High school coaches are not one size fits all. Never have been. But there is a commonality that the good ones share, a connection with their players that stretches beyond the field and in many cases lasts a lifetime.
I was reminded of that last week.
When Palo Alto football coach Nelson Gifford announced that he was stepping down after four seasons at his alma mater, players, parents and coaching peers took to social media to express gratitude.
Sure, everyone wants to win. Gifford did, too. But he also aimed to get his players ready for life, to be a mentor and a positive influence in the community.
Gifford was all of those things.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without his guidance,” former Palo Alto quarterback Jackson Chryst, now at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, wrote on Twitter. “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me and the Paly community and I’m so thankful to have you as a coach. Can’t wait to see what you do next coach! ”
Added former lineman David Hickey, also on Twitter, “I’m going to miss running into you whenever I’m at Paly. Thank you for all you have done, for me, for Paly, and for my family. I loved playing football with you as my coach and I cannot thank you enough for the lessons you taught me. #OneShip ”
Jim Randall had an impact on his community, too. Saturday, the day before what would have been the late football coach’s 82nd birthday, family, friends, former players and coaching colleagues gathered at Tak Fudenna Stadium in Fremont for a ceremony to unveil his bust.
In the 1970s, Randall led Mission San Jose to a North Coast Section 4-A and five Mission Valley Athletic League championships, still the only team from the MVAL to win NCS in football.
One of Randall’s players from the 1977 section champions was among the speakers Saturday. Gary Plummer went on to play nose tackle at Cal and linebacker in the NFL for more than a decade, winning a Super Bowl with the 49ers in January 1995. If not for Randall, Plummer told the audience Saturday, he would never have had a football career.
Plummer gave up the sport after his freshman year at Mission because he barely played, turning his attention to soccer.
“I was a fullback (in soccer) and I was not very good,” Plummer said. “Somebody had told Coach Randall that this guy is really physical and you should probably come out to watch him and, unbeknownst to me, see if you can get him to play some football.
“In that particular game, we were playing against Newark Memorial. They have a bunch of really quick, little guys. I was a fullback and I had the ball and a guy comes up and tries to take it from me. I try to kick the ball and miss. I hit him right in the shin. He goes down.
“Then I kick the ball, and it hits another guy about 10 feet in front of me. He goes down. I get red-carded. Thrown out of the game. I am sitting there on the bench and all of a sudden this guy (Plummer turns to Randall’s bust) comes up behind me with that Vulcan vice grip on my shoulder and says, ‘I think you’re playing the wrong sport.’ “
Randall was an intense, no-nonsense man who stressed perfection and conditioning on the practice field. Even as Plummer advanced in his football career, from Ohlone College to Cal to the Oakland Invaders of the defunct United States Football League and then to the Chargers and 49ers, those practices under Randall were never far from his mind.
Neither were his teammates.
“Having played for 30 years, from the time I was 8 until I was 38, I played with some pretty good players,” Plummer, 62, said. “I think 14 guys who went to the Hall of Fame. But I am just as proud, if not prouder, of Geoff LaTendresse. Our quarterback. Fire captain forever around here. He’s finally retired. Guy Martinez, we were right next to each other on the line, blocking for that guy with 44 touchdowns. Is that what it was? Forty-four touchdowns in one season for Mike Carnell.
“And I remember a guy named Murray Ferguson. Never played. But he was there every day at practice. Every single day, he never missed a practice. He just wanted to be a part of this, this legacy that these coaches built. I still stay in touch with Murray. Done a few Zoom calls. He’s a teacher up in Oregon. To me, it’s the values that we all learned as players from these coaches that made the difference, and it starts from the top.
Jim, without you, I would never have gotten this little trinket (Plummer points to his Super Bowl ring) and I appreciate it.
Tim Lugo, formerly of Saratoga, is the new football coach at Mountain View. He replaces the retiring Shelley Smith. Lugo is also the athletic director at Mountain View, a position he held at Saratoga. Hen Stephen Matos has taken over from Lugo as Saratoga’s football coach. O Antoine Evans has replaced Barry McLaughlin as Sacred Heart Cathedral’s coach. McLaughlin stepped down after leading the San Francisco school to the Division 4-A state championship last season.