Five years before Greg Goff came to the University of Alabama, he didn’t see any path to Tuscaloosa. He was coming off the worst year of his coaching career. It was 2011, when Goff went 17-37 at Campbell University.
He was worried about losing his job. He wondered whether to let go of players or assistants. He questioned his coaching.
“That was the year for me that changed probably my career and my life,” Goff said.
It was the crossroads that set him on a course that would eventually lead him to Alabama, though he never could have seen it then.
Goff’s 2011 campaign at Campbell was an aberrant season in an ascendant career. The hardships of that season shaped his principles and practices as a coach. It looked like the program was crumbling that spring, but it set in motion the future for Goff, for Campbell baseball, and the players and coaches who endured that season.
“I think sometimes you have to go through some struggles to get to the top,” Goff said. “I think we all experienced that in that year.”
His first game at Alabama is Friday night at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. Goff didn’t arrive at Alabama with a big-league pedigree or as an alumni of the university. He worked his way to Tuscaloosa through six different coaching stops, building up from Division II to one of college baseball’s premier conferences. A season like 2011 could have sent him tumbling back down the coaching ranks.
“To this day we still laugh about it,” assistant coach Justin Haire said. “I said ‘Coach Goff, five years ago we’re sitting there looking at each other coming off a 17-37 year thinking we may be getting fired. Now here we are five years later, you’ve won 40 games in four of the last five years, been to two regionals … and now you’re fixing to make a bunch of darn money being a head coach in the SEC.’ If somebody would have walked into our office five years ago and said ‘Five years from now, Greg Goff, you’re going to get a head coaching job in the SEC,’ we would have laughed that dude out of the building.”
“If anything could go wrong, it went wrong”
Goff was entering his fourth year at Campbell in 2011. He’d taken over a moribund program that won just 11 games the season before he arrived, then won 21, 27 and 28 games in his first three seasons, respectively. That followed the same pattern Goff had set at Division II Montevallo, where he won more games each year than the year before. Greg Goff was on the rise.
Campbell’s school record was 33 wins in a season. It looked like that record was ready to fall in 2011.
Then injuries began to pile up on the pitching staff. Matt Marksberry was recovering from Tommy John surgery and could pitch, but hadn’t come all the way back yet. Matt Sergey had Tommy John surgery in the summer and missed the entire 2011 season. Frank Zeir had bone spurs in his elbow.
“What they were telling me was probably three of the top five arms weren’t going to be there,” pitching coach Rick McCarty said. “So I knew in July, OK, we’re going to have to figure this out with a lot of younger players.”
That would have been a problem at any school, but Campbell’s circumstances compounded it. It’s a small private school with expensive tuition and no additional scholarship money for baseball. The Camels’ 11.7 NCAA-mandated scholarships were all they had, so depth was always a problem. As a Baptist school, Campbell wasn’t permitted to play games on Sundays. There were doubleheaders every Saturday. Pitchers used on Friday usually couldn’t throw on Saturday. The pitchers were overworked, understaffed, and still responsible for 27 innings in just over 24 hours on most weekends.
It got worse when the season began. Freshman Hector Cedano started one game, then missed an extended period. Other freshmen ran out of gas during the season as they adjusted to college baseball.
The Camels fell off a cliff. There was a seven-game losing streak early in the season. There was a 12-game losing streak later, part of a 2-18 run in the final 20 games of the season. They were 3-28 when scoring five or fewer runs all season.
A freshman named Ryan Koopman was tied for the team lead with three wins, but had 10 losses. Another pitcher went 1-9. Goff remembered a 5-7 walk-on whose fastball sat between 77 and 81 miles per hour starting games at one point because there were no other options.
“At one point in the season, it got to be ‘Whoever’s turn it is to throw is going to throw. If that’s on Tuesday, it’s on Tuesday.’ The conference tournament and that stuff had gone out the window,” Haire said. “We were just trying to play to win as many games as possible. If our Friday guy was ready to throw on Tuesday against North Carolina A&T, then that’s when he was throwing and we’d throw somebody else on Friday, hope we could outscore people. It was ugly and miserable and no fun whatsoever.”
When it rained, it poured – sometimes literally. Campbell played a series at Lipscomb late in the season, and flooding in Nashville forced the teams to relocate to another field. Lipscomb won the Friday game in the 10th inning on a walk-off hit by pitch. Haire hoped the rain might cancel a game and send Campbell home early, but Lipscomb swept all three.
Another time, Campbell was swept in three games by Jacksonville University. The Dolphins won 11-10 on a walk-off on Friday. Campbell had a 13-7 lead in the eighth in the first game on Saturday but coughed it up in a 16-13 loss, then was hammered 16-10 in the finale. Goff and the Camels were looking at a long ride through the night to Buies Creek.
“We’re sitting in the parking lot,” McCarty said. “The bus had gone to get our food. It gets a flat tire, they can’t replace it. Long story short, we leave at like 1 a.m. and get back Sunday at 7.
“If anything could go wrong, it went wrong in that year with 17 wins.”
That season took a toll on Goff and his assistants. Haire, McCarty and Goff had pushed harder that season in hopes of squeezing a few more wins out of whatever talent they had, and still fell short over and over. Campbell hired a new AD at the end of the season. Goff wondered whether he’d be retained after a backsliding season.
“I hate to lose,” Goff said. “I hate being associated with losing and a losing program. We fought it. We fought it and fought it. We practiced and practiced and practiced. We probably coached more that year than we ever did. I kept telling them, ‘We’ve got to make the most of what we can.’ We really grinded that out. It took a little bit out of all of us because we just grinded so much every day from it.”
