and black shorts. There were enough for an entire league.

The numbers encouraged Allman. The young head coach would begin his fourth season at Odessa Permian High School with systematic depth, inoculating his team with the redundant engineering of a modern aircraft: If one part of the mechanism failed, another mobilized.

Allman's only concern was an enviable one. What was he going to do with 217 football players?

"It is a good problem," Allman said.

These are pleasantly reminiscent times at Permian. Shortly after the publication of "Friday Night Lights," the widely debated book that chronicled the 1988 season and later become a movie, the six-time state champion Panthers slipped into a pattern of irrelevance. They last appeared in a state championship game in 1995.

Then Allman arrived. He was 34 years old when he returned to Permian, where he played safety on the 1984 state champion and 1985 state finalist teams.

Allman barely recognized his inheritance. It was like an empty silhouette, a caricature.

The Panthers won just four games in 2004, the season before Allman moved from Highland Park in Dallas. Permian won five games a year from 2000 to 2002 — five! The Panthers reliably stumbled against district rivals Abilene Cooper and Midland Lee. Few in the West Texas community of 100,000 believed the next season would be much different.

"It's hard to have confidence when you're not winning," Allman said.

A tall, introspective father of three with a soft conversational voice, Allman thought he knew the remedy. He evoked the vintage Permian — teams that drilled like the Marines, ran an offense the players learned in youth-league football and committed few mistakes on Friday nights.

On Oct. 26 last season, Allman remembered the Permian of his youth.

Abilene High charged to a 14-0 lead over Permian in the district title game in Abilene. But at halftime, Permian led by three.

The Panthers won, 28-21. Allman framed a large, aerial photograph of the game. It leans against a wall in his office. Across the room, in another frame, is the story and picture from the next day's Odessa American. "BACK ON TOP," the headline declared.

"That's old Permian, right there," Allman said.

After the Abilene game, people told the coach that the new Panthers looked like the old Panthers, the ones who personified the mythical Permian "mojo," who wore the stark, black "P" on their helmets as if it were a Silver Star.

"We take a lot of pride in that. We really do," Allman said of the comments he heard. "It means something."

'Planting seeds'

Headlights dotted the dark Permian parking lot like fireflies. Players rushed from their pickups and old Fords to the year-old, $1.5 million W.T. "Bill" Edwards Permian All-Sports Facility. They passed the spacious weight room and sat on the artificial turf of the indoor field to stretch.

Throughout Texas, many high school football teams began practicing last Monday. The Panthers started at 7 a.m.

They trotted outside. The morning light was so low that players could barely read the famous billboard, the one motorists on 42nd Street can read if they look to the south:

Permian Panthers.

Undefeated in '72, '80, '81, '84, '89, '91 and '93.

State 5A champions in '65, '72, '80, '84, '89 and '91.

National champions in 1989.

Kelton Smith, a convenience store owner and former president of the booster club, watched the quarterbacks zip footballs to receivers and the line rehearse footwork. He occasionally looked for a particular tight end, but with so many white helmets, black shirts and black shorts, it was hard to locate an individual player, even if he happened to be Smith's own son.

Other spectators milled on the edges. The crowd was light. By this week, when the players are tackling in pads, people in lawn chairs will line the practice field.

"The old timers, they wait till they start hittin'," Smith said.

Smith and a handful of other boosters stood in the sun, discussing the lean years of the mid-1990s and how they believe Permian football is again on the rise.

They noted, for instance, Allman's decision to re-establish the "feeder" system with coaches of teams from junior high down to little league, an arrangement that built those Permian teams of the past.

"When they got up here, they were ready to play," said Smith, a lanky man with gelled hair, jean shorts and wraparound sunglasses.

Players knew the playbook better than they knew where to find their freshman lockers. They'd been running the Panthers' offense since elementary school. Each new football season meant adjustments for the inches they'd grown, the pounds they'd gained and the strength they'd developed through the summer — nothing more. By the first day of practice at Permian, they simply let instinct take over.

"There wasn't any training," Smith said. "It was just polish."

Allman practiced his players until lunchtime. The boys took a break for water and filed into the new weight-training room, where an assistant coach cued AC/DC for a hectic burst of circuit training. The Panthers curled and pressed at each station until sweat pooled on the floor.

Trapper O'Connell, the head trainer, watched from a corner of the room.

