Derick Milgrim was content.
He spent years as an assistant football coach in the Elk Grove Unified School District, molding young lives without the burden of supervising an entire program. He was as noticeable as the blocking sled.
Now Milgrim is the sudden face of the Cosumnes Oaks Wolfpack. He has taken over a program nearly rocked to its foundation when college buddy Ryan Gomes was not retained after summer workouts.
Gomes was floored. He started the program from scratch in 2008 and nurtured it around the clock, producing playoff teams and scholarship athletes of character. School administrators won’t specify why Gomes was let go, but he did not break any laws, nor was he suspended for any transgressions by Cosumnes Oaks, where he still teaches history. Gomes said Sunday that he is pleased for Milgrim and proud of the players for marching forward, heads held high. Though he was “devastated” by the move, Gomes has recovered, too, joining the American River College football staff.
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This is an example of how programs respond, and it’s a cautionary tale for coaches everywhere at this level. Teachers don’t have written, binding contracts to coach, and their “at-will” agreements make them expendable.
Milgrim, 38, said he can only focus on the here and now. Soft-spoken and cerebral, the English teacher has the attention of his players who craved stability and order as the Gomes shocker was followed by the transfer loss of star wide receiver L.J. Reed to Tokay High in Lodi.
There were two routes to take entering this season, Milgrim told his crew on the eve of the season.
“Adversity either breaks you apart or brings you together,” he said. “We’ve come together.”
Winning helps. The Wolfpack beat Bay Area power Marin Catholic of Kentfield 23-10 Friday in an opener in front of a festive, large home crowd. Fans, parents and boosters initially angered and confused by the coaching change accept Milgrim and appreciate his efforts. When Gomes watched his former team scrimmage Elk Grove recently, he was greeted by scores of well wishers, then studied the action in solitude from near the end zone. He’ll watch prep games throughout the region this fall to recruit athletes to ARC.
“Everyone’s bought in, everyone’s supportive, and the kids have responded well,” Cosumnes Oaks athletic director Bill Kapp said. “Life is so short. I told the seniors that this is their last home opener, to enjoy the season. We wish coach Gomes well, and he’s a good guy. And coach Milgrim is setting a nice foundation.”
Milgrim earns admiration for stepping in. He weighed his loyalty with Gomes, whom he played with at Claremont McKenna College, and his school, where he has taught for six years. Gomes encouraged Milgrim to take over and vowed his support from afar. Players still stop by Gomes’ classroom to chat, and Gomes urges them to be leaders, listen to their coaches, and achieve as students and athletes.
“It means a lot that players still come by to talk – parents, too – even though it’s a little surreal,” Gomes said. “I’m not a moper. I was hurt, definitely hurt, and still confused and shocked by this because I was never given any reason. But the team will be fine with Derick. He’s very good.”
So is Jaaron Stallworth. The shifty senior quarterback delights in having the ball in his hands, leading the charge. He’s the point guard for the basketball team, so he’s used to expectations. And Stallworth takes this team and his role seriously.
“I think a lot of people counted us out when we lost coach Gomes and L.J. Reed, but we’re heading in a new direction, have to move on, and we’re going to earn people’s respect,” Stallworth said. “We had to regroup, and we have.”
As for Milgrim, Stallworth said, “He’s a great coach and leader for stepping in like this, and we’ve responded to him. We owe our success this season to him.”
Other players have stepped up, too, including wide receiver Eric Toles and defensive end-linebacker Josh Johnson. Milgrim has a veteran staff in former area head coaches in Lew Lassetter, Jared Brown and Will Hightower. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with Bee-ranked teams in Granite Bay and Rio Linda looming.
Milgrim is no longer anonymous. The burden is his now. His wife, Melissa, understands why his phone buzzes constantly, why he looks so spent.
“I had no aspirations of doing this, but when things went down this summer, I had a real desire to help this program stay together,” Milgrim said. “You do this for the kids, and I believe in them.”