Gordon Elliott wanted to go to law school.
But how could he stay away from football?
Football has been in his life since 1962. He was a quarterback and defensive back at Lake Washington High School and the University of Puget Sound before he took his first job as a head football coach 34 years ago.
But after 16 years as the coach at Auburn High School, Elliott, with his trademark Jet Sweep offense, recently announced to his team that this will be his final season.
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“It’s just time,” said Elliott, who goes by “Gordy”. “Going into the season I was thinking about it and I’ve been kind of year-by-year because I’m ready to retire from teaching and I knew once I was done with teaching I wasn’t going to be a head coach because I didn’t want to be a coach who wasn’t in the building.
“But it was tough. It was a pretty emotional meeting for all of us. I just felt that I wanted them to know as soon as I made my decision because I didn’t want to have to hold something back from them.”
But get away from football – no way.
He still plans to coach as an assistant, he said, whether that be at Auburn next year or coaching with one of his sons-in-law – Curtis coach Chris Paulson or his current offensive coordinator, former Gig Harbor coach Aaron Chantler.
Auburn athletic director Katie Henry said they plan to conduct a nationwide search for a new coach. They’ll likely open the position in January, she said, and that it won’t simply be Chantler’s job for the taking.
Not that she wants to see Elliott go.
“I just freaking love the guy,” Henry laughed. “I look up to him so much. And to our kids he’s way more than just a coach. He fills that mentor and father-figure role. And, especially now, kids need that.”
Auburn has had a winning record in 14 of his 16 seasons. The Trojans are 5-3 this year, but didn’t qualify for the district playoffs.
“He’s so revered by so many coaching in the league and in the state,” said Auburn’s running backs coach and special teams coordinator Abe VanDerPuy, who has coached with Elliott for nine seasons. “We make fun in our meetings when we’re looking at offensive or defensive situations and he comes back to, ‘Well, so-and-so that I know at this university in Oklahoma or this person …’ It’s like six degrees of separation for him with just about every coach in America. He knows them all and they seem to respect and love him, too.
“Just the ultra-intelligence football-wise and the amount of planning and organization and strategy that he puts into coaching every day is a great model for us young coaches.”
He graduated from UPS seeking to go to law school in California. But he said he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition and decided to go to graduate school at UC Davis, instead. Not ready to be away from football, he helped out a friend coaching at a local high school.
“And the head coach there told me I should talk to the guy at Davis and say you’d like to coach for a year before law school,” Elliott said.
Turns out, UC Davis had an opening as of the day before because Mike Bellotti had just left. Bellotti eventually landed in the College Football Hall of Fame as the winningest coach in the University of Oregon’s history.
“So that opened up a spot for me and I liked it so much that I never stopped,” Elliott said.
“People told me growing up that I was going to be a teacher and a coach. I just said, ‘No, I’m not.’ I never pictured myself doing that. But I made the right decision.”
He got his first head job at Camas in 1983 before taking over at Columbia River and eventually at his alma mater, UPS, where he coached from 1994-2001. It was there that he decided he’d adopt his Jet Sweep offense.
“We went against Willamette and we had a hard time defending it,” Elliott said. “So I always knew that if I ever got back into high school coaching, we’d use that because those weeks trying to prepare for Willamette. I’m more of a defensive coach by nature, so I knew how much stress it put on defenses.”
He was fired from UPS after an 0-9 season in 2001 and record of 16-57 there. But Bob Jones, Auburn’s former athletic director who died in March of pancreatic cancer, had just stepped down as Auburn’s coach and he brought in Elliott.
Henry said she saw some players crying when Elliott told them he was retiring.
“The most pride I take is in the kids I’ve been able to coach and when I see kids when they are older follow me into coaching,” Elliott said. “I take so much pride in that.
“But, to tell the team I was retiring, it was tough. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. I just didn’t want them to hear it from anybody else but me.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677