Favourite Jack Gotta story No. 14: Jocko, as he was known, was holding another mid-afternoon media session with a Calgary reporter, outlining pass plays and defensive coverages, drawing great squiggles on a white marker board. It was a week day, 15 minutes or so before the Calgary Stampeders were to practice on the turf at McMahon Stadium.
Plenty of time, insisted the head coach. “Now here’s what we’re going to do,” he said, and off he went on another squiggle tangent. Fifteen minutes blew by. Twenty-five. Finally, Gotta looked out his office window and exclaimed, “Hey, they’re practising without me!”
He ran out to the field. The reporter followed. Five minutes later, Gotta walked over to the reporter and said through a mischievous grin, “And they didn’t even miss me. Goofy.”
In a nutshell, that was Jack Gotta. A man in love with all things football. A coach who let his players play, his assistants coach and who took the time to teach even the greenest of reporters the intricacies of the three-down game.
The Stampeders announced Saturday that Gotta had passed away. He was 83. He died in a care centre just outside of Calgary.
While some CFL fans may not remember all he did in the CFL, from playing to coaching to TV commentating, there was a time when Jocko was the face of the Stampeders, as vital as Willie Burden, as big a star as Tommy Forzani.
In fact, the football world was Gotta’s oyster in 1977. He had already led the Birmingham Americans to the one and only World Football League championship, a title his team won knowing there wasn’t going to be money to meet the payroll. Gotta was targeted by an ownership group that wanted to secure an NFL franchise in the South. The Chicago Bears wanted him to coach at Soldier Field.
Instead, he took over the ailing Stampeders and within two seasons Calgary was challenging the mighty Edmonton Eskimos, an organization that would go on to win five Grey Cups in a row. It was an uphill fight taking on Edmonton but Gotta, ever resourceful, ever the optimist, did all he could.
Favourite Jack Gotta story No. 22: Larry Barker was an import linebacker who had played well only to be released from the Stampeders. After cleaning out his locker, Barker said he had one goal in life – to come back to Calgary one day and punch Gotta in the nose.
Asked for his response, Jocko replied with a quizzical look, “Larry who?”
Gotta was fun to be around. He’d crack jokes, he’d gossip about other CFL coaches. The once exception was his buddy, George Brancato. George was golden in Jocko’s eyes, given their time together as coaches with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Eventually, losing to the Eskimos got to Jocko. He became the full-time general manager and turned the head coaching duties over to Ardell Wiegandt, a former U.S. Marine who was wired tighter than a banjo string. The Stampeders imploded under Wiegandt’s drill-sergeant approach and was fired. Gotta returned to the sidelines but in 1983 a last-game loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders awarded Edmonton the final playoff spot in the West.
Knowing he was on the hot seat with the team’s board of directors, Gotta held a news conference and went down swinging. “It’s my way or the highway,” he declared. He got the highway
For a season, he did colour commentating on CFL games. Then Saskatchewan hired him as its head coach. He lasted two seasons and was let go.
For the record, the lanky native of Ironwood, Mich., was the first man to win the CFL coach-of-the-year award three times, twice with Ottawa (1972, 1973), once with Calgary (1978). He was a West Division all-star as a receiver and had five interceptions that same season (1957). He had a successful showing as an assistant coach, too.
But it was his work with the Stampeders that truly underlined his time in the CFL and let his character shine through.
Favourite Jack Gotta story No. 35: Calgary defensive assistant coach Marv Bass was asked if he could describe Gotta to someone who had never met him. Bass thought for a few seconds then replied: “He’s the world’s oldest teenager.”
The Gotta family has asked that donations be made to Alzheimer Society of Calgary in lieu of flowers.