Former OU bands director Gene Thrailkill died Wednesday, leaving a lasting impact on the Pride of Oklahoma — which he directed for 30 years — as its “father figure.”
Thrailkill, known among his students as “Coach,” taught at OU from 1971 until he retired on April 18, 2001. Known for his encouraging character and love for his students, current Pride of Oklahoma Director Brian Britt said he learned a lot from Thrailkill, who inspired his career as a band director.
“As an undergraduate student, I really benefited greatly from Coach's leadership — just the high standards that he had for us in terms of our conduct and also our performance level,” Britt said. “Always remembering that we represented the University of Oklahoma in everything that we said and did was a really strong guiding principle. I was really fortunate that he saw something in me as a performer and as an educator — that he pushed and encouraged (me). That has had a lot to do with the trajectory of my career.”
Current members of the OU community responded on Twitter after learning of Thrailkill’s death, including David Surratt, the vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, who wrote he hopes the former director will rest in peace.
RIP to former @OU_ThePRIDE Dir. Gene Thrailkill. I wasn’t in band but my wife was among the last students under his charge. She told me abt his passion, kindness, & intensity & said “He knew everyone’s name & was just the best” Game ball in heaven goes to you “Coach” @UofOklahoma pic.twitter.com/YGIFEoQBtB— Dr. David Surratt (@DrDavidSurratt) November 11, 2021
Throughout his time at OU, Thrailkill was responsible for encouraging growth in the Pride by taking an active interest in everyone — “not just as a band,” but as individuals, Britt said.
“He always took great care of the students by making sure that their basic needs were met, they were safe, they traveled, that they had good experiences and that they were proud of what they did,” Britt said. “And, in doing that, your retention numbers go up. And when your retention numbers go up, the quality of your performances go up, and you start to attract more people.”
Thrailkill was responsible for transitioning the Pride into a new show design that concentrated on modernizing the band's sound. He also led the Pride to earn numerous awards, including the Sudler Trophy, which recognizes the band as one of the top programs in the country.
One of the largest accomplishments that occurred under Thrailkill’s leadership was during the Oct. 15, 1983, Oklahoma State football game. The Sooners were down with a score of 3-20, and even after being asked to leave the stadium for not having a sideline pass, Thrailkill told the Pride to keep playing OU’s fight song, “Boomer Sooner,” until the team was ahead.
The Sooners won with a score of 21-20, and, the following Monday, Switzer awarded the band with the game ball that included crimson lettering reading, “The Day the Pride Won.” Britt said this was “a product of Gene’s leadership and his ‘Never Say Die’ attitude.”
“His influence still lives on in the culture of the band program today, as well as in the legacy of the thousands of students that graduated from here that are now proud OU alumni,” Britt said. “Whether they're an astrophysicist, or a teacher, or a doctor or whatever else, they take those core values and make where they are a better place because of Mr. Thrailkill’s leadership.”
The memory of Thrailkill’s leadership and character lives on in his students and the foundation he built for future generations of the Pride, Britt said.
“He was a larger-than-life figure,” Britt said. “Just one of the most energetic people you'd ever meet. … He always sounded like he was out on the football field teaching, and he just filled up a room with energy. He always had the ability to make everybody in the band feel like they were the most important person in that band, and he knew who we were as people. He cared about us.”