Jim Catanzaro Making the Dash Key Part of Teaching at Lake Forest
When one thinks of the dash in terms of football the first thing that comes to mind is the 40-yard dash that players run to determine their speed. In this sabermetric conscious world that we live in, things like this are essential in determining the value that a player may have for his team. Speed kills, many coaches think, and so the dash time becomes a method to use to determine how good of an athlete a player may be.
For Lake Forest College Head Coach Jim Catanzaro, the dash takes on a whole new meaning. His emphasis is not on the athletic skill but is, instead, on the English punctuation. The Coach is a man who is more interested in helping to develop young men who will be successes in the classroom as well as men who will go out into the world after graduation to become great leaders and men of integrity. It is what he teaches them about how they want to be remembered that is by far more important to him.
Coaching Was a Natural Fit
Jim Catanzaro always saw himself as a teacher. He attended fellow Midwest Conference school Greenville College where he was a key member of the team’s conference championship team in his senior year. He earned All-Conference honors, and simply loved the sport.
While attending Greenville, he was studying to be a teacher. He loved the idea of teaching and helping to develop young minds, but found out during his student teaching that standing in a classroom all day was simply not something he wanted to do every day for the rest of his life. He was looking for a different avenue to be able to teach but to be able to do something that he enjoyed more, and a thoughtful piece of advice changed his career path for the better.
“I was doing my student teaching my senior year of college and found myself absolutely miserable being in a classroom all day. I went and talked to one of my coaches and he suggested that I go and become a graduate assistant. They would pay for a Master’s degree and I would get something education based as a degree. So I thought about it and talked with my parents. I had enough credits so I dropped out of school, dropped out of student teaching and became a GA and just loved being out on the field coaching football. That made it so that I didn’t have to be in the classroom teaching all day.”
His first taste of coaching came at Glenville State College where he was the defensive line coach, as well as the recruiting coordinator and the head strengthening coach. The Coach would spend three seasons with the Pioneers, helping to guide them to the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title in 2001.
Following his time at Glenville, Coach Catanzaro moved onto Wingate University where he served as the defensive line coach and head strengthening coach there as well. The team flourished under his instruction, as the Bulldogs recorded 86-sacks in this three-seasons with the team. Twice the team lead the South Atlantic Conference in turnovers and, in 2004, the Bulldogs set a school record for wins in a season and advanced to the post season. Two of his linemen earned All-American honors, showing that he could not only teach but that the Coach could instruct men to an elite level.
Finding a New Home
In 2005, a great opportunity presented itself. Brent Becker, who had been Jim Catanzaro’s coach at Greenville, became the head coach at Lake Forest. He wanted Catanzaro to join him and this seemed like a no-brainer of a decision.
“Brent Becker was named the head coach of the college here. Brent was my linebacker coach when I was in college and he reached out to me to come and be his defensive coordinator. To coach with somebody that I had played for was really appealing to me. I had gone to school in Illinois and so coming back to the Midwest was really a cool deal.”
As the Foresters’ defensive coordinator, Coach Catanzaro led a defense that was tough on and off the field. Lake Forest ranked in the top three in defense in each of his three seasons as the defensive coordinator and they became one of the toughest teams in the conference to score against.
Following the 2008 season, Brent Becker resigned as the head coach, and Coach Catanzaro was named to replace him. The Coach was going to get his first opportunity to be a head coach, and fully understood that he was going to have a whole new set of responsibilities. However, the relationships he had developed were the most important part for him, and he was not going to take a position that meant that the part that he enjoyed most about coaching would be removed.
“One of the things that was important to me was staying true to the relationships that I had with the players. I didn’t want to have the players saying, ‘Oh, now he’s the head coach so he’s going to start acting differently now.’ It was important to keep those same relationships, those coaching mechanisms in place that I had as a coordinator.”
One of the first things that Coach Catanzaro had to do was to hire a staff. He not only wanted a group that understood what he was trying to accomplish on the field but who also were committed to ensuring that the players’ needs off the field were met as well. This also gave him the opportunity to let his assistants take on a more active role in helping the players should they have issues. That has made his role as head coach a lot easier to handle.
