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June 28, 2010

New men’s tennis head coach Josh Goffi doesn’t officially start until July 1, but GamecocksOnline had a chance to sit down with him and his wife, Nancy, during a recent visit to Columbia.

I guess we’ll start at the beginning. You have South Carolina roots, but you didn’t start out a South Carolinian, right?
My father is Brazilian, and my mom’s American. I was born on the beach in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Crazy story, but I was six weeks premature, and my dad delivered me.

Good family bonding moment
Yea, right from the start. But, we moved when I was about two years old to Seabrook Island off the coast of Charleston.

So, you were truly raised a South Carolinian.
Yes, I’m a South Carolinian.


Carlos and Josh Goffi, Duke head coach Ramsey Smith and tennis legend Stan Smith



Was choosing to play tennis just a formality given your dad’s (Carlos Goffi) coaching reputation?
No, actually, my dad did not want me to play tennis. He used to go around to give talks to all the USTPA (United States Tennis Professionals Association) and USPTR (United States Professional Tennis Registry) conventions around the country on player-parent relations, which was getting out of control. It’s one of the things that puts a bad mark on tennis. So, he had to practice what he preached, and didn’t want me to [start] playing tennis [at a young age]. I was a soccer player, and was dying to be a soccer player coming from Brazil.

My father’s run tennis camps since I was five, and all the best players in the country have come through there – the McEnroe’s, the Gimelstob’s, everybody. Every summer, I used to cry because he wouldn’t let me play at his camps. When I was 14, I told him I really wanted to play because it looked so fun. I saw all these kids that I was friends with out there playing, and I was just picking up balls and waiting for the day when we’d do soccer fitness. So, finally he let me do one week. He and I had always hit around just for fun, and he enjoyed it. I think in the back of his head, he always knew I wanted to be a tennis player, but he wanted to hold me back a little to see what happened since I had grown up with tennis in my blood. The last thing he wanted me to do was hate him and hate tennis, which happens to a lot of kids. So I started playing, and I got the bug.

What was the thing about tennis that pulled you in?
Initially, it was because I was around the best in the world growing up, and they were my idols. I was a soccer fan and loved Pele and all the guys from Brazil, but I idolized McEnroe and even all the highly-ranked juniors. I used to read every junior tennis magazine just because to me it was the coolest thing ever.

Once it grabbed me, it was the individual competitiveness that I didn’t get from soccer. I loved hanging out with my friends, but I love the fact that [in tennis] it’s all on you. Win or lose, it’s all on you. You take the glory, but you also take the losses. I started learning a lot about myself playing tennis growing up.

Tennis is one of the greatest sports in the world. If you’re raised correctly in tennis, it shows you how to be an individual and how to succeed in anything in life. It’s solely you out there. You can’t hide. That’s what was addicting to me about it. In soccer, if I wasn’t feeling it that day, I could just make my passes and just see if we won or lost. In tennis, if you’re not having a good day, you have to find a way to win. To me, that’s life. If things aren’t going great, you have to find a way to adapt and get through it. As I’ve gotten older, that’s become a lot more clear to me. As the level raises, the details start to matter more.

That’s something I try to relate to the players on my team. What they’re going to learn in my program is how to be great at something – not just tennis. Tennis is great as a sport, but it’s a learning tool for life. And, that’s what they’re here for. [College] is the four most influential years of their life. My college coach is a second father to me. He was so inspiring to me as a coach, and that’s something that I would love to carry on, that tradition of having a great mentor in those four years and teach about life and yourself.

Did your dad coach you through your junior career?
He played a very hands-off kind of coach. He didn’t want to be that overbearing father. He was kind of that guy sitting up there, looking down and having other people work with me. He put his two cents in and I’m sure talked to them about what I needed to work on. He’s one of the greatest coaches in the world, by far, and I respected his word. But, at the same time, you have the father-son relationship, and [coaching] can really hurt that. What he wanted first and foremost was to have a great relationship with his son rather than coach a great tennis player.

