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Dad's lessons carry on to shape 
GBS tennis coach Gilbert's acumen
By Bill McLean

Scott Gilbert hasn’t had to upsize his house in Highland Park to provide room for his sizeable collection of sports jerseys -- but it’s early.

Gilbert, the longtime assistant boys varsity tennis coach at Lake Forest and the recently named assistant girls varsity tennis coach/head girls freshman tennis coach at Glenbrook South, is in only Year 11 of amassing the uniform tops.

His closet-bursting collection is near or at 400.

And counting.

“Walter Payton’s 34,” Gilbert, 52, said of his favorite jersey nearly 35 years after he and his father, Earl, traveled to New Orleans to witness Payton and the Chicago Bears wear out the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

Earl Gilbert adored Willie Mays, whose number 24 San Francisco Giants jersey hangs inside Gilbert’s abode.

Earl died when Scott was only 20.

“I think of my dad every time I see that Willie Mays jersey,” Gilbert said. “He was a big sports enthusiast, like I was as a kid and still am. We’d go to every White Sox Sunday home games. I’ll never forget attending Sox games against the Orioles and watching Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray play. We also had season tickets to Bears home games.

“I idolized my dad, a great, great guy,” the special education teacher added. “I hung on to every word he said.”

What Earl Gilbert uttered to Scott Gilbert after the final of a tennis tournament some 40 years ago jolted — and transformed, significantly — the son. Scott, seeded outside the top two in a 12-and-under singles draw, had reached the championship match that day.

“I worked hard when I practiced and played,” said Gilbert, a 1985 Highland Park graduate. “But I also was red-headed and kind of a pistol; I had a temper. I really wanted to win that match. Second set, near the end, I started to get upset, to unravel. My dad was watching.”

During the third and deciding set, Scott noticed his dad no longer was watching. Scott lost the match and joined Earl for the ride home.

“My dad told me in the car that he had to walk away in the second set,” Gilbert recalled. “He said, ‘I’m not proud of the way you acted. You were a discredit to yourself, to your family, to the sport you love so much.’ ”

Scott couldn’t play the sport he loved so much for the next two weeks; Earl had seized his son’s rackets.

“I suffered for those two weeks; I was bored,” Gilbert said. “But I understood. I respected what my dad did and why he did it. I realized how important good sportsmanship was to him, and I realized it’s a privilege to be out there, competing on a court.

“That was a big moment in tennis for me.”

Exemplary sportsmanship still means the world to Gilbert: means more than a scorching down-the-line passing shot does; means more than a blistering ace on match point does.

Just ask any of his players, past and present.

“Coach Gilbert emphasizes character and character development during tennis seasons,” said 2019 Lake Forest graduate and rising University of Wisconsin sophomore Will Zordani, who played club tennis in Madison last year. “He cares more about you as a person than he does about you as a tennis player.

“The coolest thing about him,” Zordani added, “is his commitment to getting together with Lake Forest tennis alumni in the summers. He hits with us, dines with us, hangs out with us.”

The number of mentees in Gilbert’s professional career, in the classroom and in tennis circles combined? That figure lapped his current number of sports jerseys years ago.

Two of his major tennis mentors: Bill Lange and Corky Leighton. Gilbert, who played varsity tennis and soccer in his prep years, has worked with Lange at New Trier and Glenbrook South, and rarely a week in the summertime goes by without the two of them meeting at a court to drill and reduce tennis balls to bald spheres. Gilbert has known Leighton — Lake Forest’s boys varsity tennis coach since 2000 — since battling as a feisty entrant in Chicago District Tennis Association junior tourneys.

“Bill and Corky aren’t just Hall of Fame tennis coaches,” Gilbert said. “They’re also Hall of Fame guys. You’re not going to find a more positive teacher of the game than Bill. I’m amazed how effective he is around players of all ages and abilities. Corky has done more in tennis than any one I know. Only a handful of guys have made a difference in North Shore tennis the way that Corky has; I’d put Rod Schroeder in that handful, too. Corky relates so well to people. He accepts people for who they are, never trying to change them. He adapts well to personalities.”

Gilbert majored in finance at Indiana University and later toiled in banking sales for a few years. But something was missing each year. That something was satisfaction. His mother, Barbara, had served as a school principal and special ed teacher. Scott volunteered at the Northern Suburban Special Education District.

“Right away I liked working with kids,” Gilbert said. “And I’d known, for some time, that I wanted to do something that included sports. Teaching excited me.

“I knew coaching would be just as satisfying.”

Gilbert taught special ed at Mundelein from 1995-2002 and coached the Mustangs’ varsity girls tennis team for six seasons and the school’s varsity boys tennis squad for five.

LF hired him next. If Gilbert appears particularly jacked up these days it’s because of his new gig at GBS. The Titans’ netters tied for sixth place at the Class AA girls tennis state meet under coach Meg Ahlgrim last year. Five of South’s six state qualifiers return this fall.

“Meg is doing a great job with an up-and-coming program,” Gilbert said. “Meg is a go-getter. Lots of positive energy from her and the players during summer camp. I could not be happier than I am about the direction of the program. The kids, you should hear them. After drills they say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ They like instruction, and they want to get better.”

Gilbert, the left back in soccer at HP, worked diligently on becoming a better left-footed booter. Gilbert, the tennis coach, taught himself to serve with his non-dominant hand (left) to help his left-handed players hone their deliveries.

“I’m not blessed with a special ability,” Gilbert claimed. “But I am blessed with a strong work ethic and humility. I’m truly lucky to be able to do what I do.”

His sense of humor helps him connect, indelibly, with his charges. Time with Gilbert at a Lake Forest lunch table is usually Open Mic Night hilarious — minus the mic.

“I love giving my guys a hard time, in a fun way, always in a fun way,” Gilbert said. “One day I noticed a guy with a bad haircut and told him, ‘How in the world are you going to get anybody to go to prom with you?’ Another guy was wearing clothes I wasn’t wild about it, and I told his buddies, ‘Come on, guys, why aren’t you helping him?’ ”

Married to his second wife, Tami, for 10 years, Gilbert is a father of three: recent University of Illinois graduate Evan; University of Iowa sociology major and club tennis player Erin; and Ivan, a junior-to-be at HP.

Gilbert accompanied Evan to a major MLB game in Chicago not too long ago. But it wasn’t staged at the home of the White Sox. See, Evan is huge Cubs fan. Lifelong Sox fan Scott Gilbert treated his eldest to a Wrigley Field seat for Game 3 of the 2016 World Series.

A World Series game hadn’t been played there since 1945.

“The look my son had as we stood there, waiting to enter Wrigley, was one I’ll remember forever,” Gilbert said. “Happy, so happy, and I’d never seen him that excited.”

It was a look that must have mirrored the one a certain son expressed near a certain father at least 236 times at old Comiskey Park in the 1980s.
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