Goff Navigates The Rugged RoadFeatures
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Greg Goff is quick with a smile and has an infectious laugh. The first year Alabama head coach is an active listener who maintains eye contact with the speaker; a practice which can be a bit unnerving as he drives through Tuscaloosa traffic. Fortunately, I sat beside him, not behind him as we whisked around town in his pickup. We arrived quickly, safely, and the destination was as advertised.
The coach asks many questions and tries to get people to open up, even if in this case the main purpose of this meeting is to interview him. In our two hour conversation, I feel like he may have learned more about me than I did him.
Goff is utterly likable and a natural salesman.
That trait will serve him well as tries to build a winner at a place that knows something about winning; just not at his sport.
The new coach faces a couple of battles in his program building quest at Alabama. One is on the field, where his success as a head coach at his last three stops has to provide hope for a fan base envious of the diamond success shared by the bulk of their SEC brethren. Alabama has not been to Omaha since 1999 and has not hosted a regional since Jim Wells’ squad in 2006. Goff was hired to end both droughts.
The other struggle is cultivating the fan base. The new ballpark is a draw but even with a state of the art facility, the program has lost the buzz to bring in capacity crowds.
An obvious visual for anyone who walks into the stadium during a game is the preponderance of empty seats. The outfield and the top of the grandstands have solid attendance, but the closer you get the field, the more empty seats you find. Those seats are sold but go largely unused.
I walked around the park getting a vibe for the stadium. I noticed ushers shooing away patrons who tried to move mid-game to empty seats closer to the action. There was a high school baseball team in the last section down the left field line. With entire sections bare behind the plate, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gained goodwill if the high school players were encouraged and allowed to relocate to one of the many empty sections closer to the action. Those kids would have bragged to everyone they knew how they were treated at Alabama. And it would have cost nothing.
But this isn’t just an Alabama thing. Fans of other programs have remarked about tickets sold being a much more important metric than actual attendance. The tickets are purchased, often at high premiums pricing out many of the hardcores. Fans wonder if it really matters if the ticket holder shows up as long as he pays?
The empty seats don’t cheer for diving catches, buy popcorn and crackerjacks, or look appealing to recruits on the SEC Network.
In an era where some teenagers are choosing soccer over baseball because they consider our sport “too boring”, finding ways to improve the ballpark experience has to become a greater focus. Getting the ticket-buyers to actually attend the games (or re-allocate the tickets) is another hurdle to cross in Tuscaloosa.
Goff has a big job ahead of him finding players and developing talent to compete in the SEC. Off the field, all indications are he will get some assistance from recently hired Athletic Director Greg Byrne to use the rules to aid some recruiting inequities. Byrne will also be tasked to help create more fan excitement that generates a better atmosphere, which helps recruiting, which helps the product on the field, which helps the donations and in turn the bottom line.
It has to start somewhere.
Goff has a plan
He has won everywhere he has been. It started at Division II Montevallo (Ala.), just 55 miles away from the University of Alabama but thousands of miles away in prestige. Goff had the same approach at Montevallo that he took with him to Campbell and then to Louisiana Tech. Thinking back on those days, Goff knew exactly what he wanted to do even if there was no proof it would result in a trip to the postseason at each stop.
“I think the most important thing is trying to establish some guidelines that I felt were important with our players such as going to class and making an impact in the community,” he explained. “Trying to get them to understand that we need to win on the field and also off the field. When I started at Montevallo, there was a lot of fund raising involved that I don’t have to deal with now. Trying to create that culture, that team approach that nine guys together are a whole lot stronger than a few. We went in there trying to attack it with that mindset. Then again, you attack it with recruiting to find players that fit your system. No matter how good of players you have, if you don’t have the kinds of players who can fit into your system, it is not going to work. We started to find some guys who were athletic and mature and guys that can make a difference with our program.”
After a 26-27 record in his first year as the head coach at Montevallo, Goff went 36-22, 43-18, and 47-17 with postseason appearances in his final two seasons.
Success gets you noticed and Goff received an offer to move to Campbell as the head coach. Some warned him not to take the position, that he should hold out for a better opportunity and not risk failing at a place without a history of success. But he believed in his plan and felt he could carry it with him as he rose through the ranks.
“I remember a couple of people I called who were inside the league and they said, ‘Don’t take this job. This will be your deathbed.’ At one point in year four, I thought it was. God has had a plan. I think I grew a lot with how to handle players. I was a little rough and tough in that I thought I had it all figured out mentality but I was far from it.”
In his first four seasons at Campbell, the success did not come. He went 21-37, 27-24, 28-27, and 17-37. Then the program switched conferences to the Big South from the Atlantic Sun. Goff was growing as a coach and the victory totals surged.
“You have to tweak your plan some,” Goff said. “In Division II, you are not concerned with the APR (Academic Progress Rate). You have to maneuver things a little differently. In Division I, especially at that time the APR was a huge thing. It was tough. You can’t turn your roster over as fast. We tried to get the junior college players and we got some high school guys to filter in. It took us a few years.