After your junior career, you went on to play four years at Clemson. There are a lot of things that go into choosing where to play in college, aren’t there?
Most kids started playing in [tennis] tournaments when they were eight, but I didn’t start until I was 14. So I was way behind the learning curve. My dad used to call me green, like a green banana that needed spots and to get yellow. A lot of coaches could see that I was well coached and going to be a good player in a matter of time. There are certain coaches that only recruit on paper instead of looking at raw talent. In men’s tennis, you need to do that because there are a lot of guys that don’t mature until their junior year of college then become amazing players.

We had an example of that right here this season with Pedro Campos, who just flew up the national rankings for the first time his senior year.
Exactly. He’s a perfect example and couldn’t be a better kid. As a side note, when I played Davis Cup for Brazil, he was on my practice team. They always bring in juniors to practice with the pros, and he was a little squeaky kid running around.

Really small world. So, you were one of those late-developing players, too.
I wasn’t one of the top 20 kids in the U.S. going into college. I think I was in the 60s, which for a lot of the top schools, isn’t really highly ranked. There were a few highly-ranked schools that recruited me. I was physically immature and needed some maturing mentally as well, and I needed to go to the program that was going to teach me to do that. I chose Clemson because of that.


Josh and Nancy Goffi



It turned out to be a great decision for you, too, because that’s where you met your wife, Nancy.
Nancy [laughing]: It was a great decision.
It was the best decision.

How did you two meet?
We met freshman year. We’ve been together for 12 years, married for 4-1/2. It’s been a long time, but it’s been great. We met at the Clemson version of The Dodie. We’d see each other every night at study hall, and my entire team was in love with her and her identical twin sister that also was an accomplished soccer player at Clemson. They were “the twins” that everyone loved and adored. At that point, I was not having anything of it, basically ignored them.

So, not love at first sight?
Well, it kind of was, but I was, like, `Okay, you’re stronger than that.’ It was one of those things where I didn’t want to be like the rest of my team and fall in love the twins. I didn’t want to be a groupie.

Wow, Nancy, you had groupies?
I don’t know what he’s talking about!
I’m totally serious. She’s gets embarrassed easily. So, she basically ended up asking me out to dinner.
Yes, I did. I’m pretty proud of that.
From that point, it was history.

And you guys are expecting a baby.
A little baby girl

And, you’re due when?
July 29th
Five weeks away

So, the stress level in your house is pretty high these days – new job, new baby, house hunting…
Yes, but no. We so excited to get here and couldn’t be more excited to move to South Carolina. We’ve wanted to get back to South Carolina for so long.
It’s one of our favorite states. We went to school in South Carolina. We got married in Charleston. We love every part of it. We’re really close to Atlanta, where Nancy’s family is. It couldn’t be a better move, and every time we come here we’re excited to get on with it.
It’s exciting to know that we’re going to be here for a while, too. We’ve been assistant coaches hopping around for a couple years.

So, you’re three-time All-ACC as a Tiger, then you go on to play professionally. What’s the biggest difference in the college game and the ATP level?
I really was still developing. I was top 10 in the country in college for a short stint, top 20 most of my career, because I was more athletic and had a bigger serve and forehand than a lot of players. I wasn’t the smartest player on the court at that point. I got away with that in college, but all the things I learned in college I hadn’t quite put into practice yet. There was a lot of information coming my way and I had trouble digesting it, to be honest. When I turned pro, the athleticism, the big forehand, the big serve – that’s everybody in the top 500. So, I started studying tennis. All the things I learned in college and then I could see the best players in the world doing it right in front of me. I’d watch Rafael (Nadal). I’d watch Roger (Federer). I’d study what made them that much better than me. I made some huge jumps. My coach had always said that when I turned pro that I’d really [expand] my game, so I was counting on that, waiting for that. It kind of did right off the bat, but then I had a slump. I made a few jumps after that and ended up doing really well in doubles.

