MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Mike Gottfried is called coach by most folk who know him from ESPN and his years on the sideline with college and high school football teams. Now, Gottfried is coaching a new generation of young men about life and choices. He recently shared about Team Focus, his coaching career and his time as a Football Analyst at ESPN.
"When I was a kid in Crestline, Ohio, the most respected man in our community was a coach, Merle Hutson. I looked at him as a perfect man. I know he wasn't perfect, but he would open the car door for his wife, he never swore, he was in church every Sunday, always positive. And everybody said, ‘I want to be like him,' and we all gravitated to coaching," Gottfried recalled.
Gottfried did just that. He became a football coach. He coaches young men to a successful life through Team Focus. It all started with a successful stint as a high school coach in Ohio, which later led to an assistant's job in the college ranks. Three seasons later he got "the call" from Murray State University in Kentucky.
"It was great to be wanted in that capacity. They said, ‘We want you here as the Head Coach.' I was so enthused to be there, and I loved Murray State. I remember going to work the first day, and my wife told me ,'You can't go to work.' They had an ice storm and every road was shut. And I said, ‘I waited for this opportunity, and I'm going to crawl to the office if I have to, but I'm going to get to the office today,'" Gottfried said.
Gottfried was a winner at Murray State, producing two nine win seasons, an Ohio Valley Conference championship and the Racers played in the Division One NCAA semi-finals. His successes led to a job offer at the next level.
The University of Cincinnati where he was once an assistant, asked him to come back as the head guy.
Gottfried remembered, "I had the opportunity to be the head coach at three different schools, Cincinnati, Kansas and Pittsburgh so I was blessed.
It wasn't easy, however. He said, "You start moving up the ladder and it gets a little tougher."
Despite a winning record all four seasons, including two victories over Penn State, Notre Dame, and West Virginia, at his last stop in Pittsburgh, Gottfried was fired after refusing to resign. He said Pitt officials were not satisfied with the Panthers level of success. Although all four of his teams won more games than they lost and received two Bowl game invitations, Pittsburgh was not a top 10 team competing for a national title.
"I would be in church and I would say, ‘Lord, you said you'd give me the desires of my heart, and the desires of my heart are to go back and coach and prove Pittsburgh wrong.' A job would open, and they'd look at me, and I would decide I don't want to be there or they'd decide, ‘we're going to have another guy,'" said Gottfried, reflecting on one reason his coaching career came to an end.
As Gottfried waited for the right opportunity, he said another door opened. ESPN called looking for a college football analyst and color commentator.
"I never figured I would ever do that. I killed the Kings English, and I didn't know anything about television. Early in our conversations they said, ‘Are you going to be able to criticize your fellow coaches?' I said, ‘No, I'm not going to criticize them, but I'll tell you what they're thinking.' I think at one time they were thinking, ‘We don't need to hire him.' But I told them I would take a different approach. I enjoyed that fact that I could get to see the practices and coaches, and the games, and I enjoyed being a part of the broadcast team," said Gottfried.
A move to Mobile reunited him with his older brother Joe, who was at that time South Alabama's Athletic Director. Johnny, the youngest brother joined them here on the gulf coast in 1995 after their mom's death. Like their Ohio home, the Port City became a special place for the Gottfried men.
"I thought to myself, ‘Lord I asked you for the desires of my heart, and you gave it to me.' Being around my brothers and my family was a blessing, and I got 12 years with Johnny and Joe here together. So he did answer my prayer," Gottfried said.
In 1999, Gottfried used his great football and television contacts to co-found Mobile's "second" college football bowl game, now called the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
He credits his older brother Joe for being a great supporter after their father died in 1956. Gottfried, however, said he has never forgotten the void it left. A few years ago, his wife encouraged him to work with fatherless boys. In 2001, Team Focus was birthed and became that vehicle.
"We want to walk with them in life, starting when they're 8 years old, 9 years old, they're 10 years old, and be able to answer some questions," said Gottfried. "Some I can't answer, but I can be there. When my father died when I was 11, there were so many things I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to speak to a teacher about a grade. I didn't know how to tie a tie. We put motivational speakers and caring
people in front of them. We talk to them about being a good teammate at home, how to get a job, how you can be a good employee, have manners, and about grooming.
Team Focus is now mentoring boys in 10 cities nationally. Top coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer just to name a couple, see the programs value. They help in fundraising and share with the young men as motivational speakers.
"We've seen so many boys, young men, come through this program. I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing these young guys get bigger, grow and get smarter. I started Team Focus with the idea it would be one year, but here we are in our 13th year. So it's been very rewarding, but very challenging. When you talk about legacy, I guess I'm in the return phase of my life, an opportunity for me that's more important than anything I ever did before. I think it's what I'm supposed to be doing," Gottfried said.
Since beginning in 2001, he said Team Focus has successfully provided mentoring and academic tutoring to more than 3,000 boys and young men.
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