The phone call Mike Gottfried had been waiting on, the one he hoped would be coming, was made. After a few seasons as a college football analyst for ESPN, Gottfried hoped to make a return to the game as a head coach. He had served previous stints at Murray State, Cincinnati, Kansas and Pitt and his desire to return to college coaching still ran deep.
A friend and former colleague phoned Gottfried offering the opportunity; the job was his, the friend said, all Gottfried had to do was say yes.
“I got off the phone and I was smiling and Mickey (his wife) said, ‘What are you smiling about?’ I said, ‘They want me to coach, and I want to do it,’” Gottfried recalled.
But instead of returning a smile of her own and telling her husband to return the call and accept, she had a question.
“She said, ‘What about the boys?’ And I’ll never forget, I said, ‘What boys?’ She said, ‘The boys you told the last few years that you were going to walk with them.’”
Mickey Gottfried was referring to the boys of Team Focus, a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 by the Gottfrieds to offer guidance and assistance for young boys without fathers.
“I thought about it for a little bit and called them back and said, ‘I can’t do it,’” Gottfried said. “I ached for about two weeks after that. I wanted to go back (to coaching). But I gave it up. I didn’t talk to anybody again about coaching.”
Telling the story now, there is no regret in Gottfried’s voice. If anything, his tone is filled with pride. What he quickly realized, he says today, is that while he always loved coaching, a career to which he devoted much of his adult life, he has found another purpose, one that holds a greater importance.
“I knew it was where I should be and what I should be doing,” Gottfried said of Team Focus. “It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever done. Coaching and working for ESPN, all that was good, but I think this is it. I know I’m supposed to be doing this … I’m settled now. It’s a good feeling knowing you’re where you’re supposed to be and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
On Thursday, April 16 at the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Center, Team Focus will once again host its biggest fund-raising event of each year, “A Night with Nick Saban.” The evening, featuring the Alabama head football coach as keynote speaker, will include a silent auction and dinner, as well as meet-and-greet opportunities with Saban.
Author Andy Andrews and former Alabama running back Bobby Humphrey will also be on hand; they will receive the “Champion of Life” Award from Team Focus and the GoDaddy Bowl.
While Gottfried is the face of Team Focus, he is quick to point out the idea belonged to his wife.
“Mickey stopped me one day and said, ‘I want to do some things for some boys in the area,’” Gottfried recalled. “About two weeks later, I went back to Mickey and I said, ‘OK, what do I do?’ We did that first camp and after that I really wanted to go all the way with it. ESPN gave me the opportunity to do it. It became more important to me than the ESPN job.”
This year, Team Focus will have camps in Birmingham as well as in Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina and Florida. Saban isn’t the only big-name coach involved with the program. Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, whose team won the 2014 national championship, will highlight a similar dinner in Ohio on April 16. Coaches such as Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari and former Texas head football coach Mack Brown have also worked with Team Focus.
Mike Gottfried knows what the young men involved with Team Focus are going through; his father died of a heart attack when he was 11 years old, when his brothers Joe (the former athletics director at South Alabama) was 15 and Johnny (now deceased) was 7.
“When my father died a lot of things changed obviously,” he said. “I saw my mom in a different light. She was working and taking care of these three kids and she was tired at night and I tried to understand her world and how my world and my brothers’ world had changed. I saw how God puts people in your life, people who help you get through life.”
Paying that forward was a factor in pushing Gottfried into coaching, but he said the satisfaction that he has received through Team Focus is even greater.
“Just be there, that’s what we do,” Gottfried said of the mentorship aim of Team Focus. “If they want to talk, we’ll talk to them. If they want advice, we’ll try to give them advice.”
Calls to area ministers, coaches, city officials, guidance counselors and others in the city helped produce a list of 50 boys for the first Team Focus camp where those attending learn leadership and discipline through sports and seminars and discussions led by a variety of community leaders. Of that first group, Gottfried said 40 are still involved in some way with Team Focus. While the summer camps are fun and important, it is the daily work — the daily presence of Team Focus volunteers and mentors — that has the greatest impact on the lives of the boys involved, Gottfried said.
“I think what Team Focus does is we walk with them in life and we enlarge their vision,” Gottfried said.
The “Night With Nick Saban” offers a high profile event for the organization, Gottfried said, one that helps fund the work he wants to continue doing.
Gottfried said, “You’re known by the folks you hang around with sometimes and what better guy to hang around with (than Saban)? He’s doing it the right way and he got it from his dad. His dad taught him a very valuable lesson at an early age.”
Doors will open for the banquet at 5 p.m., with dinner scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person and $600 for a table of eight. Sponsorships are also available, some including a meet-and-greet with Saban. For further information, phone 251-635-1515 or visit the Team Focus website at www.teamfocus.org.