Saturday, December 20, 2003

A community of players, coaches
December 17, 2003

By TOM COTTON - IR Sports Editor - 12/14/03

The foundation was always there for the Carroll College football team.

In the past 30 years, the Saints garnered 15 conference championships and made four post-season appearances during that stretch.

They were coached by men like John Gagliardi, the St. John's, Minn., coach who this year became the all-time winningest coach in NCAA history. They were also coached by Bob Petrino, who roamed the sidelines for nearly 30 years. Now his sons are coaching at Louisville.

"I think that, obviously, the national exposure of coach Gagliardi has shed some light on the program and what coach Petrino did here for 28 years was awesome," current head coach Mike Van Diest said.

Now the spotlight is a little brighter on the Carroll College program. Long runs in the NAIA playoffs are the norm. A national championship has been won and may be won again Saturday

The current senior class has won four Frontier Conference championships and has a 26-2 record in Frontier Conference games over the past four years.

"I think Mike has done a great job," Montana Tech football coach Bob Green said. "He has done a great job recruiting and putting an outstanding staff together."

Van Diest came to the hilltop in 1999. The Helena native had made previous stops at the University of Massachusetts and Northwestern. He learned from coaches like former Grizzly head coach Larry Donovan, as well as former Wyoming coach and current Purdue coach Joe Tiller.

The Saints returned to the NAIA playoffs in Van Diest's second season after a three-year absence. They have made playoff runs annual events every year since.

Van Diest said attention to detail was very important in his first years at Carroll. He added that he wanted to be involved with every little aspect, even down to who mowed the grass on the football field.

When he arrived, a coaching staff had to be hired. A full-time trainer had to be hired and more attention had to be paid to the strength program.

Van Diest's first hires on his coaching staff proved to be home runs. He brought on Nick Howlett to run the offense and Jim Hogan to work with the offensive linemen as well as the strength program. Van Diest would coach the defense.

Both Howlett and Hogan, as well as defensive line coach Steve Jones, a holdover from the Petrino years, are still with the program, creating continuity that isn't common these days.

There have been some changes to the coaching staff throughout the years. This year saw running backs coach Gary Guthmiller and wide receivers coach Travis Walker join the staff. Van Diest said they are very capable assistants.

"I can't say enough about them," he said. "They are two wonderful guys and they fell into our lap."

The Saints' coaching staff has done a good job recruiting a team that has talent that isn't matched in the NAIA ranks. Their focus is on speed and athleticism and they find most of it in the Big Sky state.

Last year, 38 of the 48 players on the active roster were in-state students, and they aren't always from Missoula, Butte, Billings, Great Falls or Helena.

Van Diest said most scouting services don't include players from eight-man or six-man football, and several of those players from smaller schools have made a big impact for Carroll.

Former tight end Casey FitzSimmons, who is now catching passes for the Detroit Lions, played eight-man football at Chester.

Rhett Crites is from Kremlin. Jason Ostler hails from Drummond and Jeff Shirley went to school in Centerville.

Van Diest also said he looks for players who play more than one sport.

Quarterback Tyler Emmert played basketball, football and ran track at Capital. D.J. Dearcorn tried his hand at soccer while in high school in Wyoming. Quarterback Robb Latrielle played basketball and ran track aside from playing football for Missoula Hellgate.

Van Diest said playing more than one sport helps create a competitive nature which is crucial at the college level.

"We want kids to compete in other sports and be good at them," he said.

Emmert said while good athletes are evident on the field, they are equally talented off the field.

"We have all-around players who do well off the field and do well in the classroom," he said. "They also do well on the field."

Of course, one of the draws for players is Van Diest himself.

"You can tell that when a guy like Mike Van Diest talks to you, you can tell that he is a real genuine person," Emmert said.

Senior defensive back Brett Bermingham echoed Emmert's sentiments, saying the coach has an enthusiasm for the game.

"You knew with coach Van Diest, something good was happening here. He has been around and he knows football," Bermingham said.

The future looks bright with several key players returning next year. Van Diest said that they will continue to recruit in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.

"We want to build a nationally recognized program, but we don't want to be a nationally recognized program that forgets our backyard," he said.

But before any recruiting is done, the Saints have one more hurdle to climb this year - a national championship game against Northwestern Oklahoma State Saturday in Savannah, Tenn.

"I think when they go to the playoffs, all of us want our conference represented well," said Montana Tech's Bob Green said. "They certainly have done that."


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