The bespectacled O'Connell had seen Permian at its best and worst. He was there for the state titles, and he was there for the 5-5 years, when many season-ticket holders no longer planned their weekend entertainment around kickoff at Ratliff Stadium. They kept their tickets; they respected the line between ambivalence and abandonment. But they found new ways to spend their Friday nights.

"We were in a stalemate," O'Connell said.

For decades, Permian defined high school football outside the five big metropolitan cities in Texas. The Panthers had the players, the coaches, the feeder system, the iconic stadium, the support of the administration and the allegiance of a community that watched the team from steamy afternoon practices in August through chilly playoff games in November and December.

Then, said O'Connell, "the rest of the state caught up to us."

Permian was particularly dominant from 1985 to 1991, a period that included the season chronicled in "Friday Night Lights." That book illustrated the measures — noble sacrifices or misplaced priorities, depending on one's point of view — that the community and the school took to make their team one of the best in Texas, if not the nation.

Those teams were great because teams before them were good, O'Connell said. One championship begot another in the 1970s, from district to regionals to state.

"It was kind of a harvest," O'Connell said of 1985 through 1991.

Now, Permian is digging in the old garden.

"That's what Darren (Allman) is doing," O'Connell said.

"Planting seeds."

A town, team revival

The Panthers practiced Tuesday morning at Ratliff, the hulking community stadium on the eastern fringe of town. The yellow buses that carried the team to the field whined through intersections that for years clogged with cars on Friday nights and, it appears, will again.

They passed the pump jack on the corner of the property. It was working.

The oil and gas industry makes up a fifth of the economy in Odessa, where the latest oil boom has taken unemployment levels to 3.7 percent. Only nearby Midland has a lower rate.

Oil drives 80 percent of the economy, said Gary Vest, the director of economic development for the Odessa Chamber of Commerce. Families are living better than they have in decades.

Roughnecks are making $20 an hour. They can work all the overtime they want. Tool pushers earn $100,000 a year. In the last 69 months, monthly sales-tax revenues have decreased just four times.

The good times keep rolling. The Permian Panthers are expected to win their new district, 2-5A. For the first time in years, they're mentioned in conversations about the Class 5A state championship.

"The quality of the team has always followed the activity in the oil fields," Vest said. "The football team, it's a way of life here."

Early Tuesday morning, over at Ratliff, mechanic Bill Ray sat alone and marveled at his son.

Sherard Ray, a senior running back, likely will lead Permian's ground game this fall. He prepared for the season by trudging to the weight room every morning, a luxury his parents made possible by allowing him to train instead of work a summer job.

Ray gained 22 pounds of muscle, his father said. He hopes to impress certain Big 12 head coaches, which is part of his plan to play seven seasons in the NFL.

"It wasn't hard to keep his interest, even when they (the Panthers) weren't playing well," Bill Ray said. "Because he looked forward to this day."

The Panthers won 12 games last year. They lost one. Ector County schools Athletic Director Leon Fuller — a former defensive coordinator at the University of Texas and the former Austin school district athletic director — pins the credit on Allman, the head coach.

"Darren played here. He knows all the traditions. He lived them and played them," Fuller said.

"You can see it," added Garrett Porter, the Permian senior left tackle who committed in February to Texas. Porter said he and his teammates play for reasons beyond the status that comes with merely wearing the black and white uniform.

"They see it going somewhere," Porter said.

To more district championships. To state titles again. Like it used to be. Like the teams of "Friday Night Lights" and before.

Brian Chavez was a 215-pound tight end on the 1988 team in H.G. Bissinger's book. He later spent a year at Texas, graduated from Harvard and went to law school at Texas Tech. He's now a criminal defense lawyer in Odessa.

Chavez, 37, still watches practices. He goes to Permian games.

His class reunion is next summer. Twenty years, it's been. He hopes to see his former teammates — Don Billingsley, who lives near Dallas; Mike Winchell, the quarterback, who works near the Metroplex; Boobie Miles, the beleaguered running back, who's still in the Permian Basin, Chavez has heard.

They'll talk about that '88 season, when they lost to Dallas Carter in the state semifinals.

And maybe they'll talk about the '08 season, too.

Did Permian get to state again? Did the new Panthers do what the old Panthers did?

"It really is back to the way I remember it," Chavez said.

The lights will shine again in Odessa, he's sure. Bright, on Friday nights.


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

What are your thoughts?