“I found that players came to me the first couple years I was the head coach because they had been used to talking to me when I was a coordinator, however, then they were coming to the assistant coaches as they got more familiar with them. They started handling some of those smaller pieces of advice that can sometimes keep a coach away from doing football stuff. My assistant coaches have really stepped into that role and done a great job.”
Leading the Team Back to the Top
For his first three seasons at Lake Forest, Coach Jim Catanzaro had been the defensive coordinator and the Foresters had gone 13-17 in that time. In 2009, he became the head coach and the team spent three seasons going through some growing pains. In those seasons the Foresters were a combined 7-23, but in 2012 things would turn as quickly as flipping on a light switch. Lake Forest finished 8-2 and was co-champions of the Midwest Conference. The following season they would post an identical record.
Entering the 2016 season, the Coach had a 31-39 record. This season the team is 4-2 entering the contest against Macalester, moving Catanzaro to third on the team’s all-time win’s list, trailing only Hall of Fame coaches Mike Dau (80) and Ralph Jones (52).
It has been an impressive run for the team, but it goes well beyond the play of the team on the field. In his first 10-seasons with the team, the Foresters have had 51 players earn All-Conference honors and 39 school records have been tied or broken during his time as a coach at the school. However, it has been off the field where they have really excelled. In his seven seasons as the head coach, the Foresters have had 87 players earn Academic All-Midwest Conference Awards, including an incredible 16 last season.
While the coach wants to win, acknowledging that all coaches are “greedy about getting as many wins as they can,” it is the academic piece that he is most proud of. He wants a team that is succeeding in their academic endeavors because it is there that they have the best chance to succeed in life.
“We have high expectations for our students here at Lake Forest. These are bright young men who have chosen to come to one of the finest institutions in the country. We want to earn victories each week, but their academics come first. Football isn’t their whole life and they have to prepare for that. While they can learn a lot from football, they have to devote themselves to the things that will benefit them the most when they leave here.”
The Coach as a Teacher
If you look around the college football landscape, you quickly realize that the coaches that get the most amount of attention are the ones that have the largest numbers of victories. Guys like Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh are revered for the fact that they get huge win totals out of their teams each season. However, no one is talking about what great men these coaches are. They are not praised for the way that they instruct their players to be better men. It is all about victories.
That is not the legacy that Jim Catanzaro has sought for himself. He is a teacher at heart and so life lessons that benefit his players are far more important to him than what appears on the scoreboard each week. It is the legacy, the thing that will appear after the dash on his tombstone, that is most important to him.
“That is what we talk about a lot around here. How do you want people to remember you? What is said on your tombstone about you? It is those kinds of things that need to be the focus for them because they have an incredible opportunity to define who they are as young men and how they will be viewed. As coaches, we push them to want to be something special.”
To accomplish this goal, Coach Catanzaro has had to grow and adapt. As the head coach he could not be the same kind of guy he was as a coordinator, and this has caused him to make some dramatic changes in the way that he addresses the players on his team.
“I used to be the young, loud, screaming all over the place, high energy coach. Especially on the defensive side of the ball. I’m an Irish-Italian, and I have the temperament of both, and so it was being loud and get our guys excited about football. As the head coach, I found that I first of all needed to be more balanced. I had to go to both sides of the football to communicate with the guys, and the offensive guys are typically not that fired up and aggressive. They’re so focused on the schematic execution, while on defense you can just fly around and hit somebody. So, I found myself being a little more even keel and not having the level of verbal and nonverbal intensity that I previously had.”
He also realizes that his behavior does not just affect his team. It effects his son as well, and this has caused him to be more careful in how he conducts himself.
“That was the other thing that I think really kind of mellowed me out because now my son is at the game as a 4 or 5-year-old and I know how he reacts when I yell at him. If I get even a little upset at him I know how he reacts. So I know he empathizes when he sees me yelling at one of our players. He gets upset and so there’s a component to that which kind of spilled into it that was very unique for me. That doesn’t mean I’m you intense and I’m not fired up, but it’s not as all the time.”
