Gattuso not afraid of shadows
The jersey was too small.
The shoes are very big.
Fortunately, as Greg Gattuso pointed out, he and Bob Ford “are cut from the same cloth.”
So if the University at Albany wanted to add a visual element to an introductory press conference by trotting out a purple No. 1 Great Danes jersey that no way in hell would fit on Gattuso . . . OK, fine.
And if Gattuso is stepping into an enormous legacy left by Ford, one spanning a mind-boggling four-plus decades and is borne by the sparkling new football stadium outside with Ford’s name on it, well, Gattuso was comfortable with that, too.
Whoever succeeded Ford as the head coach at UAlbany faced the pressure of sustaining what Ford has created and nurtured here. It can be an overbearing part of what otherwise should be a proud, gleaming moment in a coach’s career.
That won’t be the case on Western Avenue, though, because instead of seeing Ford’s shadow as a burden, Gattuso is embracing it and said he expects to build on the foundation, with Ford’s blessing . . . and his help.
“It’s not something I worry about,” Gattuso said. “When I went to Duquesne football, I replaced a local legend who started the team from club football and moved them into Division III, and we moved them along the way.
“I’ve done it. The constant thing is the support, from Bob and the former players. I can’t wait to get out and meet the players and the supporters of the program. If they share the passion that I’m seeing from Bob and the people around it, we’re going to be alright.”
Usually a coaching change is precipitated by a pattern of losing that finally pushes a coach out the door.
In that case, there’s pressure on the new coach to turn things around, but not before a honeymoon period during which the school and its fans are at their forgiving best.
That’s not the scenario at UAlbany.
Ford, 76, was set to retire, then decided to stick it out one more season to help usher the program into what promised to be a difficult transition from the Northeast Conference to the more challenging Colonial Athletic Association, one of the toughest FCS conferences in the country.
The Great Danes went 1-11.
“I feel good,” Ford said. “People have said, ‘When will you get out?’ and I said one reason would be if my health fails. This is 80-hour weeks.
“The second thing is if we didn’t win a game, and we came pretty damn close.”
Ford didn’t make the decision to retire after the season; he did it well before the season.
If the Great Danes hadn’t been moving to the CAA, there probably would’ve been a new coach for the 2013 season.
UAlbany took its lumps, and now has a new coach who has the pedigree to give the Great Danes a firmer foothold in the CAA.
The school would never be able to draw enough to sustain an FBS program, but that doesn’t mean the Danes have reached their ceiling. Far from it, and Gattuso wasn’t shy about throwing the notion of a national championship out there.
“When I went to Duquesne, I told them we can win big and we can win a national championship at our level, and they kind of looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “But we did it, we were pretty darn good. I don’t believe in setting average goals.”
That’s in line with everything Ford has established and with what he believes can happen now that he’s no longer the head coach.
Gattuso played on Joe Paterno’s 1982 national championship team at Penn State, spent 11 seasons as the head coach at Duquesne and has served as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and, most recently, Maryland.
He craved another shot at a head coaching job, and was hired from a list of five finalists out of what athletic director Lee McElroy said were 35 serious candidates.
“There was one gentleman who was sort of arrogant, and I thought, ‘God, that’s not what we’ve stood for,’ ” Ford said. “So I was happy we got Greg. There’s a certain amount of humility to him. I think he enjoys the kids. I’ve said many times that there are more embarrassing things than losing a college football game. So the kids have got to come first. And you have to be a father, a mentor, a dictator, at times.”
“I think people who know me know I like to be a head coach; I have no trouble making hard decisions,” Gattuso said. “Bob said something to me on the interview day, I went to lunch with him and he said, ‘I know it’s hard.’ This is his baby. But he said, ‘Greg I think we’re cut from the same cloth.’ ”
On Tuesday, that meant a light purple dress shirt and a bright purple striped tie.
On Dec. 27, that could mean sneaking a Great Danes hat on the sideline toward the end of Maryland’s Military Bowl appearance against Marshall in Annapolis, Md.
Gattuso will work one more game for the Terrapins before heading north for good to the town where Bob Ford has been coaching since 1970, when Gattuso was 8 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know what the perception of Albany is in the world, but I am fired up about community and getting out there,” he said. “It’s just a whole new world for me. We’re just 21⁄2 hours from New York, we’re close to Boston. My wife tries to think she can speak French, so we’ll head to Montreal. For us, as a family, there’s a lot of neat things here. My family are fanatical horse people, and I found out Saratoga is a great place for us.”
What he hasn’t found yet is somewhere to buy a phone charger at 11:30 at night.
The Pittsburgh native said the Capital Region has a suburban feel to him, where people are friendly and “no one’s run me off the road yet.”
“The beautiful part of this thing is there’s a foundation here,” Gattuso said. “Like I told the committee, this isn’t a slash-and-burn thing, this is coming in and building on what is already here.”