Feb 12, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
Editor’s Note: In honor of Black History Month, CAA Football will interview a different league coach every week throughout the month of February to get his thoughts on black history as it relates to his life, his career, the sport of football and society at large. This week we talk with Stony Brook assistant Carlton Goff, who is the Seawolves’ recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach.
In what ways does black history relate to the game of football?
When you look at sports in general, many of the opportunities for social advancement for minorities have come from sports. It has been one of the initial entrance points to many opportunities for minorities going back to the Civil Rights Movement. If you look at what was going on in the SEC at that time compared to what was taking place with the northern conferences and schools, there were opportunities for minorities to play in the north well earlier than in the south. So I think sports was tied to the complexity of all the social factors and the background of that time of change in our culture.
My parents both went to Tennessee State University, which is a Historically Black College. At that point in time, they were both involved in sit-ins and marches. Athletes were a big part of the culture then. My mom and dad still to this day talk about Muhammad Ali, who was very important to that time period. As you look at our modern take on black history, see that sports factored into a lot of it what was going on at that time.
Can you speak to the contributions that African-Americans have made to the game both on and off the field?
From our standpoint, it goes back to the college game. You look at a guy like Eddie Robinson, who was able to take over a program at a Historically Black College [Grambling University]. To be successful as a coach was not just being a great college coach and football mind, but it also involved finding ways to get a large portion of African-American males to get college degrees. That’s what it really boils down to. You can look at it and say, “This guy was a great football player” or what have you, but one of the things that our profession reminds us is that this is an opportunity to give young men a chance to get college degrees; to have a better opportunity to do something with their lives.
If you look at a guy like Eddie Robinson when it’s all said and done, forget about all the wins, just think about how long he coached and how many men he was able to help give a college education. In the forefront of who we are and what we do as coaches, and particularly as a black coach, that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking to have that kind of impact on a kid’s life. Outside of wins and losses and all of the fame and glory, you want to give as many young men an opportunity to advance their lives. So a guy like Eddie Robinson is huge from our standpoint.
And then you look at the many football players who have shown the way as well, but I’d still come back to coaches. It all boils down to guys who are out there now and those who were there in the past who have gotten kids educated and given them the tools they need to be successful beyond the sport they’ve played. Their playing careers aren’t going to last forever, and you’ve got to give young men an opportunity to do more than just play a sport.
How significant is it for a sport like football to have been so shaped by this legacy established by Black players and coaches?
Football like a lot of other sports has stood the test of time when it comes to opportunities for African Americans. You look at some other sports like baseball, which was America’s sport but not necessarily always open to African Americans. While that isn’t so much the case anymore, it’s what it used to be for us.
But football is different. It has in more ways than not provided opportunities to a larger portion of African-American males. This is more true in football than even in basketball, which is a great sport and there are a lot of kids playing it, but there are more playing football if you just look at the numbers.
Football is an extremely important part of the social fabric of many African-American households. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know, but it just is. You have a lot of families out there who look at the sport and see it as an opportunity, even if it’s just to get that degree and maybe not to go to the NFL. It’s an opportunity to get a degree and this is an avenue that we as coaches are interested in.
Who were the African-American individuals, famous or not, who influenced you as a player growing up?
It’s funny because growing up there are always a ton of athletes to look up to. I was a huge, huge Walter Payton and Tony Dorsett fan. I was a running back and those were my guys. I watched everything they did. Whatever was on TV, I was watching. Today there’s so much more in terms of social media, but whatever was offered on television at that time, I was into it. I wanted to model my playing after them, and they were also good role models off the field as well. They were successful, intelligent guys who didn’t just play the game. They were both involved in their communities and giving back to where they came from.
Beyond that, I was honestly a nut job for coaches from an early age. My mom laughs about it all the time. When we were younger we would go to my brother’s football games, and it was not too long after we were there that my mom would turn around and wonder where I’d gone to. Come to find out that I was at the concession stand with all the coaches talking strategies for winning the next game. And here was this little six-year-old black kid just sitting there taking it all in.
I met and talked to my high school offensive coordinator then and followed him from the time I was six. I remember the first day that I came out for football: I was late to camp, so my mom hustled me out of the house and we got there as soon as possible. She tried to explain to the coach, and he just waved it off and said we’d take care of the paperwork later. I had known him since I was six years old, so it was fine.
