Dan McCarty Proves ‘Uncommon’ Coach for St. Norbert Green Knights
When you play just a few miles away from one of the most storied franchises in American sports it is a supreme understatement to say that there is a bit of pressure. Located in DePere, WI, St. Norbert College stands in the shadow of the Green Bay Packers, the NFL team that reached such an incredible level of supremacy that they earned the city the name “Title Town.”
With that kind of moniker attached to the city, it is easy to see that any team playing football in or around the region, regardless of the level, has a great deal of pressure on it to live up to that title. Whether that team is Bayport High School or the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the expectation across the Dairy State is that winning is the only option. As Title Town’s most famous coach once quipped, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” That is the expectation.
For 15 seasons St. Norbert College has lived up to that vision. The Green Knights have gone a combined 144-34 during that span, including eight trips to the NCAA Division-III playoffs. It is a school that is built on excellence, both on the field and in the classroom.
With that kind of expectation and legacy surrounding the program, there is a great deal of pressure on the head coach to keep the tradition of excellence alive. Prior to this season, just ten men had patrolled the sidelines as the school’s head football coach, as this became one of the best places in Division-III to coach.
Two years ago the Green Knights had a new coach looking to live up to the impressive resume of the school, but he found the challenge a daunting one and left after one season. The team finished 6-4, a quality year, but not the expectation of an institution that had won the conference title the previous two seasons.
Last season may not have produced the results that were expected, but it did bring hope for a very bright future. That hope came in the form of defensive coordinator Dan McCarty.
Coach McCarty has an impressive resume of his own that dates back over 17 seasons. Dan’s coaching career began as a result of his keen insights into the game, which were first noticed when he was a player.
“My pathway to coaching actually started from a game playing in Eau Claire,” the coach recalls. “I was playing for Bob Nielsen who is now the head coach at Western Illinois. I just remember being on the sidelines and saw something that we could take advantage of and he called it and we wound up making a big play on it. After the season he offered me the opportunity to start coaching and it was a way for me to stay involved in a game I loved.”
Including his time at UW-Eau Claire, the Coach has also coached at his high school alma mater, Sturgeon Bay High School, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, UW-Stout, Southern Door High School, and even included a summer coaching in Norway. In 2013 he was at Southern Door when Steve Opgenorth became the head coach of the Green Knights.
One of the first things that Coach Opgenorth did was to hire Al Johnson as his offensive line coach. Coach Johnson has been a long-time friend of Coach McCarthy, and so he talked to Dan about becoming the defensive coordinator at St. Norbert.
“The new coach goes after Al to be the new offensive line coach. Al’s letting me know what’s going on and that they are looking for a new defensive coordinator. There were 130 applicants for the position and I threw my name in as well. I wound up getting the job.”
After one season as the team’s defensive coordinator, Coach McCarty was promoted to the team’s head coach. Dan had proven in just one year at the school that he had what it took to lead the Green Knights, and on the field the results speak for themselves.
This season St. Norbert is 8-0 heading into their contest against Macalester College. They have already clinched the North Division title in the Midwest Conference and look to represent the conference in the NCAA playoffs once again.
The undefeated start is quite impressive, but it is no fluke. Coach McCarty has this team rolling at a very high level as they are the No. 2 scoring offense (36.6) in the conference and the No. 1 scoring defense (9.5). They lead the conference in average rushing yards per game (252.6), while passing for 183.4 yards per game. That number is misleading considering that the team has had such huge leads that they have turned to the ground game to close out games, frequently spending most of the second half of games only running the football.
This season only one opponent has been able to keep the game within one touchdown (Carroll University), and over the last three weeks the Green Knights have outscored the opposition 144-20. St. Norbert is entering the arena of play each Saturday and slaying their opponents with the skill and cunning that comes with being called Green Knights.
The play on the field proves that Dan McCarty is a brilliant tactician who really gets the Xs and Os of the game, but when one gets the chance to sit down with him it is easy to see that the team’s success is rooted much deeper than in his football acumen. This is a man who has earned the trust and dedication of his players and that has led to the quick success of the program under his leadership.
That success began with the coaching hires that he made. It started with the hiring of friend Al Johnson as his offensive coordinator. Coach Johnson was once called “the smartest offensive lineman I ever coached,” by former NFL head coach Tony Sporano, and he has brought brilliance to the offensive coordinator position.
“He is such a sharp mind,” Coach McCarty explains. “Al happens to be as good as it gets; I don’t care what level you happen to be at.”
In addition, Dan hired Ryan Osborn as his defensive coordinator, a move he could not be more pleased with. “Ryan Osborn is doing such a great job in his first year. He has complete control of our defense and my complete confidence.”
“It’s amazing when you have two guys like this, guys you trust. When you have good people you got to let them do their job which allows me to do the things I need to do.”
The hires of these two men was only the beginning. The two coordinators may be brilliant at what they do, but if the players were not completely sold on the schemes that were designed there was not going to be success. This is where Dan McCarty really excels.