“I think each step has allowed me to grow more as a coach. The experiences are different. Living in Buies Creek and asking a young man to play $40,000 a year to go to school, it is a lot of different. You have to be a salesman. At Montevallo, you could recruit those guys and bring them in. At Campbell, you had to sell the education and the opportunity to play at the D1 level. But we couldn’t sell the history. In the program’s history, 31 wins was the most we had ever had. To really get them to buy into our vision. Show them that if you come into our system, we are going to help you become drafted and have a chance to play at the next level.”
And win he did. By the time he left Campbell, it had won over 40 games three consecutive seasons including one year where it won an astounding 49 games. The hardest part about success at a place like Campbell is establishing a winning culture when there has not been one previously. How do you sell recruits that your plan will bear fruit when there is no demonstrated track record?
“You have to believe in it,” Goff stated. “People can see through fakeness. I believe in my heart that we have a great plan and we have great assistants. But the system has always been the same. We are going to play hard. We are going to play aggressive on the bases. We are going to situational hit and adjust with two strikes. We are going to play great defense and pitch. Those are the things I think is a good way to win baseball games and you have to get kids to buy in to that. When you sell that, you have to believe it. I think we tweak it as we go. Good coaches have to adapt. It is not just a certain way to do it. I am a whole lot different than I was ten years ago as the coach at Montevallo.”
After the 2014 season when Campbell made a regional appearance, Goff got a call to become the head coach at Louisiana Tech. Instead of needing five years to get the program turned around and seven to reach the postseason, Goff got the Bulldogs to regional play in year two. While the timing was quick, Goff felt Louisiana Tech was primed for success.
“The biggest thing, coming from Campbell, was adapting and learning the players and understanding players a little bit more. We get it rolling and get some players to visit that we think may have a chance to get at Louisiana Tech. The thing about Louisiana Tech is that it was all there. They have TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students). There is a reason there are always five or six Louisiana teams in regionals every year. You can get the in-state players for very little money. Louisiana Tech was set up in a position where they were trying to increase their enrollment. Any time you have that there are academic ways to attract kids. We could get some guys on some academic scholarships. It was all amazing timing. Tech wasn’t far away. We were able to turn the roster over and bring in some new players. We hit the junior college route again and brought guys in who had the hunger and desire to play at the D1 level.”
Coming to ‘Bama
Last season after Goff’s second Bulldog club finished as the Starkville Regional runner-up, he was contacted by Kentucky and Alabama. Goff told this story about how his interview process transpired to take the Crimson Tide position.
“It was fast. We got done at the Mississippi State Regional in Starkville on Monday. I was very fortunate to get two phone calls on the bus coming home. I don’t take phone calls on the bus so I have two voice mails sitting there. I am listening and there are two administrators in the SEC wanting to know if I am interested in their jobs.
“I am on my way home. I am thinking about end of year meetings and the future of our program at Tech. I thought we have had some success but I never thought, especially that early, that I would have a chance to be a coach in this league, much less Alabama.
“When I got home that evening, I called back and told them I definitely was interested and would like to come over and go through the interview process. I come over and I had no real connection to Alabama. I was here in the state for four years at Montevallo. I never thought that I would be able to get this job that had some tremendous names and tremendous coaches that have been there like Coach Wells and Coach (Barry) Shollenberger. I never felt the timing of it was right. As we went through that process, I never felt it would happen. Then when Coach (Bill) Battle came over and I interviewed early … and I had to wait.
“But I will never forget that night when he called me and asked me to be the next head coach. I just fell to my knees. It was fast. The whole thing took a little over a week – seven to ten days.”
Goff inherited a program that had pitched pretty well but struggled offensively. He had a sparkling, new ballpark and an athletic department flush with cash from their football success. While Goff was surprised that he was able to parlay those two years at Louisiana Tech into this kind of position, the 46-year old Jackson, Tenn., native was confident his approach would win in the SEC.
He immediately filled his staff. Terry Rooney left the head coaching position at Central Florida to become his pitching coach and associate head coach. Jake Wells moved in as the hitting coach and Derek Simmons left a full-time position at Kennesaw State to be the volunteer assistant at Alabama.
“I think that was number one, to get a staff that would come in here and be knowledgeable, loyal, and get in the trenches and grind it out. That recruiting class is already done. We just needed to evaluate in the fall and see what the talent level was and what needs to go after.”
Goff’s reputation for flipping the roster and reliance on junior college recruiting has some folks speculating how his success at smaller schools would translate to an SEC program. At least initially due to the recruiting cycle, the junior college pipeline may be used extensively at Alabama but long term, the focus is on high school talent. The staff is working tirelessly to attract top talent from both levels. Goff remarked the recruiting process in the SEC is dissimilar to what was done at his prior stops.
