Goldman Was The Best of Catches for Princeton
BY JAY GREENBERG
Seemingly absurd as a 32-for-36 passing game is the truth that most receiving coaches do not teach how to catch the ball. The logic is that by age 18 you can either do it or you can’t. If somehow that basic skill got lost in the recruiting process, then the defensive backfield coach has a new, raw project on his hands while the receivers move on to the intricacies of route running.
But Isaiah Barnes as witness–and all of us who saw a converted quarterback with the dropsies turn into an All-Ivy receiver in his senior year will add testimony–there was no fundamental of the position that was glossed over by Dennis Goldman.
“If it sounds obvious, still the most important thing a receiver can do is catch the football,” says Goldman.
“I didn’t tell them to catch with their hands but with their eyes into their hands. When possible, you want both eyeballs pointing to the front tip of the ball and the best way to assure that is to put your nose on the front tip. In fact, we would do a drill where we would literally touch our noses to the tip.”
In giving Princeton the last eight of his 37 coaching years, Goldman developed 12 hard nosed, All-Ivy, receivers who helped three Tiger quarterbacks win Bushnell Cups as the Ivy offensive players of the year. They all say thanks and wish the happiest of retirements to, really, one of the best Princeton professors they enjoyed on its world-class faculty.
“Assistant coaches never get enough credit,” says Bob Surace, the head coach. “If there was a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, Dennis would be in there.”
“The respect level has been high wherever he has gone.”
Fourteen Goldman protégés in the NFL–the most prominent being Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, the latest being Seth DeValve ’16 of the Cleveland Browns, are an affidavit to the coach’s sterling life’s work in addition to being an affirmation of how grateful Princeton football was to have him.
It was especially cool–and not taken for granted by Goldman–that after terms at Temple, Maryland, Syracuse (twice), Holy Cross, Southern Connecticut, Northeastern, the Merchant Marine Academy, Towson State, The Citadel and the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger Cats that he wound it down here, the same place where he began as a graduate assistant in 1981.
“I want everyone to understand how it was a privilege for me to come back,” said Goldman. “There are good people here.
“I enjoyed being around good kids whose heads are on straight. They want to get a great education but also like playing football. In other places education takes a back seat. Here they are on the same level.
“I also liked being able to walk into a high school anywhere and say I was from Princeton. They knew about Princeton.”
Those steps into the offices of coaches and guidance counselors, plus the living rooms of potential Tigers, never were torturous to him. Next to teaching, the visits were a part of the job Goldman enjoyed.
“The phone calls and social media postings, to me, are tremendously tedious but the visits are a nice change of pace from what you do the rest of the year,” he said. “So recruiting travel wasn’t really anything that wore me down.
“Everyone would ask me, ‘When are you going to call it quits? And I would tell them I have the energy, feel fine. I’m just going to wake up one morning thinking that maybe its time.’ And there was the matter of being able to do this financially. That time had finally come around.
“I have a two-and-a-half year old grandson, Louie, who lives four hours away (in Providence RI). When August came I was off the grid until Thanksgiving and missed his birthday party a couple of times. I hope I can see my son (Jake), and my daughter (Leah), who lives in Brooklyn, more. My wife (Christine) has followed me around all over the country for a long, long time. I would like to spend more time with her in a relaxed manner.
“I thought about the possibility of retiring at the end of the season but said, ‘Let me go through recruiting and we’ll see how I feel.’ At that point we were less than a month from starting spring football and [Surace] would have to hustle to get somebody to replace me. So I kept going.
“I enjoyed the spring, felt kind of revitalized, and then got out on the road to recruit, where was plenty of time to think about it again and again. With my wife, I came to the conclusion that it was time.
“The stress of the season plays a little bit of a part. The losses become tougher and tougher to take while the jubilation for the wins doesn’t last very long because you gotta get ready for the following week.
“I just decided now is the time to bow out. I may be ready to do it again at some point. But I recognize getting back in may not be easy. We’ll see.”
Whether Surace hires from outside or promotes from within, perhaps in 20 years Princeton’s next receiving coach will become as wise as Goldman. It is the price of success–Ivy championships in 2013 and 2016–that Steve Verbit, who has been at Princeton since 1984 and was the lone holdover from Roger Hughes’s staff, is now the only remainder from Surace’s initial hires in 2010.
“I was at the Bengals going through the interviewing process at Princeton when our defensive back coach, Kevin Coyle, who had worked with Dennis (at Holy Cross, Syracuse and Maryland) asked me, ‘If you get the job, would you be interested in Dennis Goldman?” recalls Surace. “I said absolutely; he would be the first coach I would bring in.
“In 1991, my first year of coaching at Springfield (Mass.) College, I had never coached receivers, so I went to hear Dennis (then at Holy Cross) speak at a clinic in Hartford. His ability to communicate wide receiver play, the detail he gave, was amazing to me.”
An offensive lineman for the year-and-a half he played at Southern Connecticut before his shoulder gave out, Goldman became a self-taught expert at the art of getting open. Christine and he mastered the art of power packing, too, through all those stops. Either a better situation would come along, or the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater when there was a change in the head coach. But the closest Goldman came to unemployment was after Bobby Wallace and his staff were let go at Temple following the 2005 season.
He took what he could get, the CFL job in Hamilton, while waiting for a position that could bring a Brooklyn boy closer to home. One year had grown into three in Canada when Surace called. He jumped at the opportunity to come back while Surace seized the opportunity to add vast experience.
