When it came time to sit down and dig into Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast with his extended family, Auburn High coach Gordon Elliott was rightfully seated at the head of the table.
When his players delivered a 28-24 win over rival Kentlake in September, Elliott earned family bragging rights and the primary seat at the grown-up table while his son-in-law, Kentlake coach Chris Paulson, was stuck sitting with the kids.
“Last year we lost (to Kentlake) and (Elliott) had to sit at the kiddie table,” said Auburn senior defensive lineman Kevin Shelton.
Beating Kentlake and making sure Elliott was still prowling the sideline this year on his birthday weekend – he turns 59 on Sunday – were two of the main goals players wanted to achieve this season. Now that the unranked Trojans (10-2) are in the state semifinals, where they will take on third-ranked Bellarmine Prep tonight at 7 in the Tacoma Dome, Elliott is also on the cusp of making his first appearance in a state championship game in his 30 years of coaching high school football at three different schools. He also had an eight-year stint as head coach at the University of Puget Sound, his alma mater.
“Everyone knows him as ‘The Godfather’ because he knows so much about football and has been around the game for so long,” Shelton said with a laugh.
Elliott’s other appearance in the state semifinals, with Auburn in 2006, ended in a 47-0 loss to eventual Class 3A state champion Bellevue. As a 4A school, the Trojans have lost in the state quarterfinals three out of the last four years.
“It’s a goal of everybody to be playing for a state title at the end of the season,” said Elliott, who’s in his 11th season at Auburn. “It’s difficult it’s so hard to get here. There are guys who are very good coaches and don’t get here.”
Many thought after they failed to make the postseason last year it was a long shot for the Trojans to make a run this season. But players learned how important each individual play could be in the bigger picture after the Trojans lost six games by a total of 32 points in 2011 and finished 4-6.
“It wasn’t like we were bad. We were close,” Elliott said. “Our kids have done a good job staying focused (this year) on making plays to help us win.”
But this season has come with its challenges. Star running back and all-purpose player Harold Lee missed two games with a concussion after missing nearly all of last season with a broken leg. Additional injuries have forced others to come off the bench and contribute right away.
“We prepare our kids to be No. 1’s when they need to be,” Elliott said.
The family culture Elliott has built within the program – the one thing he’s most proud of – has also endeared him to players, who want badly to deliver him a state championship.
“He’s like a father to us out there,” Lee said.
And while this year’s squad might not measure up talent-wise to previous Auburn teams that have made runs into the postseason, Elliott isn’t concerned about that.
“It isn’t just talent there are a lot of factors,” Elliott said.
Even if he doesn’t think he needs a state title to solidify his seat at the head of the table of South Sound coaches, players want to win won for Elliott anyway.
“We’ve played every game like it’s our last,” Shelton said.