Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Remembering Jack Gotta

Jack Gotta was coach of the Calgary Stampeders from
1977 to 1979, and again for 1982 and 1983.
He died on June 29. He was 83.
You always remember your first. He was dynamic, outgoing, charming, and an excellent football coach.

Recently, I heard that Jack Gotta died. He coached the Calgary Stampeders when I started watching football, and he will also hold a special place in my heart.

In any other time, or even the Eastern Division, he would have been to a bunch of Grey Cups. He coached the second best team in the CFL. The problem was the team in front of him may have been the greatest in history – and they never let him forget it.

The resumé
Jack Gotta took over a team that had finished dead last in the Western Conference in 1976 with a record of 2-12-2. They fired coach Bob Baker part way through the season, replacing him with interim coach Joe Tiller.

However, Calgary chose to go in a different direction, hiring Gotta who had a solid resumé. He had played tight end and defensive back with the Stampeders from 1956 to 1959, and was a western all-star end and defensive back in 1957, and a western all-star defensive back in 1958. From 1960 to 1964 he played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he was a western all-star end in 1961. He finished his playing career with the Montreal Alouettes in 1964.

He quickly moved into the coaching ranks, joining Saskatchewan as an assistant in 1965, then after the 1967 season he joined the Ottawa Rough Riders as an assistant under CFL legend Frank Clair. Gotta replaced Clair who retired in 1970. That first season of 1970 the Rough Riders went from first to last place, finishing with a record of 4-10. In 1971, Ottawa improved to 6-8, good enough for third place and a playoff berth, which they lost to Hamilton.

The turn around came in 1972, when Ottawa finished tied for first with Hamilton in the East, with a record of 11-3, but Hamilton took first on a tie breaker. The Rough Riders beat Montreal in the Eastern Semi-final, setting up a showdown with the Tiger-Cats in a two-game total-point Eastern Final. Ottawa won the first game 19-7, but lost the second game 23-8, giving Hamilton the Eastern championship by a combined score of 30-27. Gotta was awarded the Annis Stukus Trophy as CFL coach of the year for 1972.

The 1973 season would be Gotta's last in Ottawa, and the CFL for awhile, and it could not have been better. Ottawa finished first in the East with a 9-5 record, then beat Montreal in the sudden-death Eastern Final by a score of 23-14, advancing to the Grey Cup against the Western Champion Edmonton Eskimos. Ottawa won the game, and the Grey Cup, in Toronto by a score of 22-18.

It was the last time Jack Gotta would ever beat the Edmonton Eskimos in the playoffs.

At season's end, Gotta once again was awarded the Annis Stukus Trophy as CFL coach of the year in 1973.

Jack Gotta in his playing days.
He would jump to the upstart World Football League, staying with the Birmingham franchise until the league's demise, and did not return to the CFL until 1977, when he became Calgary's coach/general manager.

Deja Vu: Gotta's first go around with Calgary
Gotta's first season with Calgary was 1977, and it was a repeat of his first year in Ottawa – a trip to the bottom of the standings. The Stampeders finished last in the West with a 4-12 record, including three losses to the arch-rival Edmonton Eskimos by scores of 32-19, 22-8, and 23-21. One of the highlights was wide receiver Tom Forzani's selection as a CFL all-star.

History repeated itself in 1978, when the Stampeders qualified for the playoffs in Gotta's second season. They finished with a record of 9-4-3, good enough for second place in the West, one point behind the Edmonton Eskimos, who they lost their season opener to 33-17, before tying them twice during the season by scores of 28-28 and 20-20. Calgary beat Winnipeg in the Western Semi-final at McMahon Stadium by a score of 38-4, setting up a showdown in Edmonton. The Eskimos won, 26-13, and went on to their first of five straight Grey Cup championships. The Stampeders had four CFL all-stars: runningback James Sykes; offensive guard Harold Holton; defensive tackle John Helton; and defensive end Reggie Lewis. History repeated itself again as Gotta won his third Annis Stukus Trophy as CFL coach of the year in 1978.

