Gary Joseph points toward a bookcase behind his desk in the head football coach’s office at Katy High School. It contains boxes of cards and letters that, he hopes, tell another part of the story of a man who has spent four decades doing something he absolutely loves.
“When it starts to feel like a job, I’ll know it’s time to go,” he said.
This week, the 65-year-old coach will begin his eighteenth season in charge at Katy with hopes of adding to a resume that includes a 227–22 record and five state championships. His Tigers picked up their most recent state title last season, and Joseph’s teams have finished as the runner-up four other times.
In the world of Texas high school football, Katy, a city about thirty miles west of Houston, occupies rarefied air. Katy High School’s nine state championships overall are the second-most in University Interscholastic League football history, trailing only Aledo, which won its tenth last season. (Katy competes in Conference 6A, the level for the state’s largest high schools, while Aledo plays in 5A, Division II.) Joseph has had a hand in eight of those Katy championships, three as an assistant coach and five since taking over the program in 2004.
His players speak of the pressure of fulfilling expectations, something Joseph understands. Before winning that ninth title, a 51–14 victory over Cedar Hill, Joseph’s pregame message to his team was about just that. “We talked about intimidation and big games,” he said. “We talked about not being intimidated by the moment—to seize the moment and enjoy it. I don’t want them to go out there and play so uptight that they couldn’t enjoy it.”
Joseph maintains a singular focus on his job. He doesn’t golf, doesn’t fish, doesn’t bother with hobbies. Even during the summer, he’s in his office most days. And he cherishes those boxes of notes from former players. Those messages are almost never about winning or losing. Instead, they’re about matters perhaps only other coaches or educators can fully understand.
The notes remind him that he’s not just winning, he’s winning a certain way. His players thank him for his consistency and fairness and for focusing on basic values that have served them well in life. One of those is values unselfishness, which is practically an obsession for Joseph. He says Katy’s remarkable success begins right there—with something easy to describe but difficult to achieve.
“We have more than three hundred kids in the program,” he said. “They can’t all play. If you’ve got people unhappy with, say, being on the scout team, you’ve got a problem. But you have to make that young man understand he’s contributing, and that what he’s doing is important. So many people are part of the success we’ve had.”
Last season’s championship, which the team managed to win amid a pandemic that constantly threatened to derail the season, was especially satisfying. When the title game ended, Joseph huddled with his players and told them they’d accomplished something they’re likely to remember for the rest of their lives. “They gave up their social life for six months because of COVID,” he said. “They committed themselves to something that would be difficult enough under the best of circumstances. But when you have to gather your entire team and take the team to be tested for the virus seven times, you’ve got a completely different challenge.”
In the weeks that followed, Joseph hung championship medals arounds the necks of players, band members, and others who contributed to the season. He wanted them all to know their roles hadn’t been overlooked. “Those medals, those rings don’t say anything about whether you were a starter or a backup,” he said. “They said that you contributed. So many people—teachers, our administration, our athletics director—so many had a hand in us winning.
“Everybody is a part of this,” he continued. “Everybody had to sacrifice. No Thanksgiving because we had a game on Saturday. We were practicing Christmas week. But that’s what it takes to be successful. You have to have everybody with you, not just your football kids. Your teachers, principal, athletics director, Katy ISD.”
Now, about those boxes of cards and letters. Last year, just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold of the country, Joseph heard from the father of one of his former players. “Would you mind giving him a call, coach?” the father asked. “He’s struggling right now.”
In the course of a long, emotional conversation—their first in about twenty years—the player, who’d gone on to become a doctor in the New York area, said something that should be the epitaph for every great teacher, coach, and administrator. “I still fall back on some of the things you taught us,” the doctor said.
Gary Joseph will be largely defined by wins and losses, and he’s good with that. Besides, he has done more winning—over 90 percent of his games—than almost anyone.
But nothing gets him going like the conversations about finding value in every single player; about getting each kid to be his best, whatever that best is. “You find out you succeeded in getting to some of them when you hear from them years later,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re surprised by the people you hear from. You had no idea anything you said got through to them. Those are the things that people don’t talk about,” he went on. “It’s the discipline they learn. How to be unselfish. Sacrifice for the betterment of others. Also, winning validates the lessons you try to teach, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Joseph is the living, breathing embodiment of someone completely immersed in coaching. After losses, he and his staff—many of whom have worked for Joseph for nearly two decades—climb the stairs to the football offices and go right back to work, trying to figure out what needs to be fixed. The coach did allow himself a short vacation this summer, when he and his wife, Sheila, attended the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. He was touched by the emotion the inductees expressed, and by how almost no words were powerful enough to express their feelings in that moment.
