Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Category: Sports > Fall > Football
This story is not about Justin Forsett, but he's a good place to start. Because Justin Forsett, all 5-foot-8 of him, is "too small" to play in the NFL, just like he was "too small" to play at Notre Dame, which is how he ended up at Cal in the first place.
And yet there was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, about a month ago, raving to the Seattle Times about the pass-blocking abilities of the Seahawks' "too small" backup running back, attributing them as follows:
"Whoever he had in college," Hasselbeck told the Times, "coached him up well."
Forsett fell in with the Bears in 2004 after being spurned by the Fighting Irish and left Cal in 2008 as the school's No. 3 all-time rusher, dangerous on the ground in college, well-rounded enough to make it as a pro.
He was also No. 6. Sixth in a still-growing, long blue line of Bears running backs who have rushed for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. It started with Joe Igber in 2002. Last season, Jahvid Best made it seven in seven years.
Many thought Igber could have played in the NFL, but he chose to pursue a Master's degree in engineering instead. J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch both went on to pro careers. Forsett, of course, followed suit. Pretty soon, Best will too.
And the constant through all this has been the running backs coach whom Jeff Tedford calls " consistent," whose work ethic Shane Vereen terms "insane," and who once took a kid from Texas who was too small to play in the NFL and made him into an NFL player.
"He brought me in when nobody else wanted me," says Forsett. "He believed in me."
This story isn't about Forsett, nor is it about Arrington or Lynch, Igber or Best, as much as Ron Gould may believe it should be.
"It does, I think, take away from the kids," says Gould. "It's not about me. I don't ever want it to be about me. It's about these kids. If you and everybody else understand that all this is about the kids, then we're good."
Asked if he can please explain, then, the success of Cal's running backs over the past seven seasons, Gould -- the longest-tenured Bears coach in his 13th season -- credits the offensive system of Tedford, whom he calls a "visionary."
He points to the efforts of offensive line coach Jim Michalczik, who left the team after the 2008 season, and to the linemen, because "they're the guys who are opening the holes for the backs to run."
Most importantly, he credits the backs themselves.
"We have great kids in a great system, and the guys believe," says Gould. "It doesn't matter what we're doing. If the guys believe in it, they're going to work a little bit harder."
He points in just about every direction except inward.
Those around him don't make the same oversight.
After all, it's Gould in the middle of every drill, rolling balls from side to side to improve his players' agility, popping their arms with a boxing glove on a stick to ingrain ball security in their muscle memory, barking out ways that each can improve.
When a running back takes a handoff during team sessions, he knows to run until he hears the whistle, then to continue sprinting toward the end zone while everyone else is jogging back to the huddle. Typically he'll do so with the sound of Gould's voice yelling "Finish!" in his ears. How else will he get used to scoring?
"(Gould) leaves no stone unturned when it comes to getting those guys prepared," says Tedford. "And every single one of them, I don't care if you're a Heisman Trophy candidate or the fourth guy on the depth chart, you're going to practice the same way."
What Gould demands from his players, in all its maddening elusiveness, is perfection.
"We're not perfect," he says. "We're fallible human beings, so we're always going to make mistakes. But that is the goal. It's not good enough to do something 99 percent of the time correctly."
For the backs, that means everything from stepping to the left on a certain read to having their eyes trained on the right area of the field to never, ever fumbling the football. It can be a hard concept to grasp, especially for incoming freshmen. Both Forsett and Best said that, in the beginning, the notion that they had to be perfect on every play was a little overwhelming.
"It was tough at first," says Best. "Some days you don't even like him. So you've just got to trust that he's doing everything to make you a better player."
Over time, they grew into the expectation. After a win last season in which he had an impressive game running the ball, for example, Best quipped that Gould was going to find something wrong with his performance. Vereen said the same thing about himself following a different game. Now, the standard is something that's just there.
But Best still recognizes the difficulty of getting to that point.
"Freshmen come in on the first day, he's hounding them, and I'm like 'Come on, Coach G., give them a break,'" says Best. "But he expects perfection from everybody in the group."
