When a person puts as much into developing a program as James Gifford did, it’s only a matter of time before the work that’s put in by said person gets noticed by other programs across the area.
And after turning the East football program from a unit that had suffered two consecutive losing seasons into one that ultimately collected three consecutive winning seasons, a 10-0 regular season mark in 2016, and the unit’s very first victory ever in postseason competition in 2017 with a 12-6 victory over Waterford, it was no surprise to see a program eventually come calling for the former Division I FCS athlete.
For Gifford, South Point, who came calling for the seventh-year Tartan hand, ended up being the very place that wooed Gifford away. The third-year head coach, who served as an assistant for four years under the East banner, ultimately accepted the open head coaching job with the Pointers’ football program on Monday evening to bring his widely successful coaching tenure at Sciotoville to its end.
However, it certainly wasn’t a decision that came without a lot of thought and consideration.
“First of all, I’m extremely blessed to have had the time that I have had in Sciotoville,” Gifford said. “East was the school that prepared me to become a head coach, and was the school to give me my opportunity. I will always be thankful for that as well as the love that people had for me in the community and from the administration. It’s been an awesome ride.”
“James stepped in and did a really good job for the program,” East boys basketball coach and athletic director Adam Bailey said. “He was really successful in the short time that he was here as the head coach, and he made three playoff appearances. Not only that, he led the program to its first playoff victory. I believe that’s something that you have to get him a lot of credit for. It’s something that we’re happy to share with him, and we’re happy that he brought that to our school.”
At East, Gifford did yeoman’s work into leading the Tartans to their most successful three-year run in school history. After developing Tyler Gerald into a four-star recruit and a coveted Division I prospect, the head coach began to do the same with Blaine Scott between his final season as an assistant and his first year as the head coach of the program. Ultimately, Scott, too, became a highly coveted four-star prospect.
However, Gifford did all of that while developing a team concept.
In addition to creating scholarship opportunities for Gerald, Scott, and his son Ethan, the third-year head coach was able to establish a walk-on opportunity for Brady Douthat, who was developed into a highly successful quarterback and safety under Gifford’s tutelage.
Behind the foundation that those individuals developed, along with the play of Akia Brown, Ethan Carver, and J.D. Hatcher, the Tartans ultimately claimed a 25-8 record during Gifford’s three seasons at the helm. Scott and Brown ultimately were named as All-State talents, Hatcher took half of his catches the distance in his senior season, and Carver ultimately rushed for over 100 yards and the game-winning score in East’s 12-6 playoff victory against Waterford that knocked a long-awaited door down.
“I’ve been blessed to coach the Blaine Scott’s, the Tyler Gerald’s, the Brady Douthat’s, the Justin Crager’s, the Ethan Gifford’s and the J.D. Hatcher’s,” Gifford said. “I can go on and on about the players, coaches, and the members of the community. It’s just been great. It was a bittersweet feeling to address the team. There were a lot of emotions there. My wife sent me a text and made sure that I was okay, and I just told her that my brain was like a tornado. One minute, you’re excited and like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and then the next minute, it’s ‘I’m leaving a great place and something really special that I’ve built with a lot of people and things.”
“Since he became an assistant coach, he’s done a great job of helping kids get recruited and giving them an opportunity if they wanted to play at the next level,” Bailey said of the opportunities that Gifford allowed his players to experience. “He gave players the chance to see schools, talk to coaching staffs there, and see if they had a chance to continue their career.”
During that same tenure, however, Gifford also accomplished arguably two of the main goals outside of accomplishing the school’s first playoff victory by defending home and by holding serve against Notre Dame. In three years as the head coach at East, Gifford not only never lost a game against Notre Dame, but never lost a regular season home bout, period.
And while he may be heading further east on U.S. 52 for his next coaching destination, Gifford only wants to see that success continue.
“Hopefully, it continues,” Gifford said. “I want nothing but success for East football and Sciotoville Community Schools. They’re special people and they deserve special things. Hopefully, it’ll continue on, and the players will rally together. Whoever it is that they select for their head coach, I’m sure that the administration will do a great job picking the next head football coach, and football will continue on at East High School.
At South Point, Gifford has wasted no time assembling a staff. In a matter of 36 hours, Gifford not only retained Chris Adams on the staff, but is in the works of hiring two additional members to the football program en route to showing the passion that a program, who only has four wins total over its last four seasons, sorely needs. The Piketon native plans to hire a fourth full time coach, along with two volunteer assistants, on down the line.
“He’s been there for four years as an assistant, and he’s also a schoolteacher in the system,” Gifford said of Adams. “After talking with him on the phone and meeting with him (on Tuesday), I feel extremely blessed to have him on the staff.”
But Gifford didn’t lie — he’d love to have each of the four assistants that are on his now-former staff at East.
“Tommy Caudill, Bud Miller, Lance Davis, and Bryan Hoover are absolutely phenomenal,” Gifford said. “If I had my way, I’d pick all of them up and take them with me. Hopefully, I can take them all with me one day, and we can coach together again and do the things that we’ve done.”
Make no mistake about it, though — the blueprint for success at South Point will be the same was as it was at East.
“I have all the respect in the world for (Chase) Kratzenburg, as well as (Chad) Coffman and the coaches before that and what they were doing,” Gifford said. “I just hope to build on the things they were doing right and keep those things going. I do think that there a lot of great ideas, and my strengths now are what South Point’s weaknesses are. I look forward to giving them something to play for, whether it’s the goals that they have to play college sports, go and find that good factory job, or whatever their main goals may be. Football’s just a tool to get the kids to be successful in life.”
The understanding of what football should be used for, however, was what made Gifford and the folks inside the Sciotoville community such a great fit together.
“Sciotoville’s a special place with special people and special kids,” Gifford said. “There are great kids academically and athletically, and there’s a lot of great kids that come from that place. They’re tough kids who are very athletic and work extremely hard. What other school, probably in Ohio, can say that they have 77 boys in their school, and 45 to 50 of them are working in the weight room during the summers? That’s complimentary to the kids of Sciotoville.”
“He jumped in and was really gung-ho about helping the program,” Bailey said. “He was extremely involved in everything going on with football, and I believe he was big about getting our kids involved in community service. He just did a good job of developing team camaderie and getting the team out doing activities for the community, and doing them together.”