“It is a lot different in terms of how far out we are recruiting now,” he explained. “I am offering young men to come to Alabama when they are fifteen years old. That is what the SEC is bringing. You have to be out front in recruiting because if you don’t you will be left behind. Our ’18 class is ranked 21st and our ’19 class is fifth or sixth in the country, so that was the biggest thing.”
“We wanted to get out here within the state and make sure we know the high school coaches. We had to revamp those relationships to make sure we have a handle on the state of Alabama. As you can see, Auburn is getting good players but Mississippi State, LSU, Vanderbilt, they have come in and cherry picked the state. We want to be a solid option for kids in the state. We have some solid high school kids but we also have some junior college players because we felt like we needed an immediate impact. We need some offensive punch. They were last in the league here last year in every offensive category but one. We can help it but we are not magic. We have to get some SEC type physical, athletic hitters in here.”
Goff and his staff are not shying away from the elite talent that the pro scouts covet. They plan to find a way to make the numbers work if they get a pleasant surprise when a top prospect elects to come to school.
“We want to sign them,” Goff said. “We want them to come to Alabama. We want them to know we are not afraid of those kids. I think a lot of coaches are because they are worried about the draft. I think you sign them and then you worry about it later. Make sure you are covered and you may have to over-sign some. Even if you don’t get the player, you have that relationship and others know that you signed them. I think that attracts more of those players.”
“Look at Ole Miss this year. Most think, ‘not all of those kids are going to show’. All of sudden they do and they have the number one recruiting class in the nation. Look at what they are doing. I think you have to gamble some. You better be good and cover yourself but we are going after those kids.”
Goff is staring at a roster without a ton of proven, professional prospects. The Crimson Tide may not be able to match up physically with the elite in the conference this season. In his past stops, he has not been afraid to bring in a large group of newcomers as a talent upgrade. But this season they have what they have, which is a core group of experienced players with some unproven guys around them. Goff is hesitant to throw those inexperienced players to the wolves just to gain experience. He prefers to pick his spots, use a lot of players in different roles, and see who develops with their opportunities.
“There is a fine line,” Goff said. “We have to stay on the journey together. But also, I think winning breeds winning. We have to be careful. We have to remind them that that is why they came here. I think you have to be prepared before the winning happens. We have to make sure they have great practices and don’t get caught up in the wins and losses. We have been in every game so far. We are prepared. We haven’t got the big hit but it is a humbling game. Next thing you know you can win four or five. We want to win but there is a price you have to pay to win forty games a year.
“I want to put the best guys who are going to give us the best chance to win games today. I think that is what my job is, to win games now. But at some point, if things don’t go well you have to play younger players. You see me putting a lot of players in as pinch hitters and things like that. But when I make my lineup out, we put the best nine out there.
“I am a big practice guy. I tell our guys you better like to practice more than you like to play the game. I have had players that aren’t great practice guys and when they show up in games they are great players. You have to manage that. Those guys, when they get in there, they better play well. Because I don’t think you are setting the right statement if you are playing guys who don’t practice hard. You don’t want a lot of those guys. I have seen a lot of kids change from the time they come into a program until the time they left. I’m really proud of that when they develop into men who take care of their business. A lot of that is setting that expectation and allowing them to live up to it.”
The timing of this discussion with Goff came on the heels of a 2-1, 10-inning loss to Jacksonville State where the losing run reached via a walk, advanced on a balk and a wild pitch, and then scored on a wild pitch during an intentional walk. It was a ‘Greek Tragedy’ way to lose, a punch to the gut for a team looking for positives. Goff felt his team has been competitive in games but just struggled to get the clutch hit or the big mound stop to earn the victory.
A few hours after he said those words, his team rallied from a three-run deficit to get a walk-off 4-3 victory over Louisiana-Monroe. While it was not the same as beating an LSU, it was building moment for a team that needed something good to happen. Reliever Brock Love worked a perfect 4.1 innings and struck out ten of the thirteen batters he faced. Hunter Alexander got the game-winning hit to cap the comeback.
“I felt like our guys weren’t just cheering but they were pulling for each other,” Goff said after the victory. “There is a difference. We were really locked in and competitive. I think Brock was really locked in. With his body language, the guys fed off of him.”
“Every win you are going to get more confident, with every good thing that happens,” said Love.
“We practice those situations all the time, every day,” said Hunter Alexander. “Runner on second, hit a ball the other way. We practice that every day so it is like we have been there before.”
“You teach it, you coach it, you just hope that comes out in the game,” Goff added.
Goff continues selling his message; to his players, to fans, to media, and especially recruits. He understands the wins may not come immediately but the foundation for winning can. After all, if he can coax folks on the opportunity at Montevallo, Campbell, and Louisiana Tech, convincing the folks at Alabama to follow his course shouldn’t be that difficult.
Goff is in driver’s seat and headed on his chosen path. He is just looking for trust that he will get the program there quickly, safely, and the destination will be as advertised. And there might even be a little excitement during the journey.