Kilgore College Rangers hit the gridiron this fall with head football coach Willie Gooden leading the team in his first full school year in the coaching position.
Gooden was named interim head coach in Dec. 2018 when former head coach J.J. Eckert announced he had accepted a head coaching position at Northeastern State University (NSU) in Tahlequah, Okla.
Gooden, a KC Hall-of-Famer, former Ranger football player and assistant coach at KC for 12 years, was named the new head coach in January of this year. He spoke to the Kilgore Lions Club Aug. 22 about his plans for the upcoming season and for his players, both on the field and in the classroom.
He told the Lions he was looking forward to the upcoming season following last year’s successes for the Rangers, who notched a 10-2 record.
“We had the best season that we’ve had since my employment there,” Gooden said, noting the Ranger’s victories in the Southwestern Junior College Football Conference, the National Junior College Athletic Association Region 14 championship and the Heart of Texas Bowl in Waco.
Gooden said the Rangers football team focused on success outside the stadium, as well.
“One of the underlying achievements that most people don’t know is the academic achievements. These young men, they’re students before they’re athletes,” he said, pointing out 20 Rangers from last year’s team were academically eligible to transfer to elite Division I universities and another ten were eligible to transfer to Division II schools.
Academics are a top priority for Gooden heading into the new season as head coach.
“That was the first challenge of 2019 for me transitioning to head coach, to make sure that we meet the quota academically.”
KC’s football program signed 55 freshmen in the spring and 35 sophomores returned. Gooden and his assistant coaches are taking advantage of the college’s new accelerated course offerings to acclimate new players to the academic rigors of the program.
Over the summer, all 90 players are registered for 5-week accelerated classes. Players are awakened at 5:55 a.m., hit the weight room and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the players devote all their time to their studies.
“Anything and everything you do better be academic related (during that time). If you’re not in the classroom, it’s mandatory that you’re in study hall,” Gooden said.
The strict academic focus is paying off. Last year’s athletes broke records with their Grade Point Averages and this year’s team came out of this summer’s accelerated courses with average GPAs over 3.0
Rangers are expected to push themselves in sports training in addition to hitting the books.
Players practiced in the stadium from 3:30 to 5:30 Monday-Thursday for seven weeks in the summer. The practice regimen has left players eager to begin the season.
“Going seven weeks in a row, these kids are hungry. In my opinion, the most conditioned team will win the month of August and September. If you run out there and you’re not in shape, it doesn’t matter what you know schematically, if you’re tired. The first thing to go when you’re tired is your mind. I think we’re ready to roll.”
Gooden said he’s looking forward to the season and is excited about the Rangers' prospects.
A long-standing rivalry between KC and Tyler Junior College, which Gooden called “the biggest junior college rivalry in the state of Texas”, led to another showdown Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. at R.E. St. John Stadium. Rangers were victorious in the matchup, defeating TJC 35-10.
Also, while Gooden is new to the head coach position, his 12 years of experience coaching at KC has prepared him for the challenges of the season. Several of the other coaches in the conference are new to head coaching positions as well, he said.