“To have a guy with Dennis’s experience on the offense side of the ball was phenomenal,” recalled Surace. “Other than Verbit, that first staff was very young.
“For both teaching the detail and adding value to the pass game in meetings, I don’t know if there is a better wide receiver coach. He played a big role in the development of Seth, a quarterback who never played receiver before stepping on campus.”
Connor Kelley also was a high school quarterback who became an All Ivy receiver. Another of Goldman’s favorite projects, Stephen Carlson went from two receptions in 2016 to 71 last year. DeValve, who became a fourth-round NFL pick in 2016, credits having a college coach who spared no detail.
“I was kind of a blank slate with no habits,” recalls DeValve. “Having a guy who didn’t overlook the little things was super important to me.
“Coach Goldman taught route running in a way that holds true and always will hold true, even as much as the game always evolves. He taught how to run a route successfully, get separation successfully, and get release off the second defender. He coached getting off press coverage at the line of scrimmage, which receiver coaches generally don’t teach, wanting you to use creativity.
“My rookie year (in Cleveland) his teaching still rang true to me, very fresh in my mind. When there are times I am not getting separation and wondering why, I still go back to things coach Goldman taught me and I start to get some separation again. Wow, it really is as simple as he taught it.
“He always preached running straight, vertical, stems, not letting the defender dictate the length of your route or the angle of approach. Sometimes when you get too fancy in your route running you try to move the guy in different ways but the best thing to do is just run a straight line, like Coach taught.
“If the defender is still in the way, keep running, push him off his mark. You really make the job difficult when you do that. At times it’s almost picturing there is no one in front of you and being disciplined in what you do.”
Practice what you preach. Goldman, 68, is on the treadmill every morning by 5:30. “Always said, ‘When you don’t follow a routine, it throws you off,” said Mike Mendenhall, a coach at Temple with Goldman, now Princeton’s outside linebacker coach. A creature of habit develops good ones from his students.
“Very stern, yes,” said DeValve. “Coach demanded the same discipline in route running every time because he knew what worked.
“Whether you were exhausted or fresh, he waned it done the same way and he made that very clear. If you didn’t, sometimes he would throw his hat, sometimes he would just slowly put his head into his hands and kinda shake his head. But usually it would be a very loud projection of your first name. ‘What are you doing?’ he would yell that, too.
“In film study, he would run the same play 60 times. Guys were thinking, ‘gosh go to the next play already’, but in 60 showings he would find 60 different things.”
Driving around this spring, Goldman could think of 60 reasons to keep coaching, three of them being the returning Jesper Horsted, Carlson and Tiger Bech, who combined for 203 catches and 27 touchdowns in 2017.
One more year to enjoy such fruits of his labor? Nah, there is a new batch of receivers to be prepared for roles in 2019, the four-year cycle never leaving a perfect time to call it a day.
“We have some younger players who are going to be terrific; Jake Bermelin and four freshmen coming in,” said Goldman. “You get injuries to the wrong guy then you’re in the deep end of the pool. But I would hope that position is in good shape.”
That position, in good shape to stay by year three of the Surace era, gave a full demonstration of Goldman teachings in Chad Kanoff’s 32-for-36, 423 yards, three touchdown, no picks, performance in the 52-17 rout at Harvard last season.
“As unbelievable as were the 2012 (rally from a 24-point fourth quarter deficit) and 2013 wins (in triple overtime) against Harvard, my favorite win was just this past season at Harvard,” said Goldman. “It was such a thrill to have everyone play so well on Friday night on national television.”
That was because it was about as close as an offense can get to the perfection Dennis Goldman sought.
Seth DeValve heads into year three in Cleveland with 43 catches and four touchdowns on his NFL resume. Caraun Reid, a cut by Detroit, San Diego and Washington last season, caught on with Indianapolis in December and is on their roster headed to training camp. In April, Chad Kanoff became an immediate post-draft free-agent signee by Arizona.
But football is over for Mike Catapano, Princeton’s first NFL draftee in 17 years when he was taken by Kansas City in the seventh round in 2013. After being cut by the Jets and failing to catch on elsewhere during the 2017 season, Catapano is about to begin St. John’s University’s School of Law.
“Outside linebacker (his last position with the Jets after being switched from tackle) wasn’t a good fit for me,” he said. “If I was going to go back, D-line was going to be a requirement but I didn’t get any (invites) there, one of the reasons it ended for me. Some injuries set me back but that’s the way it goes.
“The average term in the NFL is two years. I got five. I started for the Jets; a Long Island guy running out the tunnel to play for his hometown team, that’s dream stuff that I was able to live.
“I got to play in a playoff game (with the Chiefs). Met my wife, a Chiefs cheerleader, there and have a baby, I’m leaving with my health, my brain and a family. What else could you ask for?
“Well, I never got a ring, but never got one at Princeton either. My only regrets.”
Catapano received something almost as good; the satisfaction of being a keystone of a rebuild that took Princeton from 1-9 seasons in his sophomore and junior years to the turnaround 2012, highlighted by the spectacular comeback against Harvard, a shutout of long-term nemesis Brown, and a rout at Yale. That season Catapano was named the defensive Bushnell winner in a vote of league coaches. Through all four years he played, Cat set a standard that was prelude to the championship of 2013.
“Mike Catapano was an incredible leader in every respect,” said Surace. “The example he set on the field and in the weight room was extraordinary. He never took a rep off, and was full speed with everything he did.”