SIX YEARS LATER, REMEMBERING CLAY GOULD
April 27, 2009
ARLINGTON, Texas - Six years ago yesterday, the home field of the UT Arlington Mavericks baseball team was re-named after former UT Arlington standout player and coach Clay Gould.
Gould's name will forever be etched into the UT Arlington baseball program. His No. 8 is one of two jersey numbers that have been retired and the stadium the Mavericks call home was dedicated in his honor on April 26, 2003.
This season, Gould's school-record 26-game hit streak was matched by senior Matt Otteman and just 20 days later broke by senior Andrew Kainer. On the day Kainer broke Gould and Otteman's all-time hit streak record, sophomore Michael Choice became one of six Mavericks to ever hit for the cycle. Gould also holds that distinction after becoming the second UTA player to accomplish the feat on March 10, 1993, against Oklahoma State in Arlington.
The following story was written by former UT Arlington Sports Information Director Mickey Seward shortly after Gould's battle with cancer ended in June, 2001.
By Mickey Seward, UTA Sports Information Director
It was at a small press briefing early in the spring of 2000 that Clay Gould, then just 28 years old, showed why he would become a role model, even a hero, to so many people, including some much older than him. Gould had just learned that he had cancer, and in a small meeting room in the athletic department offices at The University of Texas at Arlington, was speaking publicly about the disease for the first time.
"Do you ever ask yourself the question, 'Why me?'" a local newspaper reporter wanted to know.
What followed was so much more than a three-word answer from the Mavericks' head baseball coach. With three words - eight letters - Gould expressed more than any author could in an entire multi-volume set of feel-good best sellers. With three words, Gould expressed his faith in God and a thankfulness for the blessings in his life; his love for his wife Julie and their soon-to-be born daughter Logan; his appreciation and devotion to his family and friends. With three words, Gould told the players who played for him that he was proud of them, and how much he looked forward to the future, no matter how long the future was going to be. And with those same three words, Gould asked a question we all should ask ourselves during our times of struggle.
"Why not me?"
Gould was blessed, and he knew it. He had grown up to be one of the best ballplayers in the history of his hometown university, before moving on to become an all-star outfielder for the Tyler Wildcatters of the independent Texas-Louisiana League. He was on the fast track as a major college coach, taking over at his beloved alma mater at the tender age of 27 years old, just a few weeks shy of 28. He had fallen in love with a model and the two were recently married. A child was on the way. Cancer, Gould reasoned, was just one bad thing that couldn't compare with all the good things in his life.
"That's just how he was," said Jeff Curtis, Gould's assistant coach for two years, and the man who was named to replace Gould as head coach on July 12. "That just shows how strong he was and how he understood what was going on. That's an amazing quote. How could a 28 year old make a comment like that? It's amazing. He's amazing."
That statement, those three words, demonstrated the strength and character that Gould displayed until 1:08 p.m. this past June 23, when he passed away at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas after a 16-month battle with colon cancer. Never once during that time did the second word of Gould's now-familiar three-word reply disappear from his own rhetorical question.
Ironically, while the Texas-Arlington skipper was enduring his worst times in the hospital that he never left after checking in late in April, his team was on its way to a Southland Conference Tournament championship, and ultimately to its first-ever win in an NCAA Regional game. The Mavericks came out of the loser's bracket and swept SLC Tournament host Lamar to hoist the tourney trophy for the first time in team history, as K.J. Hendricks, nicknamed "The Pest" by Gould during fall practice for his pesky play on the field, earned tournament MVP honors. Less than a week later, senior second baseman Craig Martin, UTA's all-time hits leader who signed with the Evansville Otters of the independent Frontier League following the season, belted a solo home run with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift UTA to a 7-6 win over the University of Houston in the regionals. Those close to the UTA baseball program call the win the greatest moment in the team's history. Some say it is the highlight of the school's entire athletic past.
"They had a dream season last year," said Butch McBroom, UTA's director of development for the athletic department, who served as the school's head baseball coach from 1974-1999 before handing over the reigns to Gould on June 11, 1999. "It was one of those years where everything fell into place for him, and it couldn't have come at a better time."
Although Gould missed the regionals this year, he's been there before. As a UTA player, he led the Mavericks to the 1990 and 1992 tournament, both held in Austin, Texas, the site of his first ever coaching victory. In fact, Gould is the only member of all three of UTA's NCAA regional teams.
Even though Gould was in a hospital bed at the end of the year, there never was a doubt that these Mavericks were his team, and won with his attitude. UTA won with toughness and determination.
The team made its mark early in the season, and developed a reputation from local and national media as giant killers. UTA defeated then-No. 4 Arizona State on Opening Day in Tempe, Ariz., then ruined No. 20 Texas' season lid-lifter for the second straight year a few days later. The Mavericks started the season 19-4 and finished the season with 39 victories, second most in school history. The team had captured the imagination of the Dallas-Fort Worth area media and the hearts of the Arlington community.
