Goff leaves TU, but leaves a positive mark
Gary Goff got an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
The Tiffin University football coach resigned last Friday to take the head coaching job at Valdosta State. It’s not only Goff’s alma mater — he was a wide receiver and captain for the Blazers in the mid-90s — but it’s also the Division II national champions.
“I’m very, very fortunate to come back,” Goff told me the night his move was announced. “Obviously, there are expectations to do it all again, but that’s why we get in this profession.”
And so, Goff’s tenure as Tiffin’s coach ended with him taking the division’s best job, eight years after taking what — at the time — was one of the worst.
As the primary beat reporter for the Dragons, I got the chance to know the coach pretty well.
He always had a sense of humor. One time, during an interview, Goff told me that he wasn’t sure whether his quarterback was going to start that Saturday.
But he was grinning and shaking his head ‘no’ as he said it.
He believed in things that went beyond football. When he arrived as Tiffin University’s new football coach, he took over a program that had won just twice in three years.
But it was actually in worse shape than that.
“The first year, he cut, I believe, 38 of our players and started bringing in his own program guys, and developed a staff that had his beliefs, and his backing,” Tiffin Athletic Director Lonny Allen said Saturday.
Goff was about football. Be he also wanted — needed, actually — the right type of guys.
“It’s all about recruiting and developing leaders, and making sure you’ve got the right character in your program,” he said, “because ultimately, that’s going to show.”
But what I will remember most about Goff is his toughness. This past year, I called him for an interview about an upcoming game.
The coach didn’t call back for some time. When he did, he gave the interview, but sounded exhausted.
Only later did I find out he was calling me from a hospital bed. He had an illness that didn’t allow him to attend the game; he had to watch a streaming version from his room. For the next two weeks, a recovering Goff had to watch the game from the media box.
Somehow, the Dragons won all three games — all of which were on the road.
“You don’t have a choice, you have to find a way to get through it,” he said.
Goff was asked, but didn’t directly answer, whether getting through the illness was tougher than his first season.
He had patience and he had faith. Enough to endure an 0-11 season in his debut year.
At the time, the coach seemed unflappable.
But he said that wasn’t the case.
“Every night I’d come home, and my wife had done her research, and would tell me ‘Hey, look, Mack Brown, he didn’t win a game in his first year at North Carolina … you’re still gonna be a great coach.’ She saved me from getting on the train tracks and walking into the bright light that first year.”
In the short version of Goff’s Tiffin tenure, he took a team that was 0-11 and turned it into a nationally-ranked program by the time he left.
But it wasn’t like the next few seasons were easy, either.
“It was a great opportunity for me when I came there, to be a part of the building process,” said Seth Duerr, who served as Goff’s defensive coordinator for two seasons in the early part of his tenure. “I thought that we were doing some good things. Gary had to really clean the program up when he first got there, and so we felt like we were making some strides forward.”
Anyone watching could see the Dragons were getting better. But the results weren’t there. The Dragons went 3-8 in back-to-back seasons, Goff’s second and third.
“Everybody thinks they’re ready to become a head coach, and then, once you become a head coach, you realize you’re not quite ready,” Goff said. “There’s a lot you’ve got to learn.”
Here, Allen and the Tiffin leadership deserve credit.
Every program — from high school to the pros — says it will be patient on a rebuilding project. But few actually follow through.
Allen and the TU leadership gave Goff and his staff time to turn things around.
Bringing in quarterback Antonio Pipkin helped. The future CFL starter was on the field in 2014 when the Dragons recorded what Goff said may have been his best moment as coach:
A 28-17 win at Saginaw Valley State.
It was not only Goff’s first Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference win, but it was a road victory against a team that was ranked in the top 25.
“We weren’t very good back then, to be honest,” Goff said. “We coached really hard about being the most excited team on the field, worrying about doing your job, one play at a time.”
The coach didn’t try to hide the jubilation that came after the victory. When I called him for postgame comments, he didn’t even say hello.
“Did you see it?”
“And we kind of threw a party on the sideline that entire night,” Goff said. “I felt like that was the first time we really taught these young men how to win. I think that really started the success.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it was the turning point.
Pipkin threw for 229 yards and a touchdown that night. But he also had help from tailback Jerry Brown, a McComb graduate who went for 75 yards and a score. And receiver Jalen Santoro — a star quarterback at Bellevue who a year prior had led the Redmen to a state final appearance — also saw the field.
It was part of something that Goff had focused on: recruiting in this region.
“I knew when I took the job, there was not a lot of people on the roster that were from right there in our backyard,” Goff said. “It was filled with people from California, from Arizona, from Kansas — all over — but there just wasn’t that many high school kids from right there. I think it helped us set the foundation for the future.”
Goff always had players from this area on the roster, whether it was Carey receiver Gavin Woods or Columbian quarterback Todd Simonds. He also brought in former Columbian coach, Hall of Famer Steve Gilbert, as an assistant.
Goff said the impact of having a regional outlook goes beyond the field.
“I tell Jerry Brown and Santoro and those guys all the time that they were the class that really started the chain reaction,” he said. “Jerry Brown was the guy who would run through a wall for ya, and then ask you if it was good enough. Santoro was exactly what you want every player to be. He was tough, hard-nosed, would never give in, and then fought to the very end. I think (area recruiting) is important. You want people in the stands, you want families involved.”
The Dragons went 10-12 over the 2014-15 seasons.
But real success was coming. With Pipkin, receiver Charles Holland and running backs JaQuan Hardy and Kyle Brunson pacing the offense, and defenders like Daijohn Isbell and Jacob Williams, Tiffin has had three straight winning seasons. It went 9-2 this past year, with quarterback Nick Watson stepping into a primary role.
Goff said that recently, Brown told him he was glad he wasn’t playing football anymore.
The coach was stunned. Brown was — after all — one of his favorite players. He asked why.
“He said, ‘Because, I could never play over JaQuan (Hardy) and Kyle Brunson,'” Goff recalled.
The 2019 Dragons will have new leadership. Duerr, who returned to the program as an assistant last month after five seasons as the head coach at Beloit College, was named interim coach.
Duerr said he has two goals in his new position. One has to do with recruiting.
“We’ve had some really talented young men commit already, but obviously when this happens, there’s a shakeup that leaves doubt in some kids and some families’ minds,” he said. “And (we) just try to let them know that, ‘look, nothing’s gonna change. The program’s in great shape, and there’s a really solid staff here that’s continuing to do the work in the right way and there’s a great team here.
“But then also, developing the trust of the team just to keep those guys hanging in there and working hard.”
Last week, Allen said there would be a thorough, national search. But he also didn’t rule out that the new coach could be an internal selection.
Duerr said he’d like to be considered for the permanent coaching job.
“That’s my goal, I’d like to be … take this interim tag away and be the head coach here,” he said. “I think it’s a great job. But it will be a very sought-after job.”
Maybe that’s Goff’s greatest accomplishment: Turning the program into a destination point.
“They’re gonna be fine there in Tiffin,” he said. “They’ll be fine for many years to come, and it should be a great situation for the next guy coming in there.”
That’s the mark Goff has left.
It’s a good one.
Zach Baker is the sports editor at The Advertiser-Tribune.
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