When Jake Gilbert took over the North Montgomery football program in 2000 at the young age of 24, he was convinced it would be the only stop he needed to reach his goal of winning a state championship.
How hard could it be? The Chargers had just won a pair of titles in the 1990s.
Much harder than he had planned.
“I thought I would go to North Montgomery and win state championships and found it was a lot harder than I thought,” Gilbert said. “but I enjoyed my time there and cut my teeth. Charley German told me that ‘you’re going to learn everything there is about being a high school coach,’ and he was right, and I’d do it all over again.”
Gilbert spent six seasons at North Montgomery, five as an assistant at Wabash College, where he was an honorable mention All-American as a player in the 1990s, before returning to Friday night lights at Westfield in 2011.
Taking over a struggling program, Gilbert has led the Shamrocks to three state title games in the last eight seasons, winning the IHSAA Class 5A State Title game in 2016. This past season Westfield was the state runner-up in Class 6A, helping Gilbert earn one of the nation’s top coaching awards. In February he was named the 2020 Region 3 Power of Influence Award — an award given by the American Football Coaches Association to five high school football coaches who are recognized for their impact on their team, as well as the legacy they leave with the school and surrounding community.
“It’s something I didn’t see coming,” Gilbert said. “Very humbling, because it’s essentially the highest award you can get as a high school coach. But it’s not solely based on wins. It’s about service and things you’v done in your community. I’m just proud over the years, all these kids that have come through the program not only to make the commitment to be successful as football players, but to make the commitment to serve their community. That’s a big ask for a high school kid. We are just really blessed where we live and we’ve done so many good things in the community. We are maybe known more because we’ve won some games, but I think what the kids have done in the community here is just as amazing.”
His Biggest Influencers
As a player at Ben Davis under legendary coach Dick Dullaghan, Gilbert won a state championship with the Giants — helping form his initial goal of coaching a team to the state title.
“To be honest we were state runner-up in ‘13, state champs in ‘16, and we were state runner-up this past year,” Gilbert said about his success at Westfield. “In 2016 winning that state championship, what people don’t know is that I had woken up for over a decade and my first thought was winning a state championship. That may sound over the top and compulsive, but I’m just being truthful. I was obsessed with getting that done and accomplished. It was a goal that I had not achieved in life, and it was extremely fulfilling. The biggest part was it had been done for me. I had played in a couple state championships and that entire journey was so amazing, and I wanted other people to be able experience that here. These people are so good to me. I wanted them to feel that, and expand their vision for what is possible here. So when that came to fruition it was just fulfillment.”
Dullaghan was first a father-figure for Gilbert in high school and later gave him his first coaching chance as an assistant at his alma mater, where he helped guide them to their third Class 5A state title of the decade in 1999.
““Dick Dullaghan was a real father-figure for me,” Gilbert said. “He was my high school coach and he just really showed me how to inspire confidence in others. How to use football as a tool to make someone’s entire life better. That’s the reason I am a coach, because I wanted to give back in a way that he poured into my life.”
Another pair of coaches who have influenced Gilbert throughout his coaching years are a pair of collegiate coaching household names.
Tom Allen, who in the last two years has led Indiana to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1990-91, was an assistant with Gilbert at Ben Davis and then again at Wabash in 2007. And Chris Creighton, who has guided Eastern Michigan to three bowl games since 2016, gave Gilbert a coaching opportunity at Wabash and ever since has been one of his first phone calls when he’s needed advice.
“Tom Allen and Chris Creighton, those guys just really helped me as a man,” Gilbert said. “When I was learning how to be a Christian man, a good husband and father, but also a great football coach. Because my mindset was different. I wasn’t really raised in a Christian home. I didn’t have a father growing up, so I just didn’t have a vision for either of those things, and I sure the heck didn’t understand how you could be great at those and also be excellent at coaching football. They showed me a different way, which was just instrumental in my life personally, and it’s made all the difference.”
The Coaching Path
Gilbert never gave much thought of being a college coach, but Creighton was building Wabash into a Division III national contender, and so when a job came open on the Little Giants staff in 2005, Gilbert became interested.
“I never wanted to be a college coach, but again Chris Creighton, his teams kicked butt, but he was this great husband, father, and Christian, and I just tought I could learn so much from him,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert interviewed for the job, but Wabash passed. To him it was case closed, he was meant to be a high school coach.
