John Carroll University holds a sterling reputation as a school with stellar academics. However, JCU’s football program has also gained notoriety as a breeding ground for NFL talent.
Against the odds, JCU, a small school of just over 3,700 students, has managed to place 12 of its alumni inside one of the most selective fraternities in the world: the NFL.
The legend begins long, long ago in the days when the Cleveland Browns were consistently competitive.
Fresh off an NFL Championship season in 1950, the Browns decided to take a flier in the ninth round of the 1951 NFL Draft on a recent graduate from a small school in the area.
That young man’s name was Don Shula. The 1951 JCU graduate latched onto the Browns roster as a defensive back, attempting to forge his own legacy in the league.
As Shula’s playing days ended and his coaching career began, he began to do just that. He worked his way up from the bottom, advancing from a defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator to head coach.
Following a successful stint with the Baltimore Colts, Shula ascended to the status of living legend in Miami during his 26-year tenure with the Dolphins. While building up a Hall of Fame résumé, Shula also opened up a pipeline between JCU and the NFL.
Even so, the JCU football program did not become an NFL hotbed overnight. Though Shula hired a few fellow Blue Streaks to his coaching staff, only a handful of JCU alumni made the transition before the early 1990’s.
During the heyday of the Buffalo Bills in the 1990’s, Bill Polian was a prominent name. The former Bills general manager built a franchise that appeared in four consecutive Super Bowls. When his son, Chris, decided to attend JCU, the floodgates opened.
Over the course of the next eight years, eight future NFL coaches and executives chose to attend JCU. Drawn in by the appeal of playing at a college with a rich tradition, they found a program rooted in a desire to achieve the “magis.”
Translated from Latin, “magis” means “more.” The motto is a guiding principle of a Jesuit education, encouraging each student to exceed expectations.
“Everybody at Carroll aspired to do something great with their life,” Miami Dolphins wide receivers coach Ken O’Keefe ‘75 said. “I think that’s the part that really catches people.”
Never was the phrase more prevalent than in the football program.
Though JCU is a Division III school in the NCAA, Blue Streaks football has always been treated like a Division I program.
“We were Division III, but we put a lot of work in, in meetings, a lot of tape work,” San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco ‘95 said. “I think I learned a lot about the game just from being around the program.”
The program’s coaches certainly had a lot to do with the atmosphere surrounding JCU football.
The Blue Streaks have been led by many successful coaches, including Herb Eisele, Tony DeCarlo and Regis Scafe over the program’s history. Each coach taught his players more than just the fundamentals of the game.
“Our [old] head coach, Tony DeCarlo, is the ultimate class act,” San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman ‘94 said. “That’s why he was a great leader for all of us young men. I really thought he taught us a great way to handle ourselves and conduct ourselves.”
DeCarlo and his colleagues instilled values such as communication, leadership and hard work in each of their student-athletes. As Ravens Senior Vice President of Football Administration Pat Moriarty ‘93 (MBA) explained, the JCU men were molded into perfect NFLers.
“You’re looking for people who are smart, intelligent, good communicators, good analytical thinkers, because, at the end of the day, those are the people you need to compete and win in this league,” Moriarty said. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit that John Carroll has produced so many people who have gone on to be successful in the NFL.”
JCU head football coach Tom Arth hopes to keep the pipeline flowing. He constantly stresses the importance of humility, which he feels is critical.
“I think that’s probably the biggest factor,” Arth said. “You look at all of the individuals who have done so well in the NFL; they’ve all started at the bottom and have worked tirelessly to advance in their careers and it’s really an incredible testament to their desire and their humility to serve.”