Lakewood Man Making Big Impact In Cleveland Sports

Joe Gilbert, center, poses with John Marshall football coach Terrance Cleggett at the June 6 football field groundbreaking.   

The world is often described in terms of the “haves” and the “have nots.” In the realm of Cleveland area high school sports, there is also a third category. The “haves”; the “have nots”; and then the Senate League. The conference is comprised entirely of Cleveland Municipal Schools. Despite the presence of a few high profile programs like Glenville football, most of these schools are in a constant struggle to overcome financial and historical hurdles to success. Small rosters, lack of facilities, outdated equipment, and meager alumni support are among the challenges they face.

Despite those odds, one Lakewood man decided to accept the Athletic Director position at John Marshall High School, located just two and half miles south of Lakewood High on West 140th Street. Joe Gilbert, a 29-year teacher in the district, answered the call in 2015. “I have long thought Marshall was a ‘sleeping giant’,” says Gilbert, who previously served as AD at Riverside Elementary in Cleveland. Gilbert, known for his easy smile and positive attitude, has tackled the job with the enthusiasm of a street-corner preacher.  Every day of the week he is busy doing something for the program…whether attending games, meeting with local businesses, or contacting other schools to schedule games. 

Located in West Park, historically one of Cleveland’s best neighborhoods, the school had decades of athletic success before a downturn in recent decades. The Lawyers won state championships in boy’s cross country in 1960 and 1964. The school’s wrestling program, under the direction of longtime head coach Gene Gibbons, won the state championship in 1961. One of Gibbons’ disciples, Howard Ferguson, went on to build the wrestling dynasty at St. Edward. In more recent times, Marshall won the boys track and field state title in 1991 and 1992. They also had the consistently strongest football program in the Senate League during the 1980s and early 1990s.  

The program had eroded so badly that Gilbert knew he needed to change the entire culture. “We want to be different,” says Gilbert, who is instilling a sense of hard work and the will to excel. “I do not compare to Senate Schools. I want more.”  His lofty goals were immediately challenged by the harsh realities of Senate League athletics. His largest immediate problem was (and remains) funding. The program is hampered by a shoestring budget assigned by the school district. Unlike most private or suburban schools, there was a lack of alumni, community, and parent involvement. Attendance at events was very low, and there were no booster groups to raise additional funds. 

Despite the obstacles, Gilbert has had many off-field accomplishments since his arrival. He hired many new coaches, reached out to the local business community to promote the school, and has seen the launch of a booster club. He’s working with parents and alumni to further strengthen the team’s attendance and funding.

Major capital improvements are driving a lot of the new energy around the program. Similar to many parts of the LHS building, John Marshall was razed and rebuilt in the past few years. The new athletic facilities include a sparkling new gym, a weight room, and even a practice court. These facilities boosted basketball attendance last year, and have given the kids on the team something to be excited about. Earlier this month another major capital upgrade started. The Cleveland Browns came to campus on June 6 for the groundbreaking of a new football field.

The former John Marshall stadium was once a hub of neighborhood activity. Not only did it host Friday night Lawyer games, but it hosted many other sports and schools. St. Ignatius football coach Chuck Kyle, one of many dignitaries at the groundbreaking, played many home games on the old field while he was a student at St. Ignatius. “I still have dreams about playing games here," he recalled before the ceremony. Gilbert expects the new field to become a magnet for community activity just as the old one was. There are plans for soccer, track, and football among other things.

The Lawyers are also making strides in competition since Gilbert’s arrival. The wrestling program won the City Championship this past season, as did the girls tennis team. The school finished second in the Senate League in soccer and golf, and the softball team made it to the Senate League title game at Cleveland State.

Another part of the program’s elevated goals under Gilbert has been more aggressive nonconference scheduling. For example, the boys hoops team played at both St. Edward and St. Ignatius last season. St. Edward and Lakewood hoops are both traveling to John Marshall’s new gym this upcoming season. Gilbert is especially excited about the Rangers’ visit. He would like to build a rivalry with Lakewood High School, particularly in football. John Marshall’s football team, which has over 50 players working out this offseason, has been steadily improving under Head Coach Terrance Cleggett. Gilbert believes that his team would be a good matchup for the Rangers, and could become an annual tradition.

Mike Deneen

Mike Deneen has extensive experience covering sports and community stories for the Lakewood Observer. Mike has been a Senior Industry Analyst for the Freedonia Group in Cleveland, Ohio, since 1998. He has appeared on CNBC’s Closing Bell, NPR’s MarketPlace and has been quoted multiple times in The Wall Street Journal. He has made multiple guest appearances on ESPN Cleveland radio. Mike also writes for Inside Northwestern, a website that covers Northwestern Wildcat Athletics. You can reach him on Twitter at @MikeDeneen1 

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 2:48 PM, 06.20.2017