Nobody expected success so soon for a squad made up of 18 newcomers and picked to finish sixth in the SLC pre-season coaches poll. Of course, nobody expected success so early for Gould, either. It didn't come by accident.
"He knew baseball," said Darin Thomas, another of Gould's assistants at UTA who was promoted to associate head coach the same day Curtis was named head coach. "He was one of those people that, when he went to a game he didn't just go to shoot the bull. He didn't like to go around and shake hands and visit all the time. He liked to watch baseball. He was always saying, 'What would you do in this situation?'"
"There's a lot of people who are positive and energetic," Thomas continued. "But he coupled that with knowledge. His first year (when Thomas was still an assistant coach at Seward County Community College in Kansas), I can't tell you how many times he called and said, 'What would you do?' He wasn't afraid to get advice from people he trusted. He was constantly trying to get better in every aspect of his job, and in life."
Gould, it often seemed, enjoyed being underestimated by others and relished the opportunity to prove doubters' opinions of him wrong. He was too young and inexperienced to be successful, many said.
The Arlington native was able to successfully combat the criticism and the lack of head coaching experience with a tireless work ethic and a positive approach to coaching that utilized his proximity in age to his players. His excitement was evident and contagious.
"We didn't want to take four or five years to get it done, because everyone was looking at us," Curtis said. "He was one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA, and had two young guys coming in as assistants. There was a little bit of pressure involved, but he took that and ran with it and made it a motivational factor."
The motivation worked. In July, Gould and Florida International University coach Danny Price were named co-South Central Regional Coaches of the Year by Rawlings and American Baseball Coaches Association. Gould and Price will now have their names listed on the ballot for National Coach of the Year.
Gould is one of the few people to earn major awards as a coach and as a player on the collegiate level. He was the 1993 Southland Conference co-Player of the Year and a nominee for the Golden Spikes Award, presented to the nation's outstanding player, the same season. Yet it was the way he touched the hearts and made a difference in the lives of people that will be his lasting legacy.
"His players loved him," said McBroom. "He was a players' coach."
Gould's age made him close to his players, and he could relate to what they were going through. After all, he went through the same things himself just a few years before. When he became a man, however, he put childish ways behind him.
"He was the rebel," said McBroom. "He did a complete 180 degree change. He was always the kid that we had to make get his hair cut or take his earring out. Then he turned around and was just as hard on his kids in those areas as I was on him."
He cared for his players, and he made sure they were in good hands while they were away from home.
"He treated players the exact way that every parent would want their son to be treated," Curtis said. "He was honest with them and up front with them. He treated them like an adult, and wouldn't let them get away with things that their own parents wouldn't let them get away with. I think if parents could see how their sons were treated by Clay each day, they would have been very impressed."
Gould did more than just teach his players and his assistants. He taught those who had been his teacher.
Texas A&M head coach Mark Johnson, speaking to the nearly 1,500 people at Gould's funeral, said that whenever he visited Gould in the hospital, it was with the intent of cheering up his former graduate assistant coach and helping to keep Gould's Christian faith strong. However, the situation always seemed to reverse itself, Johnson said, and it was the pupil giving strength to the mentor.
Johnson was one of many that spoke about faith with Gould over the past few years. It was because of faith that Gould and Courtney Cash became friends. Cash had served as the team's chaplain since the mid 1990's and had known the young coach since Gould was McBroom's assistant. When Gould was promoted, Cash asked Gould if he could continue as the chaplain. Gould not only said yes, he asked Cash to do more than what he had been doing with the team previously. Cash became a regular in the team's dugout, not only at Allan Saxe Stadium, but also on the road.
"I think Clay understood that he wasn't a preacher," Cash said. "But he felt that it was important that the guys had access to God's word and to ministry. Being with the team was important for me, too, because I have been able to share Christ and build relationships that will last a lifetime. I would not have had that opportunity if Clay didn't open that door."
Cash spent a lot of time with Gould and his family while Gould was in his final days on earth. While a 29-year old father lay on his deathbed, it was he, Cash said, that gave strength to those surrounding him.
"I felt privileged to be a part of that time in Clay's life," Cash said. "To the world, it appeared that this was such a tragedy. But I was really able to see what kind of man he was during this time."
"I saw a strength among his family during the toughest time in Clay's life, and that came from him," Cash said. "They were beneficiaries of his strength."
The original question seemed to be so small, so simple. "Do you ever ask, 'Why me?' A yes or no question, really. Those that heard the question had no idea what it would come to be. The reporter probably had no idea that he had asked about Gould's faith and relationships, his accomplishments and his future.
Gould's answer was an ironically simple, yet profound, question of his own.
Those of us that know Gould on a personal basis sometimes ask ourselves the question he never did. "Why did it have to be Clay?" We don't know why he was chosen, we just know he was chosen and we miss him. In the weeks and months that passed following that press briefing, Clay Gould never stopped asking himself and all of us the question he posed that day.
"Why not me?"
Maybe the answer to our question is the very fact that he had the faith to ask his.