When Bob Gaddis came to Columbus in 2001 to interview for the Columbus East head football coaching job, it was like a farmer picking out land to grow his crops.
Gaddis knew that nothing was going to grow without fertile land.
So Columbus, take a collective bow, for this city and its residents played a big role in a Hall of Fame career.
“The thing I remember is that East had a lot of potential,” said Gaddis, who will be inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame on Saturday evening at Harrison Lake Country Club. “The community itself was successful and driven.
“It was an intriguing community.”
We often argue long and hard about money spent to upgrade our parks or our arts district. We aren’t sure if it makes sense to spend money to make our downtown area more vibrant or to provide residents with quality-of-life perks.
But all the things that build a strong community are factors that attract residents like a Gaddis, who has influenced thousands of local kids since he arrived. Gaddis was a first-class citizen, and he wanted a first-class community.
Before Gaddis ever coached a kid, he and his wife, Karen, fell in love with Columbus.
Then Gaddis started to take care of “the little things.”
“Football was growing in popularity in Indiana at the time, and I thought I had an opportunity to instill dedication,” Gaddis said. “Bill Jensen was the principal and Glen Brown was the athletic director, and they wanted to run a well-respected program.
“All the ingredients were there to run a championship-type program. Our location was good and there was a youth league program in place. The facilities needed to be improved ... we had a tiny weight room ... but everyone was on board.
“Our biggest challenge was to get good athletes playing football. We had 38 kids dressed out to play football, 10th to 12th grades, that first year. So we went out into the community to talk to kids. ‘You’re the type of kid we’re looking for.’ We were visible at the middle schools and we went to PAAL to generate interest.”
Every year, except for one, since 2001, Columbus East has had a freshman class of 30 or more football players. This year, the class will be between 40 and 45 players.
When the players showed up, playing the games was the easy part.
In 2001, the Olympians went 6-5 in Gaddis’ first year.
“There were some good players on that team,” Gaddis said. “But we had no depth. We started the season 0-3, losing by 4, 4 and 7 points. Each of those games we had a chance to win.
“We weren’t strong enough physically.”
Even so, East shocked No. 1-ranked East Central 44-38 in double overtime in the sectional opener before getting beaten by Whiteland in the second round.
“I wish I would have had an opportunity to coach that group of seniors longer,” Gaddis said. “That group laid the foundation.”
Gaddis also laid the foundation by starting a two-platoon system on his freshman team that first year.
In 2002, East had its only losing season (5-6) under Gaddis. But the Olympians, who had a small senior group, won four games in a row after starting the season 1-5.
The next season, East served notice that it was headed in the right direction. The Olympians beat three-time defending Hoosier Hills Conference champ Seymour 28-21. Stevie Brown, now a defensive back with the New York Giants, caught a late touchdown pass.
“That game got us over the hump,” Gaddis said.
It was 2004 when the East football powerhouse emerged. The Olympians ran off 13 consecutive wins, losing to Roncalli in the semistate, 15-14. “That team raised the bar for our program,” Gaddis said.
East has not lost more than two games in a season since 2004. The Olympians haven’t lost a conference game since 2006.
It culminated with a state Class 4A title in 2013.
“I think we always had a feeling we were going to get it done,” Gaddis said. “We didn’t talk about it, but we knew it was our goal. And even when we got behind in the championship game, there wasn’t any panic.
“Winning was a feeling you can’t describe. And it was great to do it for this community, the way they got into it.
“The whole thing was pretty phenomenal.”
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 379-5632.