Goff would remain, but he had decisions of his own to make. He took a long look at his coaching style and the program as a whole. McCarty had just finished his first year as pitching coach with a beleaguered staff. Haire had been with him all four years at Campbell. Going 17-37 after three years of growth would have been enough for some coaches to reset the program.
That’s not what Goff did. He brought both assistants back.
“I told (Haire) there were some things that we had to do,” Goff said. “Then I remember seeing his face when I told him ‘I’m going to keep you. I believe in you. Let’s get through this.’ From that point on, it just changed. Our relationship changed.”
He had to make a similarly agonizing decision about some of his players. Goff weighed whether the injured pitchers would be able to recover and contribute, or whether he should cut them to free up their scholarships.
Goff called around to other coaches and asked for advice. Ultimately, he decided to keep the players. They and their families had committed to Goff and Campbell, and he wanted to remain committed to them.
“I think we’re different with our coaching staff,” he said. “We treat people the right way. I remember making phone calls to different coaches ‘Do I keep these kids on scholarship? Do I cut them?’ I think we did the right thing. I think good things happen to good people. I think we kept our word and we benefited.”
He didn’t overhaul the entire program, but made some changes in his approach with players.
“Instead of just being driven to ‘Let’s just coach them up, coach them up, coach them up,’ it was ‘Let’s love them up. Let’s hold them accountable, let’s give them standards, let’s discipline them, but we need to love them, too,’” Haire said. “We were getting guys from all over the country and we really need to not just talk about this being a family atmosphere but make it a family atmosphere.”
Goff also refocused his efforts on recruiting to make sure depth would never be an issue again. All three coaches went out on the road as soon as the season ended to restock the roster. Campbell’s budget was limited at that point, but the staff found a way to make it work. Goff supplemented the recruiting budget with some of his own money to make sure recruiting could continue. Haire and McCarty would cut corners wherever they could.
“They’d get home at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” Goff said. “They would drive all night just because we didn’t have money to spend on hotels and things at that time. It’s a whole lot different now, but then it was tough. I really appreciated those guys for what they did.”
The long road to Tuscaloosa
All of those decisions set the course for Goff’s future. The next year, in 2012, the Camels smashed the school record with 41 wins. The year after that brought 49 wins. The 2013 season included 41 wins and an NCAA tournament berth. The nucleus of those teams came from 2011, which relied so heavily on freshmen.
Goff’s career took off, and he moved on to Louisiana Tech, then to Alabama after another 40-win season and another NCAA tournament.
Coaches and players around him at Campbell saw their careers rise as well. Marksberry, who hobbled through 2011 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, would eventually pitch in the majors. So did Jake Smith, another player on the 2011 team. Sergey, who missed the entire 2011 season, went 7-0 the next year. Sergey and Frank Zeir were the No. 1 and No. 2 starters. The team ERA dropped from 7.11 to 3.86 in one season.
“When I came back from injury it was one of those moments in my life where I had to really understand that if I don’t buy in and stop doing what I want to do and do what’s best for the team, I wasn’t going to succeed the way I wanted to,” Sergey said. “They really made that clear to me and it really matured me as a man and changed my whole outlook toward the game.”
Sergey is still pitching professionally. Cedano went 22-5 at Campbell, including 8-0 as a senior.
McCarty joined Goff at Louisiana Tech and is now the pitching coach at Dallas Baptist, one of the country’s best mid-major baseball programs. Haire became head coach at Campbell when Goff left for Ruston.
Some coaches might want to flush a 17-37 season and never think about it again. Goff and his assistants from that year never have.
“You have years like that,” McCarty said. “It drives you. There’s a driving factor. Like ‘I’m going to work to the point where I never go through this miserable experience again.’ Because it wasn’t fun for anyone. I think it does leave a mark. I think you grow with that. I think everybody has a season in your life where you’re going to grow, you’re going to mature and learn from it and I think it makes you stronger for it.”
Goff still brings up the 2011 season in recruiting. When players commit to the program, he commits to take care of them no matter what happens. He’s kept the coaching philosophy he found in the wake of that season, building relationships with players to be a bigger part of their lives away from baseball.
It humbled the rising coach as well. His programs hadn’t struggled that badly before or since. 2011 is still the worst record he’s posted as a head coach. He learned to appreciate wins when they came, and there were plenty of wins coming in the years after 2011.
“It kind of brought me to my knees,” Goff said. “There were nights where I would literally be driving home and just asking God, ‘Why are we going through this?’ Any time you struggle, you always question some of those things in life. It did for me. I think it just kind of brought it all together for me. Why am I coaching? Do I want to do this for the rest of my life? I think whenever you fail and do those things, you have to look yourself in the mirror a lot of times and realize ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do. Yes, it’s worth this. Yes, we’re going to get better.’ I think that was the biggest thing for me.”
Those are the lessons from 2011 that Goff still carries today as he begins his career at Alabama. It’s still motivation for him, just as it is for McCarty. Goff still speaks with several of the players and coaches from that 2011 team, and still chokes up when he thinks about what that season meant.
There’s no highway leading to or from Buies Creek, North Carolina. Goff took the long way to Tuscaloosa.
“I thank the Good Lord every day for this opportunity,” Goff said. “People don’t really realize, I don’t think, where we came from and what we had to do to get here. So that’s why I get emotional about it, because of what my family had to go through, the assistants I had, all the hard work that’s been put into it. Everybody sees me as the Alabama head coach, but it’s been a grind for a long time.”