Q&A with Greg Gattuso

By Frederick Mack

About Greg Gattuso of SUNY Albany

Albany head football coach Greg Gattuso is heading into his eighth season at the helm with the Great Danes. He led Albany to its first FCS playoff win and a nine-win season in 2019, and in 2016 he led the program to its first win over an FBS opponent (Buffalo). When he took over in 2014, the program had a six-win turnaround the first year, going from one to seven wins. Gattuso was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award in 2019, given to the top FCS head coach in the country, and he won CAA Coach of the Year honors. His freshman quarterback in 2019, Jeff Undercuffler, took home CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year and returns this fall as a very experienced sophomore and one of the nation’s leading passers. Gattuso, 59, was a starter on the defensive line for Penn State under Joe Paterno in the early 1980s, playing on the 1982 national championship team. He later went into coaching and won several league titles with Duquesne, sporting a 97-32 record in 12 seasons with eight conference championships before becoming an assistant coach at Pitt under Dave Wannstedt. He later coached at Maryland under Randy Edsall. He was the primary recruiter of a then three-star Pitt signee Aaron Donald, who has gone on to much success in the NFL. A native of Pittsburgh, the coach and his wife Colleen have two daughters, Jacqueline and Kaitlin.

Q&A with Coach

FNF: Alright, coach, my first question for you is vitally important to ask: Since you’re the head coach of the Albany Great Danes, do you actually have Great Danes as canine pets?

GG: Yes, actually we do. We have two — Blitz and Bruno Sammartino. Bruno is named after a legend in professional wrestling who was from Pittsburgh and one of my heroes when I was a kid. My wife had always wanted a Great Dane, actually. So, when we were on my second interview at Albany, we were driving around, and my wife Colleen said that if I got this job, I’d have to get her a Great Dane now.

Blitz is a Harlequin Great Dane (the largest breed), and Blitz ran in front of the team when we came out onto the field the first year. We also have two Maine Coons (large cats), a horse, and a Llama. We love animals, as you can tell.

FNF: When you played at Penn State for coach Joe Paterno in the early 1980s, how would you sum up that experience?

GG: I had a fabulous experience at Penn State, and coach Paterno was a huge influence. You know, back then, you didn’t see as many 80,000-seat stadiums with that massive amount of people. Then you go somewhere like Penn State and see that stadium. Wow. It was an incredible experience, and we were ranked in the top 10 pretty much the whole time I was there. I played against Dan Marino and Marcus Allen, and we beat six top-20 teams the year we won the national championship (in 1982).

FNF: The teams and the coaches you played against form like a Who’s Who of College Football, don’t they? Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Miami, Southern Cal … and Bear Bryant, Tom Osborne, Howard Schnellenberger, you name it. Did being around Paterno and facing iconic figures like this impact your desire to be a coach one day?

GG: You know, not as much as you’d think. I was a policeman for four years after college, and I wanted to be an FBI agent or chief of police. It never dawned on me to play in the NFL, and I wouldn’t say being around the big-name coaches caused me to go into coaching. I got to know Johnny Majors and Jimmy Johnson during recruiting, too, and many others. But if anybody did get me inspired to be a coach, it was my high school coach, Tom Donahoe. He went on to be a general manager in the NFL (Pittsburgh, Buffalo). He was my mentor, and he still keeps in touch with me.

FNF: Does recruiting drive you nuts, or do you truly enjoy the ins and outs of it?

GG: You’ll hear a lot of people complain about recruiting, but I love when I get to meet families and see a young man in his environment. We don’t often get that pick-of-the-litter kid. We may get more of the pick of the litter now that we’re having some success as we’ve grown, and I’ve always tried to recruit guys like that, but also we look for the underrated guys. When I was at Pitt, Aaron Donald was a hidden gem (signing class of 2010). We love to find guys like Aaron.

When someone loves a kid, whether it’s a mom or a dad or a grandparent or an uncle or aunt, I feel great about recruiting a hidden gem. If something’s not going right, and I can call that family member who loves him? That makes me feel good about a kid because I know they’ll have my back. It doesn’t have to be a traditional family, as things have changed so much, but I look for that in a kid and with his family. And once we find that kid, we try to make him into a bigger person and player. That’s what I enjoy.

FNF: How has technology changed your coaching career since you began in the 1980s?

GG: Oh, it’s like the difference between a car from 1940 and a brand-new car off the lot in 2021. It’s funny you ask that question. I literally was just talking about this the other day. One of my good friends had me and my staff over, and that came up. And I was telling a story about being on a recruiting trip and having a map in one hand, having to pull over and scramble to find a quarter or a dime to call a recruit on a payphone. Kids today probably don’t even know what a payphone is. Then I’d have to grab the map and keep driving. Of course, I didn’t have GPS – I’m dating myself here.

