"Is that…" one reporter said to me as we walked closer to the exit, "Ray Goff? I think that's Ray Goff?!?"
To the surprise of both of us, Ray Goff needed help to get into the building where he once was the head man. But the fact that he was even around was surprising – he was like a ghost in Athens, no one ever saw him. Why was he at the Butts-Mehre?
"I think they gave me the wrong code. I am starting to think they don't want me around here anymore," Goff said with a hearty chuckle and a self-deprecating smile on his face as we let him inside.
"What was that about?" the reporter questioned as we left confused.
Most of the Bulldog Nation would expect Goff to be on the outside of Georgia football looking in, and that was literally the case that fall day, but that's not entirely accurate. As it turned out, Goff was heading into a meeting with one of his former players, a successful one at that, Damon Evans, who is now the Athletic Director at Georgia.
For most of the late 1990s until now it would have been a surprise to see Goff strolling the hallways of the Butts-Mehre – he just hasn't been up there. After all, he had been dismissed more than a decade ago after going 17-16-1 in his last three years at Georgia. Most Georgia fans, and some of the administration at the time, would have done anything to erase Ray Goff off the Bulldog map.
Most fans think of Goff's time at Georgia in simple terms: that stretch of the 1990s which included Georgia Tech's share of the national title, Florida's dominance of the SEC, Auburn's undefeated season and Georgia's upset loss to Vanderbilt at Homecoming (that game is when the other shoe dropped). Outside observers saw Georgia sink into a hole it would not recover from until 1997. In fact, many thought it didn't fully recover until 2002.
Simply watering down Goff's impact on Georgia into that time and that time alone is not a fair assessment of Goff's impact on Georgia. He led the Bulldogs to a Cotton Bowl and an SEC Championship two of the years he quarterbacked the Bulldogs. He was named the SEC's Player of the Year in 1976 and was recruiting coordinator during the top-level years of the 1980s at Georgia – assembling the machine that was Georgia football during that decade. He also guided Georgia to a top-ten season and within a whisker of playing in the first SEC Championship Game in 1992. Ray Goff, in fact, is not the loser so that many have tried to portray his as. At worst, Goff is a victim of being remembered for most of the bad and very little of the good. But as he will tell you – that's life.
"It's the only thing I ever wanted to do"
Ray Goff wasn't the typical college football head coach when he was hired in 1989. He had no head coaching experience. He was 33 years old, and he never wanted to be a head coach anywhere other than at Georgia. Goff many not have been a candidate as all had Georgia not had as much trouble finding someone who actually wanted to be the Bulldogs' head coach that winter.
"I don't want to say that nobody wanted it," Goff said, "but their top two or three choices didn't take it."
The mad scramble at Georgia was a result of Vince Dooley's stepping down after being a successful head coach at Georgia for 25 years. Dooley stepped down in the middle of December 1988, and conventional thinking was that a replacement had already been lined up – it may have been. But it didn't work out that easy for Dooley, who, as Athletic Director, was trying to find his own replacement. The later it went in December, the more difficult he found it to replace himself. The most logical choice, it seemed, was winding down his career and he was not willing to make the trip back to Athens for his swan song.
"Everyone's top choice, even mine, was Erk Russell," admitted Goff talking about the long-time defensive coordinator under Dooley. "He was offered the job, but he didn't want to leave Georgia Southern because he knew that he was only going to be down there for another year or two, and I think he was just kind of ready to get out."
At that point Dick Sheridan, the head coach at NC State at the time, was offered the job.
"As I understood it, Coach Sheridan actually took the Georgia job," Goff said. "But from what I was told, he wanted to talk privately with his football team – they were playing in the Peach Bowl that year. Word got out before Christmas that he was offered the Georgia job, and that he was going to take it. Well, he called a press conference and turned it down."
Many thought Sheridan was just leveraging the Georgia job for more money in Raleigh.
Russell is still a legend at Georgia – the team honored him after his death last September. Sheridan coached at NC State until he resigned after the 1992 season and has been in private business in the Carolinas since. There were rumors of his retaking the NC State job after Chuck Amato was fired this past season, but nothing came of it.
With the top two candidates down, Georgia looked internally to find its next head coach. It was Christmas and Georgia had no presents under the tree. It was at that time, Goff says, with the Gator Bowl quickly approaching, that Georgia's coaching search entered crisis mode.
"They were in a scramble. There were a couple of assistant coaches at Georgia that put in for the job. All of the other assistant coaches but one wanted George Haffner to get the job, and I wanted him to get it, too."
That was not in the cards. For one reason or another Haffner was not going to be given the post. When Goff got word, he decided to make a play for the job.
"When I found George was not going to get the job I said: ‘Shoot, if George isn't going to get it, heck, I am going to throw my name into the hat."
