How Division III school John Carroll became a Patriots pipeline
HOUSTON — There’s a secret hidden away in a Cleveland suburb that leads to the New England Patriots.
The team will face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl LI. It will be its seventh championship game for the franchise in the past 16 seasons, and a victory would give the Patriots five titles in that span. The reasons for New England’s dominance are numerous.
One is a group of employees who have something in common: a link in Northeast Ohio.
“You may not play for an NFL franchise if you come to John Carroll,” Andy Welki, associate professor of economics, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone call, “but you might run one.”
New England has seven full-time football staffers who played football for the Blue Streaks and graduated: offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (Class of ’99); director of player personnel Nick Caserio (‘99); assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski (‘99); director of pro personnel Dave Ziegler (‘00); coaching assistant Nick Caley (‘06); pro scout Frank Ross (‘10); and scouting assistant D.J. Debick (‘12).
So how exactly does this Division III school in University Heights, Ohio – one whose total enrollment is only 3,673, plays in the Ohio Athletic Conference, and has a stadium that seats just 5,146 – have a direct pipeline into the NFL’s most prolific dynasty?
Don Shula (’51) started it. He was the school’s first alumnus to establish deep NFL roots.
Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian had two sons, Brian and Chris, attend John Carroll in the 1990s. Tom Telesco and Dave Caldwell played alongside the Polian brothers on the football team. And at every stop, Bill Polian brought along Telesco and Caldwell and helped launch their careers.
Telesco, now, is the general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers, and Caldwell holds the same title for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The Polian family was incredibly impactful,” Dave Vitatoe, John Carroll’s executive director of alumni relations, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone call. “But you look at the Patriots, and it was this other tree. And it all started with Josh McDaniels.”
McDaniels and Caserio were recruited to play quarterback for the Blue Streaks. They competed for the same job. Caserio won.
McDaniels swapped positions, became a wide receiver, and caught 41 passes for 732 yards and seven touchdowns in two seasons. Caserio went on to hold more than a dozen school records at the time of his graduation.
Off the field, teammates often made fun of McDaniels, Caserio, Ziegler, and Schuplinski because they were so straight-laced and – well – kind of nerdy.
Caserio oozed starting quarterback, led by example, and rallied his teammates. At house parties, he never drank. McDaniels was quiet, cerebral, sometimes kept to himself. The two usually commanded a corner and obsessed over football.
“Frankly, I attribute that to their discipline,” said Vitatoe, who was a teammate at John Carroll. “That’s probably why they’re there and we’re not.”
McDaniels earned his degree and broke into coaching under Nick Saban at Michigan State for one season as a graduate assistant in 1999. There, he met Brian Daboll, who held the same title, and is currently the Patriots tight ends coach.
The next year, Daboll applied for a defensive coaching assistant role in New England. He got the gig.
McDaniels, meanwhile, became a laminated plastics salesman and was out of football altogether. That changed when Daboll called him.
Daboll wanted to move up the ranks in New England. In order for him to do that, however, he would need someone to fill his spot. Daboll told Patriots coach Bill Belichick about McDaniels, who interviewed, was offered the job and accepted.
McDaniels went full bore into his new role, and Belichick came to trust him from very early on in his career. The son of a distinguished high school football coach in Ohio, McDaniels spoke Belichick’s language.
When a personnel assistant position came open, Belichick asked McDaniels if he knew of anyone who would be a fit. He didn’t hesitate. McDaniels suggested Caserio.
That was the birth of the John Carroll-Patriots pipeline.
“There has been a chain of us that have recommended people that we know,” McDaniels told USA TODAY Sports. “We trusted they were going to work hard. We knew they were smart. Even though they may not have had much experience, we knew they could learn it. None of us have ever let the other guy down, and it has created this great brotherhood. We’re a stronger team because of it.”
Each John Carroll hire in New England had the same blueprint: recommendation, interview, low-rung gig, grunt work.
There was the time Ross, then a junior receiver, staked out Caserio’s induction into the John Carroll Hall of Fame in 2009, waited until the ceremony was over, and introduced himself. Caserio was so impressed that two years later, he brought Ross in for an interview and hired him as a scouting assistant.
Or the time in 2009 when Ziegler was a special teams coordinator – for a high school in Arizona – and McDaniels (then the head coach of the Denver Broncos) made him one of the most influential voices in the personnel room.
Or how Schuplinski was three months into his defensive coordinator job at John Carroll in 2013, but had to let the program know he’d no longer be able to fill that role. The Patriots had called about a coaching assistant.
“They had their group, and loyalty was everything,” assistant athletic director for communications Christopher Wenzler, who is in his 27th season with the program, told USA TODAY Sports on the phone. “They had that in college and they still do. It’s their version of the Patriot Way.”
John Carroll couldn’t ignore all of this.
The University launched the Mike Cleary Program in Sports Studies in 2014 as an academic major to teach leadership in administration, coaching and business.
The surest path to the NFL, however, remains through the football program.
Debick played cornerback at John Carroll, interned on the business side with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and coached two seasons for the Blue Streaks. But he wanted to break into pro ball.
During meetings with Vitatoe, the two laid out a plan mirroring how McDaniels, Caserio and the others got started. They drew up what it would take: starting at the bottom, long hours, low pay, cutting up film, toiling through the preparation of scouting reports, sleeping in the facility.
The grind is a non-negotiable requirement. As long as that’s clear, the program will set up the phone calls.
“The fact that we’re all here will do one thing,” McDaniels said. “It’ll get you a conversation. But if you cannot deliver value to our organization, we’re going to have no use for you. Being from John Carroll distinguishes you from a pile of strangers. But don’t think that just because you know somebody here, that we’re going to take you on because we went to the same school. I didn’t bring anyone with me. All those guys earned it through what they did when they got here.”
There are seven now, but pipeline could keep growing.
Jovon Dawson is coming off of an All-American senior season as a cornerback.
But his dream isn’t to play on Sundays. It’s to watch in a suite as a general manager. And through the program’s connections, he already has calls lined up with NFL teams. Once the season ends, the Patriots may be one of them.
“Honestly, I wasn’t even considering John Carroll,” Dawson told USA TODAY Sports in a phone conversation. “It was five minutes from my house and I could walk to it every day if I wanted to, but they weren’t an option. Once I learned about the success graduates were having in the NFL, though, that was it. That was all I needed. Where else could I get that?”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.
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