BY KYLE BRENNAN
Steve Croce was about to end his college football coaching career on a high. After Anna Maria College won the 2021 Eastern Collegiate Football Conference championship and reached the Division III playoffs, he was ready to let go of his grueling second career.
Croce, a 1983 Naugatuck High graduate who served as a Waterbury firefighter for 30 years, knew he had a good run as the Amcats’ offensive coordinator. But the nearly two-hour commute from his Middlebury home to Paxton, Mass., was starting to take its toll.
“I couldn’t live in the dorm, go back and forth, be a firefighter — it was getting way too much,” Croce said. “The objective has been achieved. I was going to quit after spring football practice.
After all, Croce didn’t start training Anna Maria with the goal of rising through the ranks. He took the position of coordinator to help then-head coach Dan Mulrooney, whom Croce coached at Pop Warner and Holy Cross High, advance in his own career.
“My goal was never to be Anna Maria’s head coach,” Croce said. “My goal was to help Danny – basically one of my sons – win a championship so he could go on and do bigger and better things.”
But when Mulrooney prepared to do just that — he was set to become Division II head coach at Lock Haven University — the 56-year-old Croce was at a crossroads in his career.
He called a family reunion with his wife and four of his five children – the only one absent was his son, Kellen, who plays professional baseball in the Czech Republic – and they encouraged him to take the job as head coach of Anna Maria if offered. .
Four hours after Mulrooney’s resignation, the school appointed Croce as head football coach.
“I feel honoured,” said Croce, who credited Joe Nelson and Bill Unwin for helping him through his career. “These kids playing here for me, I’d take a bullet for [them]. They work so hard and they deserve so much, and that’s why I’m here. I felt like if I didn’t take the job, a lot of these kids would have [transferred]. I would have done them a disservice if I left. We have something good happening here.
Much of Anna Maria’s recent success is down to Croce, who was named the ECFC Assistant Coach of the Year for coordinating the No. 8-ranked attack in Division III in 2021. The league title from last year and the trip to the national tournament mean the Amcats are adjusting their goals.
“Our goal every year now is to win the league. The goal is no longer to go .500,” Croce said. “Every year I’m here, I want to win the league. win a championship, you shouldn’t coach. Eventually, I hope I leave the program better than I got, like Danny did.
To make things a little easier, Croce retired from the Waterbury Fire Service a few years earlier than he originally planned. During his first four seasons coaching at Anna Maria, a small Catholic school with just over a thousand undergraduates, Croce juggled firefighting and coaching by trading quarterbacks. work and strategically using the holidays.
“I saved all of my vacation time for the football season, and I would take my vacation in eight-hour blocks,” Croce said. “I was leaving campus at 9:30 p.m., going back to Connecticut, seeing my wife that night, working until 4 p.m., taking the freeway and going back to training. I was 54 and living in a dormitory.
He now has an apartment near campus, but that doesn’t mean his local connections are gone. His offensive coordinator, Tanner Kingsley, is a former all-state quarterback at Woodland, and his special teams coordinator, Mike Kennedy, is a former standout lineman at Naugatuck.
“When I say it’s family here, I really mean it. It’s not a recruiting tool or a slogan,” Croce said. “I was graduated [from Naugatuck] with Tanner’s father, Mike, and Mike’s father, Cal. The world is small.”
Croce also passes on his experience as a tight end for the 1981 state championship-winning Naugatuck team to teach his players a lesson.
“It’s not the best players who win games; it’s the best team. The year we won it all in 1981, we didn’t have a single All-State player on the team, but we were the best team in the state. We did everything together with this band – we all hung out, we all went to Linden Park, and it was one of the tightest bands I’ve ever been in. That’s what wins games; support each other and work as a team. If you’re not a team, that’s okay.
Croce said his primary focus since taking office on Jan. 31 has been recruiting because “competition breeds success.” When the Amcats kick off their season Sept. 10 against UMass-Dartmouth, it will be the culmination of Croce’s 35-year coaching journey that doesn’t compare to many other head coaches.
“People think I’m crazy, but I’m lucky,” Croce said. “Since I got out of the military, I’ve woke up every day and never once said, ‘Aw, [shoot], I have to go to work.’ I loved being a firefighter and I love coaching football.
BY KYLE BRENNAN