“I loved what Edgerrin James said: `From gold teeth to a gold jacket,’” he laughed. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
Joseph followed his father, Eddie Joseph, a legend among Texas high school coaches, into the family business, and he’s proud that one of his sons and his son-in-law have become coaches, too. His dad’s 2019 funeral reminded him of the impact these people have on our sons and daughters. “My dad was one of the greatest role models you could ever have, and anyone that knew him will tell you the same thing,” Joseph said. “He was a Christian man, first thing. We were one of those families that went to church every Sunday.
“It was his values and how he treated his kids and how he treated his players that stand out,” he went on. “It was so amazing at his funeral to see some of the people stand up and talk about what he meant to them. He believed in finding value in every kid, and that’s one of the most important things I learned from him. Also, he respected everyone.”
His dad wasn’t right about everything, though. In Joseph’s early years as an assistant coach at Katy, the Tigers reached the state finals. “You better enjoy it,” his dad told him, “because you’ll never be here again.”
Joseph has been to the state finals sixteen times since, including the years he spent as an assistant to Mike Johnston, another Texas legend. “What we do is not easy,” Joseph said. “Katy is circled on everyone’s schedule. This who we are. This is what we’re going to do. I want the expectations. Pressure is self-induced. We just want our kids to do their best, whether that’s on the football field or the classroom or at home with your parents.
“We don’t win because Gary Joseph is a genius. We win because we have kids that have bought into what we’re doing. People say we’re old-fashioned. I guess we are. I want our kids to do what they’re capable of doing. If they’re not capable of doing something, we’ve got to figure out what they’re capable of doing and help them be successful. That’s what we as coaches are supposed to do.”
Close to twenty years into his head coaching career—and with almost 230 wins to choose from—Joseph has trouble pinpointing a victory or handful of victories that stand out. “It’s a sad thing, but it’s the ones you didn’t win you remember,” he admitted. “We lost in the finals in 2013 and 2014, and you keep thinking back to what you could have done differently. Did we prepare our kids well enough?”
He mentions a 47–0 regular-season loss to The Woodlands in 2008. “One of the few times we’ve been beaten that badly,” he said. “We had a week off and just sort of did a reset on the program.”
That strange season would end with a state championship. Later, Joseph asked his kids how they’d gone from being so bad on one Friday night to winning a state championship. His players told him they became “afraid to lose.” Or to put it another way, they refused to lose. “We practiced, and practiced hard,” Joseph recalled. “But it wasn’t just that. It was the approach we took at practice that we were going to get good at something. Those kids just got better and better. You can’t be afraid of being good. You can’t be afraid of being unsuccessful.”
I wondered how much the X’s and O’s of Katy football had changed since 2004, his first season as head coach. Not much, it turns out. “You’d be shocked at how similar it is,” he said. “Our base foundation hasn’t changed much. We’ve tweaked a lot of things because the game has changed. But we’re doing a lot of the same things.”
This season, Joseph is selling the possibility of back-to-back championships for the Tigers. “We’ve done that only once,” he said. “We’ve gone back-to-back-to-back [making it to] the state finals, but we’ve won two in a row only once.”
I remind him that his is an embarrassment of riches; that most coaches would be happy with one state championship, much less five. He’s not most coaches. “We have a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” he said.
The Tigers return eleven starters, including quarterback Caleb Koger and star running back Seth Davis, who rushed for 123 yards in January’s state championship game. Katy’s defense is dotted with Division I college talent, including linebacker Ty Kana (committed to USC), defensive back Bobby Taylor (committed to Texas A&M), and pass rusher Malick Sylla (another future Aggie).
“We’ve started off after winning a state championship and haven’t played well,” Joseph said, acknowledging that teams can become complacent after reaching the top. “But then the kids put in the work and realize there’s no right of entitlement. Your kids have to buy into what you’re doing. And it’s not for everybody.”
The Tigers’ season begins tonight in Katy against Clear Springs High School.