Me doing all of that was an early sign. I always thought those guys were cool. I always thought to myself, regardless of what I did in terms of thinking about my career, it always came back to coaching. It ended up being a career. It didn’t matter who the guy was – white, black or brown. I was a guy who was willing to listen and talk to these guys. I liked the whole idea of coaching.
Whether they were players or coaches, who were your Black mentors or role models during your playing days?
They were coaches more than anyone else. There weren’t a ton of older players who I saw as leading the way for me, so I really followed the coaching staff. Like I said, I knew my offensive coordinator since I was six, and he was a big role model for me. He was a salt-of-the-earth human being; a great guy. He taught me a lot about football and about being a good person. He was just a great guy. He coached football, hockey and track. Kids just loved him because you could tell he cared.
Then when I got to college, I had an opportunity to be coached by a couple more guys, including one who gave me my first job. The biggest thing I liked about those guys was that they were both very family-oriented people and very well connected to their players in more than just a football sense. Those coaches thought about more than just winning on the field, but what my next step was, too.
So that’s who I also am as a coach. I talk to my kids about what they’re going to do with their lives and what their next step is. I don’t want them to just tell me their plan is the NFL because there should always be another plan since everyone won’t have an opportunity to play at the next level. So it’s important that they focus on their plan. I don’t think kids get asked that often enough by their coaches since coaches are often just focused on winning that next game.
Can you think of an instance when race played a part in your playing days?
Coming out of high school and going to Illinois College, which is a very, very small school with a tiny minority population. It taught me a lot. I came from a high school that didn’t have that situation. It was over 40% African American and is actually probably 60-70% African American now.
So then I went to a school that only had .18% African Americans making up its population my freshman year. There were 12 of us. We met in a room every Sunday and hung out. One of those guys is flying in town in two weeks to be the godfather to my son. What that all taught me as a football coach is that it doesn’t matter the size of the school, it’s important for the African-American community to be tight knit and for a bond to be formed there.
Now you have to be able to sit down with a kid one-on-one and have the ability to not just talk about football or classes, but to also have the kid tell you what’s going on in their lives. I found out that this mattered in college; it matters to have people who have shared some of your same experiences and listen to you. In my case in college, it was a small room every week and that’s all we had.
This was both a positive and negative. The negative was that I went to a school where I may not have had as much as what some of these other kids had, but it’s more important to me to have that connection to a small group; a connection that has nothing to do with a sport or anything but people being there for each other.
I do the same things with my kids now. I’ve learned to have a player tell me what’s going on and to talk to me before I sit there and tell them what they should be doing. It’s important to have someone to turn to and for them to tell you they’re there for you.
What is the importance of being a black coach and of having Black coaches serving on your staff?
As a black coach, you have an opportunity to affect kids, and from that end many different kids. It is not limited to just African-American kids. You can affect a lot of people as a coach, and as a black coach you have an opportunity to really affect a lot of kids because you never know how your background will be a changing force in a player’s life.
If a kid is from an inner city school and all of his coaches throughout his life have been black, he may not know my background, but he can probably relate to me. And I think it’s the same thing for me and a white player or a Hispanic player because I’m able to bring something to the table that’s different.
There’s a reason I say that. When we look at our recruiting class this year, we’ll end up taking just a few white guys. When’s the last time a white player has been a minority in anything? It’s starting to happen a lot more in football. When a white kid walks on the field now, there’s likely going to be far more black players than ever before. As both an African-American and as a coach who’s been through that, I can relate to them.
Then I look at our staff, and our staff is the complete opposite of our team. In terms of our coaches, there’s one African American and another in the strength department. So two out of 13 coaches are black. And then you look at the team, and it’s 75-80% African American or Hispanic. As a coach I look at this as a chance for me to affect kids’ lives through many avenues. I’m not just going to be there for the black players, but for all of them.
And I treat all of the African-American players as different people, which doesn’t always happen. I look at everyone differently because we all come from different backgrounds. My background may match up with only 10 or 15 players and it may not even remotely match up with some players, but I’m always going to be there for them.
Thanks to our digital world, children of all backgrounds are consuming sports and now have the opportunity to follow the careers of African-American players like never before. How important is it for the younger generation to have access to these kinds of potential role models, many of whom are African Americans?
