As her son was about to be introduced as the 16th head coach in the tradition-rich history of the Kilgore College football program, Carolyn Gooden Watson beamed with a mother’s pride: she said she was still seeing him as a small child.
“I just still see him on picture day when he was six months old,” Mrs. Watson explained, with a smile. “We took him to get his pictures made, and they couldn’t get him to smile for anything. They gave him a toy. He didn’t smile. They gave him a teddy bear. No smile.
“And then they gave him a football. And he lit up with a great, big Kool-Aid smile. He’s still that way.”
After being introduced by athletic director Jimmy Rieves as KC’s new head coach, Willie Gooden adjusted his Ranger-blue tie, took the podium – a walk he’d made several times in his dreams – and told the members of the media, faculty, family and former teammates what was on his mind.
“I have three words to describe this: my dream job,” said Gooden, the Hempstead, Texas native who has been part of some of the program’s greatest seasons: he was a player in 2001, an unbeaten, 12-0 campaign, and he was an assistant for both the 2015 and 2018 seasons.
The new coach joins a long line of KC assistants to become the head coach. In fact, every single head football coach in the program’s 81-year history, except for the very first (Clyde Lee, in 1935), was an assistant at KC before moving into the lead seat, including Rieves (who assisted Scott Hale) and J.J. Eckert (who assisted Rieves, then coached briefly at Garden City, in Kansas).
Gooden, who has been on staff for the last 12 seasons as an assistant to then-coach Eckert, was initially named interim coach when Eckert accepted a position at Northeastern State (Okla.) University, and on Thursday in the McLaurin Administration Building, the interim tag was officially removed.
Rieves, who coached Gooden at KC and has watched as AD as Gooden grew as a coach in the last decade-plus, couldn’t help but get emotional during his introduction.
“It may be raining outside, but there’s sunshine in here,” Rieves said. “It’s because he is one of our own. I remember Willie Gooden as a walk-on in 2000, and I did everything I could to run him away. …But he showed the determination he needed to be successful. “
Rieves explained how Gooden started at KC as a defensive linemen, and how the coaches suddenly had a hole on the offensive line. They turned to Gooden to fill it. And he managed to overcome every obstacle in front of him.
“He outlasted (them),” Rieves recalled, “and he became our starting center.”
Gooden, Rieves said, was the first assistant coach hired when Eckert accepted the head coaching job in December 2006.
Gooden’s first assignment as head coach, he said, is to hit recruiting hard.
“The first thing we’re going to do is get some football players,” he said, with a second National Signing Day approaching in early February, and that he and his assistants would “hit the ground running.”
“Let’s get some difference-makers,” he said.
Gooden gets immediate help: Rieves pointed out that not a single assistant from the 2018 season opted to leave, and players that were recruited by four-year programs that had an opportunity to leave also opted to stay. “That says a lot about our new head coach,” Rieves said.
Gooden was asked by a reporter if his youth and his experience – walking on at KC and his road not just as a player, but to the head coaching job – gives him an insight as to how the player feels, and whether he might sympathize with the underdog just a bit.
“Eehhhhhhh,” Gooden said, drawing laughter from the room. “…It does make me appreciate the process. When I came up, there were 90 helmets and 105 guys. If you got one, good luck.”
Gooden pointed out at KC there is a redshirt program, and that those redshirt players have a walk-on spot on the team already.
The new coach was asked what his expectations will be for the 2019 season.
“The model is in place. My expectations will be the exact same as what you saw in 2018,” he said, a season in which the Rangers not only went 10-2, but won both the Southwest Junior College Football Conference regular-season title, the playoff title, and also a bowl game. “I’ll contribute wherever I need to contribute. But the expectations will remain the same.”
Gooden began his address by thanking Rieves and Eckert, whom he called his mentors and leaders, as well as KC President Dr. Brenda Kays, Vice President Dr. Mike Jenkins, the faculty and student-athletes, his coaches, his family, and his fiancée, Markeshia, and children Willie III (five years old) and Caroline (three).
“Come to Kilgore College and be great,” Gooden said, in closing. “You can come here and be a part of something, a rich tradition. Come to Kilgore College and be great. Our expectations will never change.”
As for the Watsons, they were braving the wet weather to head home to Hempstead, about a 3 ½-hour drive to the city about 50 miles from Houston. But they were leaving with pride.
“It was a special day,” Mrs. Watson said.