And then a year passed and God had other plans for Gilbert whether he was ready or not. Another job opening at Wabash, only this time Gilbert told Creighton he wasn’t interested.
“The day before the application materials are due, I see the Creightons at a pool with our kids, and he says ‘are you sure you don’t want to apply for this job,’” Gilbert said, before turning in his application on the final day. “Coach Creighton calls me and says you want to come over and talk football. So I go over in jeans and sweatshirt on Christmas break, and we talk O-line play for like an hour straight on the board, and finally I’m like ‘hey am I going to get interviewed for this job or not,’ and he’s like ‘they didn’t tell you?’ and said ‘you did so well last year that they said you didn’t have to go through that again, just if I wanted you as a football coach, I could hire you, so this is the interview.’
“So I interviewed for a job I didn’t even know I was interviewing for, got the job — so that tells you that just when you have a plan God laughs.”
Creighton left for Drake in 2008, and eventually new Little Giants coach Erik Raeuburn promoted Gilbert to defensive coordinator. Overall Wabash posted a 46-10 record in Gilbert’s five seasons on staff.
So then the goal changed to wanting to become a head college coach.
“I had a ton of responsibility during those five years and learned a ton about football and leadership,” Gilbert said. “So then I decided I wanted to be a college head coach, and was only interviewing for college coaching jobs.”
And again God laughed at his plans.
The head job came open at Rose Hulman in Terre Haute, but Gilbert missed the hiring window.
A phone call to Creighton and recruiting trip to Hamilton County later and he landed at Westfield in the spring of 2011.
“We beat DePauw 47-0 that year (2010) and I knew that was my last game at Wabash and that was so special,” Gilbert said. “but then it was getting perplexing, because I am going through these interviewing processes and not getting the job, so I called Chris Creighton and he was like ‘look apply everywhere, and ask God if it’s not meant to be, shut it down, if it is meant to be, take it.’
“I was recruiting for Wabash and recruting at Westfield High School, and low and behold, the next day the head coach (Bo Belden) resigns. So I applied here, and didn’t really put much effort into it and sent my stuff in and of course got an interview. I came over here with a bad attitude, didn’t want this job. The first interview went great and I called my wife on the way home and I was like ‘you’re not going to believe this, but I think I’m going to get this job and I think I’m suppose to take it.’
Gilbert has turned the Shamrock program upside down in the last decade. Westfield is 72-46 over the last 10 years and have won five of their 10 sectional titles under Gilbert, three of their five regional titles, three of their four semi-state titles, and their only state title.
“It’s a big enough place that you can really strive to achieve excellence. We can win a state championship here, but at the same time there’s this level of intimacy here that there’s still a feeling of smallness where people matter and we feel connected. High school matters and it still feels like a town. It’s the best of both worlds, and I really enjoy that.”
Looking Ahead and Reflecting
When Gilbert woke up the day after winning a state title in 2016, his life goals once again began to change.
“The day after we won the state championship, I literally woke up the next day and said ‘well now what?’” he said. “I was prepared to go back to college football or take over a different program and try to build something somewhere else, but at this point I had children and we did not want to leave this community.”
Gilbert had only one other dream in his life, and after a family trip to Washington D.C., he confirmed it was a dream worth chasing.
“The only other dream I’ve really ever had was to be President,” Gilbert said without a chuckle. “So we took a trip as a family to D.C. and I just wanted to feel and confirm like is this ‘real’ and we took that trip and it completely confirmed what I thought.”
In 2019 Gilbert was elected to the Westfield City Council.
His immediate plans are to coach his sons Logan, Jackson, and Tyson at Westfield High School and continue planting roots in Westfield with his wife Christina. But the future? He’s got big plans for that too.
And his past? That decade spent in Crawfordsville, the ups and downs at North Montgomery an all the uncertainty at Wabash — it all played its part in getting Gilbert to where he is today.
“I would just like for the people of Crawfordsville to know the Gilberts are grateful and loved our time there,” he said. “I’ve been on this journey and our years in Crawfordsville were just instrumental in my development personally, our development as a family. We have so many great relationships and friendships from our time there, and I would have never saw it coming, but it was just the best thing for my life. If I had it all over again, I’d do it all again. Crawfordsville was just so good to us. North Montgomery, Wabash, some of the most important things that have happened for me, happened there. I’m just so grateful for those years and all those people. People were so patient with me and so willing to help me, and loving, and believing in us. I was probably treated so much better than I deserved.”