Cleveland’s ‘hidden gem’ builds pipeline to NFL
|Don Shula, perhaps John Carroll University’s most famous alum, poses with the school’s football team at the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest in Cleveland.
But while the South New Jersey native was in the Buckeye state, his uncle suggested they make a pit stop at John Carroll University.
Situated on Cleveland’s east side, the Jesuit, liberal arts college of 3,700 students is an unlikely source for an NFL pipeline. But over the years, John Carroll has earned a reputation as a breeding ground for future NFL employees.
Some NFL fans may have heard of John Carroll due to London Fletcher (Class of 1998), who spent 16 seasons as an NFL linebacker. But the school’s reach goes much further than that. Currently, there are at least 14 John Carroll alumni and two former coaches working in the league — an inordinately high percentage for such a small institution.
“We’re this little hidden gem in Cleveland, Ohio, with a unique story to tell,” said Dave Vitatoe, executive director of alumni relations.
Most notably, the New England Patriots have seven alumni on their payroll, including offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and director of player personnel Nick Caserio. While the Patriots’ connection to John Carroll is well-documented, there are alumni scattered throughout the league who have charted unique courses.
“It’d be easy to dismiss it if there were [just] one or two people,” sports information director Chris Wenzler said. “Because there’s a good deal of them out there, I think there must be something.”
Tom Telesco (Class of 1995), general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers, was set on being a business major when he arrived on JCU’s campus in 1991. But an important connection to his future came while he was a student at St. Francis High School just outside Buffalo. That’s when he met the Polian family.
Telesco became friends and teammates with Bill Polian’s sons, Brian and Chris. All three eventually attended John Carroll together and played football.
While Bill Polian was general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Telesco had multiple internships with his hometown team while in college. After graduating, Telesco’s business degree and connection to the older Polian got him a scouting opportunity with the expansion Carolina Panthers, where Polian had become GM. After his stint in Carolina, Telesco followed Polian to Indianapolis, where he spent the next 15 seasons before the Chargers hired him in 2013. Now, Telesco is quick to credit both the Polians and his college for his success.
|Tom Telesco (above) and Greg Roman, now with the Ravens, both credit the work ethic they developed at John Carroll for their success in the NFL.
Telesco also points to his relationship with John Carroll teammates and current Jacksonville Jaguars general manager David Caldwell (Class of 1996) and Roman (Class of 1994) as keys to his success.
Not all JCU grads drew on their class connection. For some, including Roman and Ben Milsom (Class of 2001), it was just the right time and place.
While Roman knew the Polians at JCU, he won his first job in football because of a connection he had from a strength training gym where he worked in Long Island. While still living in an attic near John Carroll’s campus, Roman got a call about an opportunity with the strength coach of the Panthers.
“It was definitely a huge factor in my favor that Bill [Polian] was the general manager of the Carolina Panthers when I started,” Roman said, but he cited some form of “divine providence” because “I wasn’t tied into him like Telesco was, or Caldwell.”
Roman agreed to take the job if he could pursue other opportunities within the organization that would prepare him to be a football coach.
“I was able to make myself valuable in a lot of different areas, to where they kept piling responsibilities on me,” he said.
Four years later, Roman moved to the football side of the business full time, and he’s now on his second stint with Baltimore.
Milsom, chief ticketing officer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, didn’t draw on JCU’s alumni to get into sports, instead landing his own gigs in sales for the NHL and NBA before getting a call from a recruiter to start a sales staff in Tampa.
So how does this small college, whose football team plays in the Division III Ohio Athletic Conference, continuously pump out employees to the NFL? To begin to answer that question, you have to go back to the school’s most famous alumnus.
Football and education
While on campus, it’s hard to miss the fact that Don Shula (Class of 1951) graduated from John Carroll. The Hall of Fame coach’s legacy is everywhere, most notably in Shula Stadium, which has about 1,700 more seats than John Carroll has students.
While Telesco had his sights on John Carroll for its business school and football program, the Shula connection made it stand out.
|Jacksonville general manager David Caldwell is a 1996 alumni from John Carroll.
Roman eventually got on board with his detour trip to campus after his uncle told him it was the alma mater to Shula, the coach with the most wins in NFL history.
“If that doesn’t say something, what does?” he said.
Alumni also point to the focus and discipline of the school’s football program as a key factor that prepares John Carroll graduates for careers in the NFL. Both Telesco and Roman said film study, learning basic fundamentals and accountability, and being a part of a program that was competitive on a national level made John Carroll’s program different.
“I always felt like it was Division III football with a Division I feel,” Telesco said. “When I left John Carroll, I feel like I had a base of football knowledge that I’d put up against any other 22-year-old.”
“It’s not a factory. You’re not cattle being herded through a program,” Roman said. “[Former head coach] Tony DeCarlo, when I was there, just ran the program in such a classy manner.”
The football program is so influential that both former players and coaches are getting NFL opportunities. Chris Shula, assistant linebackers coach for the Los Angeles Rams and Don Shula’s grandson, spent one year as John Carroll’s defensive coordinator during the 2014 football season, where he learned about accountability and how to be a “great leader.”
|Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is one of seven John Carroll alumni with the team.
Following his lone season at John Carroll with a nationally ranked defense, Shula was hired by Telesco to help with defensive quality control for the Chargers.
Outside of athletics, John Carroll’s NFL alumni cite their Jesuit education, which they believe put an emphasis on academics while broadening horizons and emphasizing teamwork.
“It’s a healthy, competitive, improvement kind of environment where success is shared communally rather than individually,” said Andy Welki, John Carroll’s faculty athletic representative.
“I was very, very happy with how I was challenged as a student academically. I felt like I had a pretty diverse curriculum,” Roman said.
Milsom cites the serious and focused style of his professors who prepared him for life after graduation.
“You had to be on time, you had to work hard, you had to get good grades, because if you didn’t, you’d get passed up pretty fast,” Milsom said.
John Carroll recognizes its connection to professional sports and established the Mike Cleary Program in Sports Studies in 2014, which focuses on preparing students to be professionals in athletics. Cleary (Class of 1956), former executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, always wanted to give back to the school, but a driving force was undoubtedly the school’s numerous connections to the NFL as a draw to help connect students to sports careers.
‘Not a good ol’ boys network’
Even John Carroll’s NFL alumni struggle to explain the school’s widespread connection to the league and how it happened.
“Different teams, different connections — it’s certainly not a good ol’ boys network,” Telesco said. But he points to a common thread among many of the success stories: work ethic.
“You get your foot in the door and then after that you’ve got to work hard,” he said. “You’ve got to show them that you can handle the job and that you can contribute.”
Each of them remember and recognize the early, gritty years of their careers, and used their time at JCU to get them ahead.
“We all started out on the bottom of the totem pole, and you can say that maybe we were a little bit more prepared to pay those kinds of dues,” Roman said.
There may not be one pathway that JCU alums have taken to get into the NFL, but they all managed to prove themselves and stay in the league. While their college connection may not keep them in the NFL, it’s ultimately a bond they feel now.
“We’re all pulling for one another,” Roman said. “We obviously are very busy taking care of our own agendas and jobs, but I definitely root for all of them. It’s really a testament to the university.”
Ashley Bastock is a writer in Cleveland.