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Former GBHS head football coach leaves legacy in passing

POSTED March 13, 2012 11:22 p.m.

AMARILLO, TEXAS — Former Great Bend High School Panthers head football coach Mike Zoffuto passed away on Sunday, Feb. 26, at Northwest Texas Hospital. Zoffuto, age 65, will long be remembered for the mark he left on Great Bend.
Zoffuto coached the Panthers during the 1977 and 1978 campaigns, leading them into the state playoffs during both seasons. For some programs, this is old hat, but for GBHS it was a long shot.
Coach Z took over a program that finished 0-9 during the 1976 season after a string of injuries and hard luck on the gridiron. When Zoffuto took the controls, it was with the hopes that he could resurrect the once proud Panthers into what the community had long yearned for.
As for his pedigree, Zoffuto came from a very special and rare background. Mike served in the United States Marine Corps for six years, from 1969 to 1974. He served as a First Lieutenant during the Vietnam War and was honored with many decorations, including two Purple Hearts, The Bronze Star Medal for Valor in combat, The Navy Commendation Medal for Valor in combat, The National Defense Service Medal with Star, The Vietnam Service Medal with Star, The Vietnam Campaign Medal and The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star.
Zoffuto was a 1964 graduate of Brockway (Pa.) High School. He received a B.S. in Sociology and an M.A. in Psychology from West Texas State University.
Zoffuto played football for the Buffs of WTSU from 1965-68, as well as for the Quantico Marines (USMC) in Quantico, Va., in 1969. Before injuries ultimately derailed his playing career, the San Diego Chargers drafted him in 1968.
Prior to Coach Zoffuto’s arrival in Great Bend, he had been an assistant coach with the Quantico Marines (1971), Dodge City Junior College (1974), and the University of Kansas (1975-76).
GBHS was the first head coaching responsibility for Zoffuto and he parlayed that into two of the most memorable seasons for the community. During Zoffuto’s tenure, the Panthers went 7-2 in 1977 going to the first round of the state playoffs having only lost to then No. 1-ranked Dodge City on a last-second touchdown.
GBHS then faced Winfield, losing 14-6, ending its first “We Believe” season under Coach Zoffuto.
Year 2 under Zoffuto started out with a degree of difficulty that had not been seen by other Panthers teams as GBHS was placed in Class 6A for the first time. 6A football was always a haven for the eastern Kansas powerhouses and the Wichita city league schools.
Great Bend, however, was not going in unarmed as this senior class version of the Panthers had played together successfully for several years, dating back to the days at Harrison Junior High when they went undefeated and unscored on as eighth graders and undefeated as freshman. During their sophomore campaign, they were able to continue that trend going 6-3, followed by the aforementioned 7-2 along with the senior class of 78.
The script for that season could not have been written any better. Much like the football craze in Texas, Great Bend came alive with an overwhelming excitement and support for Zoffuto and his second season.
Looking like an episode of Friday Night Lights long before the movie even came out, townspeople surrounded the practice fields and game nights just to be a part of the action.
Then-GBHS social science teacher Homer Kruckenberg even got on the bandwagon, dubbing the offensive linemen “Hogs” and giving out awards for what he and the coaches regarded as outstanding play. Police Chief Hank Salmans even had sideline seats as he traveled with the Panthers during the season.
The Booster Club had even started an Honorary Coach drawing where the winning member enjoyed the chance to travel with the team as they prepared for the game, including all pre-game meetings as well as the team meal and church service. Once the game started, the winner was rewarded by being on the sideline with the Panthers.
With the community in full football frenzy, Zoffuto and his talented group of eager juniors and experienced seniors gave Great Bend the ride of its life.
This season’s Panthers would go on to an undefeated regular season, dispatching Liberal, Dodge City, Junction City, Hutchinson, Garden City, Salina Central, Hays, Salina South and Wichita Northwest, allowing only 37 points for the regular season.
In the regional playoffs, Great Bend was pitted against Emporia. This was not only a historic match-up with one of the eastern Kansas teams, but GBHS was the host for the game. Emporia gave the Panthers a tussle but in the end, Great Bend captured their first playoff win in years with a 31-21 victory.
In the sub-state semifinals, Great Bend was matched up against the Golden Buffaloes of Wichita Southeast. Southeast, a longtime powerhouse in Kansas football, was considered “loaded” with eventual Division-I signees with the University of Kansas and the University of Nebraska. 
On an ice-covered Cessna Stadium on the campus of Wichita State University, the two foes squared off. 
The speed of Wichita Southeast would prove to be too much as the Buffs were able to hold off the Panthers taking the game 23-15.
While the loss ended the season for Great Bend, it did not stop the community from being Panthers crazy. That craziness and his success in Great Bend, led Zoffuto to his next opportunity as he moved on to Mount Pleasant Texas High School where he coached from 1979-1985. After Mount Pleasant, Zoffuto continued to be highly sought after to build programs, landing him at Red Oak  (1986), Lake Highlands (1987-95), and W. T. White (1999-2005), all high schools in Texas.
As a head coach, Zoffuto’s overall record was 204-90. He took three different teams to the Texas State Playoffs 14 times in an 18-year period.
Zoffuto will long be remembered by his players whom he coached as well as those who had the opportunity to know him. Zoffuto gained national fame as an analyst for a local cable telecast of the Plano East-Tyler John Tyler game at Texas Stadium.
When a Plano East rally was negated by a game-winning touchdown return by John Tyler, an anguished Zoffuto said, “God bless those kids,” paused, and then said, “I’m sick. I think I’m gonna throw up.” That statement was indicative of how Zoffuto felt about football and its gladiators. He always wanted the best out of them and found ways to bring it out in the players from GBHS whom had the honor of his tutelage.
Zoffuto had been living in an Alzheimer’s Care Center due to early onset Dementia for the last few years.
A memorial service was held for Coach Zoffuto on Friday, March 2, in Amarillo.


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