The 1979 season would be Gotta's last as coach, or so we thought. The Stampeders finished 12-4, good enough for second place in the West, two points behind the Eskimos. The Eskimos beat Calgary 44-9 in the third game of the season, then Calgary finally won one 26-19, before Edmonton won the final meeting 27-1 on Labour Day. Calgary beat the B.C. Lions in the West Semi-final by a score of 37-2, before dropping their second straight West Final to the Eskimos 19-7. The Eskimos went on to their second of five straight Grey Cups.

Calgary would not win another playoff game until 1991.

The Stampeders had four CFL all-stars in 1979: wide receiver Willie Armstead; offensive lineman Lloyd Fairbanks; defensive end Reggie Lewis; and defensive back Al Burleson.

Gotta retired after that 1979 season, and I recall being so sad. Gotta was always upbeat, and positive, charming and sincere. He always looked like he was having fun, because he was. His enthusiasm was infectious, and that probably more than anything else, made the Stampeders into a winner.

Jack Gotta during practice.
The dark times
Ardell Wiegandt replaced Gotta, and was perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to the Stampeders. Not only did the team falter, but he systematically dismantled it, trading or releasing the core of one of the best teams in the CFL. It was virtually a weekly occurrence watching my favourites leave – Reggie Lewis, Lyall Woznesensky, Al Burleson, Ed McAleney, Merv Walker. In 1980, they plummeted to 9-7, third in the West, and lost the West Semi-final to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The 1981 season was worse, Wiegandt was fired in October and Gerry Williams took over. The Stampeders finished last in the West with a 6-10 record, and the call for Jack Gotta's return could be heard across Southern Alberta.

Gotta's return…and departure
The cupboard had been left pretty bare for Gotta's return to the sidelines in 1982. They returned to the playoffs with a 9-6-1 record, good enough for third in the West, but lost to the Blue Bombers in the West Semi-final. They did manage to beat the Eskimos in McMahon Stadium on Labour Day. The Stampeders also had three CFL all-stars in offensive guard Lloyd Fairbanks; linebacker Danny Bass; and defensive back Ray Odums. Those three were joined on the Western all-star team by runningback James Sykes and wide receiver Willie Armstead.

The 1983 season was not much different than 1982, but the outcome was dramatically different. The Stampeders finished with an 8-8 record, tied with the Eskimos for third place. However, a tie-breaker gave Edmonton third, and the Stampeders were left on the outside looking in. Two bright spots were linebacker Danny Bass and defensive back Ritchie Hall named CFL all-stars.

Even though the Stampeders were just one game worse than the year before, they missed he playoffs, and that was too much for the club.

Jack Gotta was fired. His final record with the Stampeders was 44-46-6 record. It was the end of an era in Calgary.

He would join the CFL on CTV as a broadcaster in 1984, a job he was born to do. In 1985, he took over coaching duties for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and stayed there through the 1986 season, before leaving the coaching ranks for good.

John Hufnagel, current coach and general
manager of the Calgary Stampeders. Jack
Gotta was the coach's coach for three seasons.
Gotta's legacy
Jack Gotta may have finished two games under .500 as coach, but he brought a new attitude to the Stampeders. They learned how to win, and more importantly, how to compete. They never gave up, and it showed in the way they always gave the Eskimos the fight of their lives. They rarely beat the Eskimos under Gotta, but the five-time Grey Cup champions always knew they'd been in a fight when they played Calgary.

His greatest legacy may be in the fact he coached John Hufnagel, the current coach and general manager of the Stampeders. Gotta was the coach's coach for three seasons. And you can see the same look in Hufnagel's eye you used to see in Gotta's.

Yet, they differ in one important area. Hufnagel is all business, all the time. Gotta was serious, but not afraid to have some fun too. That's what so endeared him to the fans.

The story I recall best occurred when he was in the broadcast booth for CTV in 1984. They were covering a Saskatchewan game and Joe Paopao was playing quarterback for the Riders.

“I always wanted to get Joe Paopao for the Stampeders," Gotta said. "because I would have loved to have a quarterback who went pow! Pow!”

Rest in peace coach, and thanks for all you taught me as a fan about the game.

* Jack Gotta died in Okotoks on June 29, 2013. He was 83, and you can read his obituary by visiting: www.yourlifemoments.ca/sitepages/obituary.asp?oId=719841

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