I think it’s extremely important. When I was growing up, I had a black role model who was a coach. That wasn’t necessarily common. It just wasn’t. There wasn’t a lot of that because there was such a small portion of African Americans coaching, even at the college and pro levels.
I look at my son, and if he says he wants to get into coaching, his experience will be much more firsthand than mine was as far as African Americans he’ll be exposed to. He’ll be able to say, “I watched my father do it, and I was introduced to all of these other guys who do it.”
This is true at all different levels and was just something I didn’t have the opportunity to experience at a very young age because we didn’t have a bunch of African Americans involved in coaching.
Growing up in the 1980s, there weren’t African American head coaches in the pros. They didn’t exist and you didn’t see that on TV. Kids nowadays have the chance to see these coaches and to be mentored by all kinds of coaches from all kinds of backgrounds. If I’m a kid and am dreaming of becoming a coach, it’s very cool to look at the Pittsburgh Steelers and see that their head coach is black. They can now think it’s much more possible to get there.
Who would you consider some of these positive Black role models for the younger generation nowadays?
I’m a big fan of Tony Dungy. If you’re going to follow a guy and look at his career in terms of being successful and doing it in the right way, I think he’s a phenomenal role model in a number of ways. This is true for kids who want to be both coaches and athletes. That’s a guy I’ll always come back to. I’ve read his books and watch what he posts on Facebook. In my mind, he’s got a lot of the cerebral and has a history of being wise. I’m a Dungy Disciple and always will be.
As far as some of these new players, it’s hard because everything’s out there. Everything they’ve done or said gets out there. You turn around at one point and say how much you like a kid, and then he says something stupid. It makes you wonder how much of a role model that guy is.
To be honest with you, I don’t get caught up in a lot of the NFL players. When it’s all said and done, while a lot of them do great things, there’s a “but” there. You look at a guy like Ray Lewis; what a great player and inspirational guy. But there’s still kind of a dark cloud around him.
This is why I love college football. I love college coaches, players and the game because it’s still pretty pure. You don’t have the drive for money. All that stuff is not as prevalent. They aren’t talking about contract extensions and this guy wanting to make x amount of dollars.
Sports, and football in particular, over the years have brought people of all backgrounds together to play in a spirit that that exists outside of factors like race, color and religion. How important has this tradition been?
It’s huge. It’s one of the leading factors in my mind of breaking down so many psychological, social and racial barriers. As an example, my uncle was one of the first African-American football players to play at Iowa. That was a big step in the right direction for a school in the Midwest and for kids like me who went on to play.
That’s what sports have been able to do. They open the door. If you’re an African-American kid who gets the opportunity to play a sport like Jackie Robinson and prove to the world that you can play this sport, then people stop questioning whether you can do other things. Sports allow us to break down barriers because all of the sudden the question mark around if this guy can be a good person, a good father, a great member of and contributor to society is erased. Those questions start to fall by the wayside when you hear that he can hit a baseball, and then you talk to him and you find out he’s pretty intelligent.
It all goes back to the fact that you let him in the door. And once you let him in the door, then you’re able to see the kind of person he is.
This is going to happen for a lot of things. Society repeats itself. It’ll continue to happen for women because of Title IX. It’s going to happen for Hispanics because their population is growing and there are so many more of them here. When I started playing football, there weren’t many Hispanics playing football at all. When I first started coaching football, that’s when I first started seeing more Hispanics in the game. That’s going to change.
It’s all going to change our society. It takes awhile, but sports have and will continue to change our society.
Black History Month is an important month for not only Blacks, but for people from all different backgrounds alike. Why should all people celebrate this month?
This is extremely important for all of us. I’ve always said that black people were the first to step out. The first cause in this great country was the fight for freedom from England. The next was a fight about slavery.
We’ve been in a struggle. When you look at the struggles that different groups have gone through – whether it’s women, gays and lesbians or whatever group struggling – the footprint was set forth by the African-American community. It was that push for blacks to gain some semblance of freedom and equality and respect.
That’s why when everyone celebrates Black History Month, then you’re all celebrating the struggle. That’s what black history is: It’s the celebration of the men and women who stood the test of time and fought and struggled. And we should honor that struggle and what’s come out of it.
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