What the Coach has most realized is that today’s players are significantly different than those he coached when he first began. These are young man who are not just accepting what the coach says on face value. They want an explanation, and so the coach had to adapt his own style to ensure that the young men embrace the coaching and teaching of him and his assistants. He not only is embracing this, but is finding that it actually is producing better results for the Foresters.
“We explain the why before there’s a question. When you get out there and you explain here’s why we’re doing this, this is why we’re practicing at this time, then all of a sudden they think it’s fine. I think that if they have that great confidence that you’re doing things for all the right reasons that’s where they start to listen better. It’s really more about that their freshman year because they are more bought in their sophomore and junior years. It’s really the freshman that are doing something that’s completely new and different, their being coached with a completely different temperament at the collegiate level than they were at the high school level, and the level of expectation also raises quite a bit when they get at the college level. If you give them the why so that they can find why it’s important to the program or to the play, then you got a chance to really grow the relationship and make them more vested instead of them questioning behavior behind closed doors are in the locker room. You don’t want to create that environment because they have too many other people in their ear that are telling them how they should be acting and what things should be looking like. To hear the coach telling them that this is why we’re doing things this way really eliminates a lot of that.”
Setting the Priorities
As a coach, it’s hard to be able to focus on the life picture for these athletes over victories, however, Coach Jim Catanzaro is doing just that. He is teaching his team to take on one battle at a time.; to not think ahead at what could be, but to focus on the things that they can change today. A lot of coaches discussed the mentality of going 1-0 each week, but Coach Catanzaro is making sure his players understand the importance of this.
“If we’re going to be true to our model of going 1-0 every week then you can’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the conference championship,’ because that’s 10 weeks after you start the season. If you take the philosophy that it’s 1-0 and you have a bad streak like we did a couple weeks ago or you have a really good run like we did when we started the season you don’t get caught up in that. You can turn it around after 24 hours and get back on that individual game instead of the bigger picture. Sometimes, when you start playing for the championship trophy instead of playing for that game you start getting distracted by what’s ahead instead of being focused on that game.”
Coach Catanzaro is also making sure that he, himself, is setting the right example for his players. While not quite old enough to be a dad to many of his players, he is getting close to that age, and so he wants to make sure that he is showing them what the after dash should look like.
“The big thing for me with our players is that I hope that they see me as someone that they can model themselves after, whether it was as my role as a dad or my role as a husband. If their life follows the same path that mine was on and how I interact with people and they could be happy with that same kind of reputation, that same kind of feeling then I have done my job well. I have had great role models in my life in Paul Schaffner and Bob Briner, and I have tried to model my life after them. I hope I am having that same kind of impact on my players.”
His dedication to teaching his players to do the right things and to have the right commitment has been seen outside of the classroom as well. The Foresters football team has sent over 250 care packages to troops serving overseas and they raised $75,000 over the last seven seasons in the Lake Forest Relay for Life event. Lake Forest College has twice recognized the football program as the school’s Program of the Year since Coach Catanzaro became the head coach, and the players have also donated over 500 hours of their time in each of the last eight semesters toward community service. It’s truly what one would expect out of a team coached by Jim Catanzaro.
The team in on track for their third winning season with the Lake Forest Coach at the helm. The Lake Forest Foresters are as sound of a football team as one will find in the Midwest Conference and they are one of the toughest teams in the league to face.
However, that is not how many of these athletes will be remembered. They will go off to become executives, teachers, dads, and husbands. Men that communities will love having in their midst because of their integrity and their excellence; all things that their coach modeled for them while they were with the Foresters. To be honest, no one needs to wonder what will appear after the dash on Jim Catanazaro’s tomb stone. We can already say right now that he is a great teacher, a great coach, a great husband and father, and a great role model. The legacy is already in place.
By Robert Pannier