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GSF All-Star Football Coach of the Month | Nelson Gifford – Palo Alto Vikings

Posted October 8, 2018 by in


GSF All-Star Football Coach of the Month | Nelson Gifford – Palo Alto Vikings

by: Pranav Iyer

2013. The last time Palo Alto High School didn’t have a losing record. It was the final year of the legendary Keller Chryst, who went on to play at Stanford, and Earl Hansen, one of the most iconic and successful coaches in CCS history. Since then, they have put together a string of four straight losing seasons. There was a lot of turnover in the coaching staff as they tried to bring back the winning culture, but not much was changing.

Then, came in Nelson Gifford. The former PAHS graduate, started his coaching career as an undergraduate assistant at UC Davis under coach Bob Biggs. From 2016-2017, he was the head coach of the Fremont Firebirds. After posting a 12-8 record in his two seasons with the program, he was offered the head job at PAHS. To him, it was an offer he couldn’t let slip by.

“It is where I first started playing football,” Gifford said. “The chance to come back to the school that I graduated from, coach kids that were in the same place I was 20 years ago, seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Gifford was the third head coach that PALY had in the past five years, so there had been little stability in the program. He understood the situation and realized that he would have to do everything in his ability to gain the respect of his players. After being hired in March, he held meetings with players and their parents, implemented a weight training regimen, emphasized the culture that he wanted to build and hired a coaching staff that he believed would implement this culture. To his surprise, his players quickly bought into the system, as they began to realize the potential they had as a collective.

In addition to the culture, Gifford also changed the offensive and defensive schemes significantly from previous years. Historically, PAHS has been a ‘undercenter West Coast team.’ Gifford completely changed that narrative by implementing the spread offense, a style that he was accustomed to and had much expertise in. On the defensive side, they became a much more aggressive-minded team, still with an emphasis on playing technically sound football.

“I definitely thought we had the potential and talent to be one of the best teams in the CCS,” PAHS running back Aiden Chang said. “But I wasn’t so sure that there could be a coach that could utilize all of our potential and gameplan to be this good. But now I know this coach knows what he’s doing.”

However, there were not many that took the Vikings seriously apart from themselves. They were nowhere to be found on most preseason rankings. Even after convincing wins against Saint Ignatius HS and Half Moon Bay HS in the opening weeks, they were still mostly under the radar.

It was the game against McClymonds HS that really attracted eyes to the Vikings. MHS was a two-time defending champion who had not lost a game since September of 2016. Gifford said that there were number of people who had the Vikings winning this game was ‘probably zero percent.’ After allowing a touchdown on the opening kickoff and throwing an interception on the second play from scrimmage, the Vikings buckled down on both sides of the ball and gritted out a 29-20 victory.

“Winning that game told all the kids that when we are playing at or near our best football, we can compete at a high, high level,” Gifford said. “To have that under your belt, playing a championship team, was huge for us.”

From there, PAHS head into league play and dethroned another reigning state champion in Milpitas HS. This was a team that they had not beaten since 2011. In the past two meetings PAHS lost by scores of 42-0 and 49-0. The 41-13 thrashing that the Vikings delivered to the Trojans this year solidified them as one of the favorites in the CCS and set up a monster game of the unbeatens against De Anza Division foe Wilcox HS.

The Vikings started the game slow and fell down 28-7 in the third quarter. Despite a valiant second half performance by quarterback Jackson Chryst that included a touchdown pass to cut the lead to 7 with just minutes remaining, the Vikings fell short and were dealt their first loss of the season.

“We weren’t happy about it and we do not believe that we played our best game but I don’t think we made it easy for them,” Gifford said. “They had to play their best game and they really did.”

Just to put things in perspective, the Vikings have knocked off two defending state champions and a state championship runner up in HMBHS with just 33 players on their roster, none of which are the slightest bit on the national radar.

“I think we have some phenomenal athletes,” Gifford said. “They have exactly zero stars between them but I’ve been around football long enough to know a college football player when I see one. No we don’t have the Big 12 top signee but that’s not what its about. It’s about us all believing in each other and playing the games as best as we can.”

While the Viking defense has been much improved this season, it is the offensive efficiency that has really stood out. Through seven games, the Vikings are putting up 34.3 PPG, nearly doubling their average from last year. Almost every major offensive contributor from last season’s 3-8 team and this season are the same, meaning there was not much of an influx of added talent. Chryst has already surpassed several of his numbers from last season, including passing yards and passing touchdowns. He is also far more efficient, boasting a significantly higher completion percentage and passer rating. Chang at running back and Jamir Shepard at receiver are both on pace for 1,000+ yard and 15+ touchdown seasons. While this is definitely a sign of individual improvement and maturation of the players, it really is a testament to Gifford’s system and the culture that he has implemented. He has been able to utilize the individual talent on his team and bring them together as a fluid collective to cause havoc on opponents.

Outside of football, Gifford is also a special education teacher at PAHS with an expertise in math. He is also happily married and has a five month old child that has added a new responsibility in his life.

“I’ve got a new teaching job, a new coaching job and a new kid,” Gifford happily said. “It’s pretty sweet.”

In just the past few months there has been so much change and unfamiliarity in Gifford’s life. But through it all, he has been able to keep a level head and lead the Vikings to unthought of successes. The loss to WHS does not mean that the Vikings magical run is over. In fact, it is just getting started. They still are in a great position to finish the season 9-1 and claim the top seed in the CCS Open Division I playoffs. From there, Gifford and this tough-nosed group of 33 Vikings have a real chance of becoming one of the great turnaround stories in high school football.

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About the Author

Alforde Joaquin

ALF’s passion for shooting and editing has earned him several awards including an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2006 for Videography. He was also a nominee for the National Edward R. Murrow Award for Videography. A 6-time Emmy recipient for five different categories: Director/Producer, Videography, Editing, Feature Segment and Sound Mixing, Alf has produced over 1,000 video segments and is committed to developing GetSportsFocus as one of the best sports video magazine on the web.


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