Jim Gotta, a teacher and coach who usually was organized and prepared, got caught off guard one day in 2001 when Moorhead High School was dedicating its new football field.
Like much of the large crowd that gathered for the event, Gotta was thinking the field would be named R.D. Offutt Stadium mostly because of a generous donation from Ron Offutt, the highly successful businessman from Moorhead.
But it was Offutt himself, who once played high school football for Gotta, who provided the surprise when he announced the new field would be called ‘Jim Gotta Stadium.’
“The place went crazy,” said Dan Carey, a former player of Gotta's who was part of the Moorhead Stadium Committee.
It was certainly justified that Gotta would receive such an honor. He influenced countless student athletes as a history teacher and football and track coach at Moorhead High.
From 1956 to 1976 as the head football coach, he had a .843 winning percentage with five unbeaten seasons and one state title.
Jim Gotta, the coach who made Moorhead a football town long before it became a hockey town, died Saturday, May 30, at the age of 93.
“The legacy he created at Moorhead High to build up that football program … I thought that was very fitting to name that stadium after him,” said Brad Atchison, who played for Gotta on his 1971 state championship team. “He was kind of like John Wayne, he was bigger than life.”
His life began in Ironwood, Mich., before he attended college at Minnesota State Moorhead, where he later would be inducted into the Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in football, basketball and track. He started his coaching career at Central Cass High School in Casselton, N.D., before coaching sophomore football at Moorhead High. He was named the head coach in 1956 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Long before Jim Gotta Stadium existed, Moorhead practiced at Concordia College when Gotta would have his players run a mile to and from practice. He stressed running the football off tackle with a pulling guard.
“I always had speed,” Gotta once said.
It makes sense. As Moorhead’s track coach, he won four state titles in a seven-year period.
And before there were playoffs in Minnesota high school football, Gotta’s 1971 team went unbeaten and won a mythical state championship. The following season, Gotta’s Spuds took a 26-game winning streak to old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington for the state championship game against Minneapolis Washburn — the first year of some sort of playoff system in Minnesota.
Atchison was the quarterback of that 1972 team.
“There were about 16,000 fans at that game in Met Stadium and it was on statewide TV … it was a pretty big deal,” said Atchison, whose Spuds would lose that game 26-8 to a Washburn team that had a 60-game win streak. “What made Jim special and unique was his ability to inspire and motivate players … in football and track. He could inspire you with just a simple look. He was a big intimidating guy. The aura that he had … he could take over the whole room with just his presence.”
Atchison and Carey were like many kids growing up in Moorhead back then. They longed for the day to play football for Gotta.
“As a kid, I would come home from a Moorhead High game and I just dreamed of playing football for Jim Gotta,” said Carey, who was a senior co-captain linebacker on the 1971 state championship team. “He instilled all those important lessons about sacrifice, hard work, persevering and never quitting, teamwork and committing to the team’s goals. It extended all the way down to junior high.”
Before Gotta passed away, Carey had lunch with Gotta in Detroit Lakes, Minn. — near where Gotta lived on Pelican Lake. Carey invited Phil Hansen, the former North Dakota State and Buffalo Bills football standout who lives in Detroit Lakes. Hansen, like so many others in the region, knew Jim Gotta.
“It was the most entertaining hour-and-a-half that I ever had,” said Carey, now the president and CEO of Vision Bank in Fargo. “He talked Xs and Os with Phil for a long, long time.”
Atchison followed in Gotta’s footsteps and coached high school football and basketball for 35 years. Now retired and living in Willmar, Minn., Atchison was able to have coffee with his old coach about two years ago when he was living at a Fargo senior living center.
“He looked so good … he looked in better shape than I did,” Atchison said of Gotta, who routinely worked out at the Detroit Lakes Community Center while living on Pelican Lake. “He recalled games from 35 to 40 years ago. It was an amazing conversation.
“I just wanted to let him know how significant he was in my life. I was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, who he had an impact on.”
He certainly had an impact on his three sons and two daughters. After his wife Fern passed away in 2014, Gotta made sure to maintain her flower gardens at Pelican Lake.
“That was the soft side of Jim Gotta,” said his son Joe, whose own son Jackson will play football this season for the Spuds. “He’s going to dedicate this fall to his grandpa.”
Just as hundreds of players dedicated themselves to Gotta, who never weighed his players and never measured their height.
“I was more concerned with building up their heart … and you can’t measure that,” Gotta once said.
And you really can’t measure just how many people knew Jim Gotta. Perhaps this story told by his son Joe provides some kind of answer.
“We were at track practice and a reporter came up to my dad and said ‘Jim, it sure seems like everybody in Moorhead knows you,’” Joe Gotta said. “Right at that moment, a train rolled by and someone on the train yelled out, ‘Gotta.’”
Today, the trains still roll by what is now Jim Gotta Stadium.
“I know he is in a better place now,” said Atchison. “Now he and Fern are together again ... probably in a football stadium somewhere in heaven.”