Including Ron Gould.
"I'm demanding 100 percent of the time having things done correctly," says Gould. "I demand it from myself and I demand it from the players."
The drive to help his players fulfill their potential also manifests itself in his willingness to learn from them. He solicits the help of his former pupils who are now in the NFL, asking if they were prepared going in (most often, the answer is yes) and if they've learned anything new that he can teach current players. He also turns to those still in the program to ask for feedback and how he can help them individually.
"I value their input," he says. "This is not a dictatorship."
The results of his high standards -- Cal alumni in NFL backfields -- are hard to argue with.
"The backs that have left have said that when we come to this level we're ahead of the game," says Forsett. "Him teaching us the skills and the techniques takes our game to the next level."
But to stop at Gould's success as a producer of NFL talent would be to ignore why he got into coaching in the first place.
"I tell the players all the time that if the only thing they get from me is to learn how to be a football player, I've failed them," he says.
"We spend very little time talking about football, very little time, and spend a long time talking about life, things that are going on, things that are real in the world."
Gould's objective is to develop the running backs not just as players, but also as men. He mentions the "mistakes" that he has made in his life, the "ups and downs" that he's faced, and his goal of ensuring that each young man who passes through his tutelage goes on to avoid pitfalls on his own path.
That's why he wants them to come to him with problems or concerns. That's why for the last 10 years, on the pre-game test that he gives to the running backs, the last question has asked them to write something about themselves that Gould doesn't already know.
That's why, when Igber returns to Memorial Stadium to visit, he'll tell Gould, "The things that I learned from you are the things that I take not only on the football field, but that carry over in life."
"That is so gratifying because I know that I'm reaching these kids," says Gould. "And that's what I want to do. I want to make a difference in these kids' lives."
He reached one in Forsett.
"He always kept me grounded," says Forsett. "He always said, 'Don't let your highs be too high and don't let your lows be too low,' and that's something I carry today, no matter what it is.
"I really believe that he made a difference."
Gould, of course, allows himself as much credit for his effect on his players' lives as he does for the 1,000-yard rushers:
None at all?
"Small, small bit," he says. "But it starts with the kids ... They've allowed me to shape them and sculpt them. The kid has got to allow me to do that, and part of that is trust. It's trust."
That's why the following interaction meant so much to him when it happened, and why it still does.
In response to the final question on his tests, the players normally give general answers like favorite colors or siblings at first, then progress to deeper things. Right before an important game last season, Gould got a response from a player who was struggling with something off the field.
They talked the night before the game. Gould then called the player back into his office the day after and they worked the issues through. Gould says he "didn't tell (the player) what he wanted to hear -- I kind of told him about the truth of how things were from my perspective," but the player resolved the situation and Gould believes they grew closer because of it.
"You must have really trusted me," Gould recalls saying. "And he said 'Yeah,' and then we both started laughing.
"The night before the game, and this is a big game, he has something else on his heart. And for him to be able to say, 'I want to talk to my coach about it,' he must have trusted me. That's a big deal. That is monumental."
People ask Gould what it is that he does.
"I tell them I'm living out a dream, so don't slap me and wake me up," he says. "I want to keep living the dream."
A coach's tenure typically depends on his success, so there's no indication that he's going anywhere, but he still doesn't look at the job like he deserves it, like he's entitled, even after 12 seasons.
He thanks former Cal coach Tom Holmoe for bringing him aboard in 1997, thanks Tedford for asking him to stay in 2002, thanks God for the fact that he wakes up each morning knowing he's going to go do what he loves.
To talk to him is to know what it is to be humble, particularly on this chilly night, as he sits on the railing of Memorial Stadium and doesn't excuse himself or break off mid-sentence even when the floodlights above shut off and leave him in darkness.
The field is black with night and still, 72,000 empty seats pouring silence down on where, an hour before, Ron Gould was busy molding a handful of young lives.
It's all right, though. Because tomorrow he gets to come back and do it all again.
"I can't be more grateful for the opportunity," he says, one more time.
"Every day is a good day."
Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]
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