Perhaps a little naive, but passionate about being the coach at Georgia, no one gave Goff much of a shot at getting his old coach's job.
"They've gone out on a limb, there's no doubt about it," Goff told the Associated Press the morning after he was hired. That limb reached back to 1906, which was the last time Georgia had hired a head coach with no previous experience at that position.
"Ultimately I felt that Ray Goff, a Georgia man, deserved a chance (to be head coach). Ray knew the program and gave us the best chance for consistency. The Georgia people liked him, and it would obviously be a very popular choice," Dooley later wrote of picking Goff over Haffner.
Looking back, however, Goff says he is a little more skeptical about why he got the job.
"I was very fortunate to get it, and I think I have a pretty good idea why I got the job," Goff said. "But if you talk about stuff like that I think you are living in the past, and also there are things that might be hurtful to people. Still, just having that shot was a dream come true."
Before agreeing to be interviewed for this magazine, Goff made it clear he was not willing to participate in what he called a "negative article".
"I am not going to slam people in the press," he told me. He said he was not interested in rehashing what had already been done.
Getting out of the shadow that was Dooley, who remained at Georgia as the Athletic Director, proved nearly impossible for Goff, and may have only been recently accomplished when Mark Richt won two SEC titles in four seasons.
So why did Goff never coach again? It was by choice.
"The only thing I ever wanted to do was be was to be the head coach at Georgia, and I had that opportunity," Goff said. "If I went somewhere else I would be cheating because I couldn't give it my best."
"The guy that could take us further"
Goff's coaching career didn't start off with a bang. His first two years at Georgia were not successful. The Bulldogs had a combined 10-17 record, and Georgia Tech had claimed a share of the 1990 national title during his first two autumns. That was not what people were expecting. They wanted Georgia to win – now.
Then a young player from Marietta, Eric Zeier, became an important part of Georgia's offense. By the time he left Georgia, Zeier would become a near-irreplaceable part of Georgia's program.
"Coach Goff is just a fantastic man – a fantastic leader," Zeier said. "From day one, I always felt very comfortable with him and with his staff."
Goff's assistants showed Zeier what they were going to do with their offense in the coming years, and that it would be centered around him. The Bulldogs were hoping to lure Zeier, whose family was not from Georgia, to play for them rather than another SEC rival. All of the recruiting paid off, and the most important player in Goff's tenure at Georgia was on campus.
"My decision to go to Georgia revolved around a couple of things," Zeier said. "If I had not been playing football, Georgia is where I would have gone to school. Through my recruiting process, they brought in Wayne McDuffie and his style of offense really fit what I wanted to do, so it made it a pretty easy decision."
"Just the man that Ray is and his leadership ability – I was intrigued with that from the word go," Zeier added.
Georgia entered the 1991 season needing to turn things around. Goff knew Zeier was the key to doing that, but he also knew Greg Talley, the starting quarterback and senior captain of the team, would have to be given his fair chance to keep his starting spot.
Talley started the season under center and guided the Bulldogs to a 3-1 record going into October. But Goff and his staff felt like Zeier, who had been playing a lot of minutes during the first four contests of the year, gave them the best chance to beat highly-ranked Clemson. Talley started the game, but Zeier played the lion's share of downs.
After Zeier helped Georgia roll past Clemson 27-12 he was named the SEC Player of the Week. But it was clear before the award went out that week: a change was going to happen at quarterback. Goff made the decision final – Zeier was to start against Ole Miss and for the remainder of the season. Goff let the freshman know, but didn't make Talley aware of the change immediately.
"I wish it had been handled differently," Goff said of his mistake. "It got out before we had a chance to talk with Greg. That, probably, of all the things I regret, is the thing I regret the most – because Greg Talley is one of the finest young men that I have ever been associated with in my life. I felt like we, and me specifically, did not handle that right."
The press got hold of the story, and it was front page news the next day. Talley, Goff admitted, learned about Zeier's starting by reading it in the paper, not by talking with his head coach.
"I didn't even realize anything was going on," Zeier said of the event. "I didn't realize there was a leak of information or anything of that nature. I was focused on our team, and what I had to do to get myself ready to play."
The decision, as it turns out, was the correct one, but it took a little time for it to cement. The Bulldogs suffered a 27-25 upset loss at Vanderbilt two weeks later and were throttled 45-13 by Florida the week after that. But after Zeier got his footing under center the season was a success. Georgia ended the season with wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Arkansas in the Independence Bowl to go 9-3.
"We knew that Eric was a guy that could take us further in the long haul," Goff said.
It was Goff's best record since taking over, and the future looked bright.
SATURDAY: Goff talks about when everything turned south, and what the difficult times were like