Knight Lifer


Aug. 20, 2014

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By Jenna Marina
UCFKnights.com

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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFKnights.com) - It's something you might not notice at first glance. Professional email signatures have become standard. Sometimes they come with personal touches, sometimes without. Often, they are overlooked, save for the name of the sender.

In Linda Gooch's case, her personal touch is hard to ignore: "Once a Knight, Always a Knight."

The saying is more of a lifestyle, a feeling, a mantra than it is a cliché for the longtime national championship cheerleading coach. Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of her hire date, and it's very clear that the woman is the living embodiment of not only UCF Cheerleading, but UCF Athletics as a whole.

"To say I am a former UCF cheerleader is a feeling beyond proud," Gooch's former teammate and roommate, Jackie Giovanetti, said. "She has always known the heartbeat of athletics and definitely the cheerleading. Linda has made that program what it is today. She worked with the university leaders years ago to get the cheerleading program out of the dark and into the spotlight. Through blood, sweat and tears, she has created such an honorable program."

Gooch grew up in a Navy family. She attended 13 schools in 12 years in port towns spanning from Norfolk, Virginia, to Rota, Spain. Then, the family moved to Orlando, she graduated from Oak Ridge and has stayed put ever since.

"You don't plan it out that way," she said, "but one year leads to the next."

She began as a freshman at UCF in the fall of 1979 when Gemini Boulevard stretched from University to the water tower, and Lake Claire was a hike through the woods. As a commuter student with two jobs (driving trams at Sea World and coaching gymnastics), she didn't have much time for extracurricular activities.

Luckily for UCF, Linda Gooch had assertive and persistent friends.

A high school pal called Gooch on the phone one day after attending a football game and insisted she try out for the cheerleading team. She even went as far as rounding up the initial paperwork for the now-lauded coach.

Gooch, who spent the majority of her youth as a gymnast, had a short-lived career as a cheerleader in high school for one football season. In 1979, cheerleading was becoming less of a pom-pom spectator activity and more of an acrobatic art and sport.

"I went to the clinic, tried out and just absolutely loved it," she said. "Back then we didn't have a coach. We were in charge of ourselves, which is frightening to think about now. This was before there were any safety guidelines or rules. I look back and just marvel that we made it out alive. Back then, it was how high can you build a pyramid? Can you throw people over the top of it? Just crazy things. We were the reasons for the rules now."

She eventually graduated with her bachelor's degree in social science education, married her college sweetheart Alan Gooch and took over the program as its first head coach. It's not a stretch to say she has seen it all. For the most part, she remembers it all, too.

She recalls the start of Knightro 20 years ago. She remembers where she was on the sideline when UCF football coach Gene McDowell decided he'd rather take a penalty than tell the Black and Gold fans to quiet down in their Sept. 17, 1988 matchup against Troy State. Her face still breaks out into a smile when she talks about the men's basketball team clinching a berth to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1994.

She knows details like the time longtime equipment manager Stitch Flanagan needed to supply the football team with L'eggs pantyhose because of a shortage of cold-weather gear for a playoff game at Youngstown State.

As UCF continues to push the benchmark of its success, nothing ever surprises her.

"You look at UCF and it's full of people who didn't want to be a Gator or a Seminole or a Hurricane. They wanted to be a Knight. I think there's an independent streak there, and I think that's part of why I've been here for so long," she said. "It's just a matter of time until we're one of the top athletic programs in the country. It might not be happening as fast as some people would like, but when you have a lot of miles in your rearview mirror and you can see the growth, I really think we're destined for it. There's no way you're going to keep a school like UCF in a second or third-tier position."

Since Gooch's program began competing in the national championships in 1994, the Knights have finished in the Top 10 in 19 of the past 21 years, including three runner-up finishes and two national titles in 2003 and 2007.

While she is proud of her life's work and the reputable program she has built - one whose reputation echoes around the country - she measures her success more so by the character of those who come through her program.

Ryan Rinaldi was an Oviedo native who was turned down by the Coast Guard Academy when he decided to apply to UCF and try out for the team. He was a part of the 1999 squad that broke into the top three at nationals for the first time.

After graduation, he decided to stay on as an assistant coach for five years and still comes back from his home in Austin, Texas, every year to help out at the national championships at Disney.

When he talks about Gooch, he speaks with respect and admiration in his voice. He has stories of times when she chewed him out and stories of when she taught him life skills.

But his favorite story is a more personal one, one that happened while sitting with Coach Gooch and her husband to talk about the process of adoption. The Gooch family now includes two sons, Zach and Noah.

Rinaldi tears up and needs time to compose himself enough to relay the story, even now.

"I was adopted and she had a lot of questions and I was so excited for her. I knew she and Alan would be great parents, and I knew this was something that they really wanted," he said. "The conversation we had, the excitement that she had and the concern that she wanted to make sure she was doing things right - and that she wanted to talk to me about it - really was pretty powerful.

"Linda is an inspiration and role model for people to be able to become viable members of society and independent," he continued. "So much that I have right now somehow connects to my life in college. I have no idea where I would be, and I don't know if I would have become the person that I am today without it. I've learned from Linda how to inspire people to become better."

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