You would call the high school coach and leave a voicemail that you’d be there around 10 a.m. or something and try not to get lost getting there so you could make the time. Honestly, the access today is so good for the kids and the coaches. You should have no problem being in touch with anybody. The access with the kids is through the roof, and if the kids want to know about you, they can look up articles on you. They and their families have the information out there to look at you and the school. And then there’s the other part of technology … the video side …

FNF: Yes sir, let’s get into that – take us through that: How much has the art of breaking down film changed?

GG: I was talking to Tony Wise, who has been an offensive line coach in the NFL for 30 years and was once at Albany (1973 as an assistant). He told me stories of working with 16-millimeter tape, cutting it with scissors, hanging it on the wall, and splicing in endzone and side shots. The stories are spectacular, listening to them. I don’t know when they slept, and how often they just worked through the night. Just the pressure to get one cutup done must have been tough. Can you imagine walking into the head coach’s office and you didn’t splice it right, and all the stuff starts burning up? Just the technology of preparing tape for a game has changed so much over the years.

FNF: What kind of technology would you say you rely on the most these days?

GG: Oh, all of my young coaches, that’s what I’d say I rely on. But seriously, I’m a good technology coach, even though I’m a little bit older (59 years old). I have the iPad, I have the smart phone, and I have my smartwatch. Sometimes I might need a little help here and there, but I keep up on that. GPS was an alien technology to me at first, and now I’m just amazed by GPS and not having to stop on the side of the road to find a payphone and directions. That makes recruiting so much easier these days. It changed everything. When you look at the sequence of events, technology has really changed everything about football.

Vince Lombardi said football is all about blocking and tackling, but now coaches also know every play. That’s thanks to how accessible and easy to work with the film is. If I, as a coach, can find those little things to give my players an edge, we now have reduced the gap between us and a team that may be better than us, talent-wise. I say our talent gap is 20 percent, we might get it to 50/50 if we as a staff can prepare for it, and technology allows that to be possible. Don’t get me wrong, I trust my gut, and I think that’s a part of it, too. But analytics is an interesting animal. God bless Hudl. The days of getting VHS tapes in the mail and then the VCR tape breaks, or the tape gets chewed up? Well, Hudl for recruiting has been a game-changer in that aspect.

FNF: If you hadn’t had Zoom or other platforms to connect with your players last year during the pandemic, what would that experience have been like? For instance, what would have been like when you were head coach at Duquesne in the 1990s if COVID-19 had hit? How would you have kept your team glued together, communications-wise?

GG: Obviously, Zoom is going to change the world. I’m sure some business people may not be happy because it may cost them a trip they wanted to go on, but it’s here. But Zoom would have been awesome to have back in the 1990s if this had happened back then. It was tough not being allowed to meet with people in person, and I think the pandemic was brutal on these poor kids, and it was a way to stay connected. When you can’t train together as a team, and they cancel your season, that’s tough. People have it a lot harder in this world than just players and coaches, but in our world, it was brutal, and that was one way to stay in touch.

FNF: Coach, you won nine games and captured the first FCS playoff victory in school history in 2019. The past year was a roller coaster because of the pandemic, but you were able to get four games in (spring 2021), and you retain a lot of that 2019 talent. How are things looking heading into the fall?

GG: I think when you look at what we went through, our situation – we didn’t wear pads at all in 2020, and we had maybe two weeks of weight training that wasn’t cancelled. It showed up when we tried to play a few games this spring when we had injuries. We did beat a good New Hampshire team to start the spring, and we lost in overtime to Rhode Island, and then a close one to Stony Brook, and the injuries took their toll. I don’t know how to predict what we’re going to do, but the kids are fired up about this year. They talk about it every day, and there’s a buzz around our football team right now.

FNF: You open with a trip to national powerhouse North Dakota State, and in week three, you travel to Syracuse – and you play in one of the FCS’ power conferences, the CAA. You have a talented roster, so how pumped are you to have these challenges on the schedule – these opportunities to rise to national prominence?

GG: I made this schedule. Nobody forced anything on us. I’m not one of those coaches who is just handed the schedule. We believe we play in one of the best conferences – there are no weak sisters here. Nobody anymore can say they have an easy game in the CAA. And of course, we want to play NDSU. We’ve heard so much about the FargoDome and can’t wait to get there. We know our CAA games will be tough. We know our challenges will come every week, but the kids are buzzing about it – and it helps in recruiting to play these kinds of games.

FNF: Last question, coach. When we reached out originally, you hit us back with a photo of your feet propped up at the beach, and you said you were heading back from vacationing in the Florida Keys. You and your wife love that part of the country, it seems?

GG: Oh yeah, we love the Keys. We’ve gone eight straight years, and our daughter was even married there a few years ago on the beach. The people are incredibly nice, and it’s the most relaxing place. I have no urge to pick up my cellphone to call anybody or pick up when it rings. We go into town at night and have a wonderful time. My secret goal is to retire and go drive the Conch Train tour in the Keys. That’s going to be me one day. I’m good at talking the whole time, and I can just make stuff up, and it’ll be great. Nobody will know I just made it up.