Cradle of Coaches

Men's Hockey Head Coach, Tim CoughlinThe collegiate sports landscape is littered with coaches who pursue positions at bigger schools or higher NCAA divisions only to find they had things pretty good where they were.

That’s not the case at St. Norbert College, where the coaching carousel stops intentionally for many of the men and women who lead the Green Knights’ athletics programs. The vast majority of the college’s head coaches choose to avoid the nomadic nature of the coaching business and spend a significant portion of their careers at a small liberal arts college that competes at the NCAA’s nonscholarship Division III level.

“There have been other opportunities for me, but at the end of the day, you realize the grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” says Dan McCarty, who is in his fourth year as head coach of Green Knights football, and his fifth year overall at St. Norbert.

Coaching stability is a common denominator in the college’s current history-making run of success across the spectrum of sports. In addition to creating a shared expectation of excellence, head coaching consistency is a beneficial variable in the recruitment of high-level athletes.

“We have an institution that people want to be around,” states Tim Bald. He has served as the college’s director of athletics for 15 years. “Our coaches have the chance to be successful and fight to get into the NCAA Tournament on a pretty regular basis. When other opportunities come up, they have to think, ‘Am I going to be able to do that somewhere else?’

“Everything comes at a price. You can’t have do-overs in life. If you’re not careful, you’ll look back and your kids are seniors in high school. There is such a thing as quality of life, and our coaches are professing all the right life lessons to our students.”

‘Quality knows no divisions’
Men’s basketball coach Gary Grzesk knows all about the pressures of Division I athletics. A member of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay team that upset California in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, Grzesk is familiar with the pressure cooker that big-time athletics can be. But it is the words of his legendary coach that continue to resonate with him more than two decades later. Dick Bennett, who made a name for himself at Division III UW-Stevens Point prior to leading the UWGB and Wisconsin programs, was fond of saying that “quality knows no divisions or boundaries.”

“I firmly believe in that philosophy,” says Grzesk, who served as an assistant at Division I Youngstown State and UWGB prior to accepting Division III head coaching positions at Lakeland and, for the last 13 years, at St. Norbert. “It’s very flattering when you hear your name mentioned for other jobs, but I’m at the point now where I don’t need to take a bad job to try and prove myself as a coach, or go up to D-I or D-II to prove myself.

“The pressure to win at the Division I level is very real,” Grzesk notes. “I put enough pressure on myself to do well. I don’t need the extra pressure.”

Division III athletics also allows for part-time coaches to contribute their expertise without sacrificing their day jobs. Women’s soccer coach Dennis Detrie, also a former Division I athlete at UWGB, has filled that niche through 16 successful seasons at St. Norbert. Detrie, a part-time coach, does not have time outside of his full-time job to do the level of off-campus recruiting that would be required at the D-I level.

“There’s still a time commitment for me, but the travel some of these coaches do is crazy,” Detrie says. “I use the school itself as my biggest recruiting tool. We don’t chase kids. We try to get them on campus and once they have some interest, then I have a chance.”

Family matters
Good coaches know the value of time management, along with other performance skills bred from a life lived in balance. McCarty comments: “This is the place I’ve decided to stay, and part of that decision ties into the personal side of things. The higher you go in the coaching ranks, the greater the time commitment. Here we can go home to be great husbands and fathers, and that’s very important to me.”

Above all, family is the most important consideration for Grzesk and his wife, Liz, both of whom coached at Youngstown State and UWGB. Their two school-aged children are entrenched in their own lives, and the couple sees no need to uproot them

Other coaches echo the Grzeskes. “For us it’s a family-comes-first mentality,” says Tim Coghlin, (above) who has led the men’s hockey team to five national championships in his 25 years as head coach. Coghlin and his wife have had multiple opportunities to move, dating back to the late 1990s and a Division I job at Alaska-Fairbanks: “We both went up there and decided against it.”

Skewing the averageWomen's Basketball Head Coach, Connie Tilley
Few coaches in the country can approach the longevity of Connie Tilley, who is embarking on her 42nd season as head coach of the women’s basketball team. With 18 basketball conference titles (and five in other sports), a dozen trips to the NCAA Tournament and a Final Four appearance, Tilley is the embodiment of coaching stability and the consistent success it can produce.

Tilley had an opportunity to jump to the Division I program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh following the 1984-85 season, when her Green Knights advanced to the NCAA Final Four and posted a 24-4 record. After much deliberation, she decided to stick with what she knows best.

“That was a very tough decision,” Tilley recalls. “Once I made the decision that I wanted to stay at St. Norbert, I didn’t look any further. This is where I started my career and this is where I wanted to end my career. When I looked at it as a whole, a lot of it was the philosophy of Division III sports. I feel I align much better there. Basketball for me is a passion, not a business. [Division I] wouldn’t have been a great fit for me.”

Tilley’s career coincided with the emergence of women’s sports at the college following Title IX taking effect in 1972. She has been able to observe how a culture of playing the game the right way and holding athletes accountable can carry on through generations of athletes.

“The huge advantage of being at a place your whole career is witnessing the development of the campus and the rise of all the sports,” she says. “When you have multiple successes in all the sports, it feeds on each other. As a department, we’re very close that way. That in and of itself is a culture. There’s not a single coach or program that I don’t highly respect and cheer for, and I encourage my athletes to support their fellow athletes.”

Following a positive example
Don Augustine witnessed the success of his high school football coach who, not unlike Tilley, had in a 37-year career that played out at a single Ohio school. Augustine knew that example should serve as the blueprint for his own career. Augustine is in his 12th year as head coach of men’s cross country, women’s cross country, men’s track and field, and women’s track and field. He is the first person in St. Norbert history to hold all four positions in a full-time capacity.

“To see all of the tradition and history that he established and the success he had, I just felt I needed to be somewhere for a while to create that type of program,” Augustine says. “When I looked at St. Norbert as a young coach coming in, I saw the success that particularly the football and men’s hockey programs were having, and how you need to establish yourself and your program in order to reap the benefits.”

Augustine’s commitment to St. Norbert has produced quantifiable gains in participation, especially in track and field where the combined men’s and women’s rosters have grown from 35 in his first season to 108 this year. The question of his future plans comes up often when high school athletes and their parents visit campus.

“In about 50 percent of the visits, I will have a parent ask what my plans are. ‘Do you intend to be here for my child’s four-year career?’ ” Augustine says. “You try to be as honest as you can. As an Ohio native, if the (Ohio State) Buckeyes called I’d have to listen. But this is kind of home now and I see myself staying here for a long time.”

The stability and growth of the track program also has attracted a number of alumni back as part-time or volunteer assistants.

“The fact that so many people want to come back and try to grow it beyond what it is,” notes Augustine, “says a lot about St. Norbert and what we’re trying to do.”

Oct. 31, 2018