Coach McCarty began by setting a tone for his team. He wanted there to be a foundation that was the guiding principles for his program. That came in two key elements.
“Family. I have been playing or coaching every year since I was in the seventh grade. This is the tightest knit group I have ever been around. Every program is going to say that they run their program like a family, but we want our players and our recruits to be around the school as much as possible. These young men really work hard for each other and it shows in the humble way that they approach the game.”
Most coaches stress the brotherhood in their approach to their team, but Dan goes beyond this. His focus on this being a family means that a player and his family are all part of the St. Norbert College football family. This has helped to generate a true sense of comradery that is quite unique.
“These are their sons, their grandsons, their brothers. They need to know that the welfare of these young men is most important. That includes how they are doing in class, on the field, around campus. They need to know that we are looking out for these young men, and so we want them to feel like they are a part of this family as well.”
That unique approach to coaching his team is a perfect lead into his other foundational principle. Following the lead of a man he admires greatly, former NFL Coach Tony Dungy, the Green Knights Coach has built his program with a focus on being uncommon.
“Our academics and reputation are great, but when you combine the success this program has had in football, I think we are 144-34, it is easy to see that this is a real special place. We really think that combination of academics and football success is uncommon. We are looking for that kind of uncommon player, who wants to have great academic success, who wants to be All-Americans and win National Championships, but who also wants that elite education. Those are the kinds of things we look for.”
To reach that uncommon level, Coach McCarty understood that it took a special kind of player to be a Green Knight. While talent is important, a player is not going to be part of his program if he is not a high integrity guy who fits the mold of what the Coach is seeking to build at St. Norbert.
“We want to see if we are the right fit for a young man. It may take five or six phone interviews before we start talking about St. Norbert College. We want to know that player well and build a relationship before we see if they fit what we are looking for.”
The Coach fully grasps that success on the field is meaningless if his players are winding up on the front page of the Green Bay Gazette each week.
“The last thing you want to do is to take a chance on a character issue. It just isn’t worth it. It doesn’t matter how talented you are; if you are going to come onto campus and cause a bunch of issues we are going to find someone else. That directly reflects on the team and the coaching staff, and ultimately onto me.”
He acknowledges that determining a player’s character is the most challenging part of recruiting, and has a rather uncommon way of gaining some insight.
“The toughest challenge of recruiting is evaluating the young man’s character. It’s easy to watch the film and see what they can do athletically, it’s easy to look at the transcript and see what they can do academically, but you don’t really know what they are doing when they are not in school. You have to use a lot of tools in your mission to evaluate that. You talk to the high school coach. He spends a ton of time with the young man. Another is social media. How does he interact with me on the phone? What types of questions is he asking me? Then there is the school visits. I am asking the secretary, I’m asking the janitor. I’m asking anyone that can provide information that can help to evaluate the young man.”
While Dan McCarty is quite exceptional at guiding and inspiring his players to trust in him and to battle hard for him, their teammates, and St. Norbert, he knows that his voice is not the only one they must hear. His players need to lead this team as well, and his expectation is that they will do just that.
“It comes down the leadership on our team. We tell our kids a lot of stuff, but sometimes that has to come from other people. We have the seniors talk to our team about making right decisions. You got to make right decisions on Friday and Saturday night, take care of each other and be with each other to make sure that each other is making smart decisions.”
The Coach also fully understands that anything that he is asking of his team he must be prepared to emulate himself. He is not a “do as I say and not as I do” kind of guy. He models the very behavior he expects his players to follow, something he learned from a rather uncommon source.
“It was from a book I read on the way of the Navy Seals. You not only have to explain what you are asking them to do, but you also have to demonstrate what it is that you want them to do. For example, we have been stressing the little things a lot. The little things matter and take pride in the little things. If I’m not taking pride in the little things and doing the little things right as a coach and stressing it myself then I am saying and not doing. You got to lead by example.”
A college built on a tradition of success on the field. A great academic setting. An amazing set of coaches on his staff. A great group of young men committed to the family they call their team. A solid foundation of integrity. A commitment to be more than just a great student, a great player, and a great teammate. Coach McCarty has quickly proven that he was the ideal choice to lead this team; carrying on the St. Norbert College tradition of excellence on the battlefield that is football.
All of that is true. However, he acknowledges that without the commitment and understanding of one person he would not be having this kind of success – his wife.
“It takes a special woman to be a football coach’s wife, and she is as amazing as one could ask for. I know it is tough for her because from August 1 to, well, Thanksgiving I am not able to do much around our home. She has to do so much and without her I could not do this.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise to know that along with all the other facets of his life, Coach McCarty has an uncommon wife as well.
In an uncommon city, a very uncommon head football coach is leading an uncommon college, which is draped in uncommon tradition, to uncommon success in his first season at the helm of the team. Guiding young men through the relationships he has built this has quite possibly become the best program in the Midwest Conference. Dan McCarty has proven that he is the right general to lead the St. Norbert Green Knights into battle, and under his tutelage it would not be a surprise to see them sitting atop the Midwest Conference for many years to come.
By Robert Pannier