New Hilldale head boys basketball coach Gary Hendrix talks to participants in his day camp this week on campus.  The one-time Fort Gibson head coach was hired at that school’s arch-rival in April.

The point has been driven home since Gary Hendrix arrived over a month ago — not that the veteran coach didn’t know it before hand.

He's on the other side of the area's biggest rivalry.

“It’s different,” he said, mere weeks into his job as Hilldale’s boys basketball coach and in the middle of a junior camp that brought about 25 kids this week. “But kids are kids and they all want to be coached.”

The 64-year-old Hendrix, who graduated from Fort Gibson and coached there from 1986-98 and 2005-17, and in recent years coached at Canadian and Pryor, was named as Hilldale’s coach April 29.

“I was a little leery having spent most of my career at Fort Gibson,” he said Wednesday, “but everyone I’ve met, which has included most of the coaching staff across the board in all sports, have been very welcoming.”

It’s been a slow process putting together his program. His squad was part of a team camp at Fort Gibson earlier this week where his successor and longtime assistant there, Todd Dickerson, holds the reins. There’s also the sharing of athletes with football and baseball and such things as church camps and vacations. 

With seven seniors graduating, and just three incoming seniors in Eric Virgil, Lamarion Burton and Logan Harper, it’ll be a young group with a large number of sophomores.

Athletic director Chad Kirkhart, who played for Hendrix, said in announcing the hire in April he was wanting the kind of discipline Hendrix employed when Kirkhart was a player of his at Fort Gibson. 

Hendrix understands that.

“The expectation is such that we want them to act right, we want them to have good attitudes and represent Hilldale schools, their family and me in a very positive manner,” Hendrix said. “There’s been some hit and miss with numbers. We’ll have to work through that over time, but there’s so much you can do. But they’re still getting to hear my philosophy and they’ve responded well.”

The influx coming from a large sophomore group and a freshman squad that he said reached the conference finals last year have a lot of eyes on them.

“There’s quite a bit of optimism here about their future,” Hendrix said. “They’re young but I think they’ll be competitive this year.”

It’ll be a journey that takes a lot of his players, including all three seniors, through football first, meaning when official practices begin in October, they won’t be present.

“Having so many of them in football through which, here, typically goes to late November — which is great because it’s a great program — we’re looking at basketball as being a long season and what we ultimately want is to play our best in February,” Hendrix said.

At some point, he  will square off at least twice against his former school and assistant. That happened already when he was at Pryor, and his last team there was, ironically, eliminated by the Hornets in the Class 4A Area round.

Dickerson knows his former mentor’s presence on the other end of the court will add an element to the rivalry, even while the two have maintained a friendship and talk basketball often.

“Always a tough game no matter who is coaching,” said Dickerson. Laughing, he added this. “Hopefully, we’re close enough friends that he’ll take it easy on us.”

Hendrix may be on foreign soil, but there’s a bond he’s reminded of any time he leaves the gym and passes the wall plaques honoring the services of his late older brother Don, who led the Hilldale football program from 2002 to his sudden death due to heart complications in 2010, all after the school had three coaches in three seasons previous to him.

“I would not be in the profession I am had it not been for his influence,” Hendrix said. “He was always leading one step ahead, always the guy in the backyard playing baseball, always playing football or basketball and I grew up wanting to compete with the guys who were his friends.

“I see those wall tributes and I think what a great reminder of a guy who was a great example. It reminds me of what was important life because Don had his priorities right.”

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