When did you know it was time to stop playing and start coaching?
I had one knee surgery, and from that I developed a cyst on my left ACL. Without my serve, I’m not exactly the greatest player. And, my serve put a lot of pressure on my knee. It became a real nuisance. Towards the last year, I was winding down and not feeling like I wanted to play anymore because it was more of a hassle than a joy because of the physical pain.

At that point, Nancy was winding down with her professional career, and we lived in Europe for a year and a half after that. We came back to the U.S., and she was in and out with the (U.S. Soccer) national team. She needed a place to train, have a physio and a strength trainer and be able to work on her skills so that whenever she did go back with them, she could have a good showing. That wasn’t happening in Atlanta where we were based, so her old college coaches invited her out to coach with them at Arizona State. We decided it was time to go, and December 1 we went.

You spent two years with Duke’s men’s team. So, I have to ask – how did you ever make it past [athletics director] Eric Hyman? You’re a Clemson grad and he’s building this program; he’s a North Carolina alum and you worked at Duke.
[Laughs] I have no idea. Eric is amazing. Maybe Marcy [Girton, deputy athletics director] softened him up a little bit. He has been great through the whole process. He knew the Clemson thing was going to be an issue with fans and donors, and likewise at Clemson. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from them, too.

What about your conversations with Eric made you feel like South Carolina was a good fit, that this is where you could build the type of program you want to build?
Number one, he runs his athletic department like a business, and that makes sense to me. I believe the whole “get rich quick” schemes are trash. You have to build a foundation first, even if it takes a lot of time. You’re not going to build a skyscraper from the ground up. You have to go down 40 levels and start there. From talking to him, it sounds like that’s what he’s doing.

The facilities are the base. You can bring in the greatest coaches, but without the facilities, there are still doubts in recruits’ minds. You have to have the entire package, which he’s done. He’s brought in amazing coaches as far as the basketball coaches and football coaches. He’s taken the necessary steps.

Most importantly, I like the culture he’s instilling here. I’m a big guy with culture. For me, the right culture breeds excellence. You can do all the recruiting and all the things you can control, but without the right culture players won’t grow, young men won’t grow into full-grown men. Eric has an accountability structure – integrity, honesty, hard work. In today’s age, there’s not enough accountability for young people. Eric and Raymond [Harrison, directory of academics and life skills] are both big on that as well. That was very inspiring to me, talking to Raymond and seeing his views on things. I got very excited and could see that this was it. It was exactly what I’d been preaching. We’re in the business of winning, but we’re in the business of doing things right and having some integrity.

For lack of a better phrase, let’s do some “lightning round” type questions now.

To be a successful college tennis player, you have to have…
[Long pause]
The problem is he’s got a whole paragraph of things he wants to say.
There are about 500 answers in my head right now.

Okay, you can give us two.
In order to be a great college tennis player, you have to have great fundamentals and the willingness to work hard.

You’d still be playing professional tennis if you had…
Better returns.

It drives your wife up the wall when…
I’m on my cell phone doing business while she’s talking to me.
[Laughing] And, I ask you a question and you don’t respond.

Your biggest pet peeve is…
Sitting in traffic. It’s the biggest waste of time.

Before you can move in, your new house has to have…
A media room.
A man cave.

The thing you’re most looking forward to about being a dad is…
Holding my little girl.

The thing you’re most worried about in becoming a dad is…
To be honest, I’m not worried at all. I’m extremely excited, and I know that Nancy’s going to be an amazing mom. I’ve been wanting to be a father for a long time, so I’m ready.

The more accomplished athlete between you and your wife is…
That’s not even a question. I say it all the time. She’s the athlete of the family.

The habit you wish you could kick is…
Biting my fingernails.

The accomplishment you’re most proud of is…
Playing Davis Cup for Brazil in 2004, but in about five weeks, it’ll be having our little girl.

Driving in the car, you always listen to…
Pearl Jam.