Some people could call Chris Musso a miracle worker, but that might be an exaggeration.
What’s true, however, is that Musso – entering his third year as the head coach of the John Carroll Catholic Cavaliers – may have done the best job of rebuilding a football program of any Metro Birmingham coach in recent years.
Carroll had an outstanding gridiron tradition prior to Musso’s arrival, but too often it seemed relegated to distant memory. Pat Sullivan was a superstar for the Cavaliers before winning the Heisman Trophy at Auburn University in 1971. And old-time Carroll fans still talk about the 1973 Class 3A state champs, which might have been the best team in Alabama that year, regardless of classification.
Younger Carroll fans have less pleasant memories of seasons where wins were few and far between. During those down years, some even suggested that John Carroll football might never be competitive again.
Happily, they were wrong.
The Cavs went 2-8 the year before Musso arrived on the Lakeshore Drive campus. In his first season, Carroll put together a respectable 5-5 record. Last year was much better, as the Cavaliers posted a winning season and advanced to the Class 5A playoffs.
Now, with the 2010 season opener just two weeks away, the excitement for football at Carroll is so real, a visitor can literally feel it. And Musso insists he is only a small reason for the revival.
“Maybe the biggest thing is that the kids bought into the work ethic that we preached from the first day,” Musso said. “They came in with a positive attitude and did everything we asked of them. And they saw that their work would be rewarded.”
At the fulcrum of Carroll’s new-found success is this season’s 17-member senior class that matriculated into the program with Musso three years ago.
“Our seniors came in when we did and laid the foundation,” said the coach. “They blended together and helped create the excitement for what we are doing today.”
Unity and enthusiasm are important parts of a strong football program at any level – but so is talent, and Carroll has no shortage of it. Senior running backs Adric Merchant and Marcus Richardson may be the best backfield tandem in Jefferson County, and they’re just two of a host of outstanding athletes the Cavs will feature on both sides of the ball.
The reasons for the upgrade in talent on the field are many, but an important one is the establishment of a strong feeder school program, something John Carroll hasn’t always had.
“Every single kid is a starter at some point,” Musso said. “We have a seventh grade team, an eighth grade team, a ninth grade team and a 10th grade team. And then there’s the varsity. Everybody is on the same page as far as what we are doing is concerned.”
Another key to Carroll’s success is staff continuity, as all of Musso’s assistants from last year return.
“If you look at the programs that win consistently, most of them keep their staffs largely intact year after year,” Musso said. “Our staff does such a good job, and we are accustomed to working together.”
That spirit of coming together extends all the way to the school administration, led by John Carroll principal Father John McDonald and athletic director Dan Buczek.
“Since we ask our players and coaches to spend so much time away from their families during the
season, we try to create as much of a family feeling here as possible,” Musso said. “We have great support from the administrators, parents and alumni.
“There are so many people who want to see this school and this program do well.”
The Cavaliers will open their season at Jacksonville Aug. 27 and will compete in Class 5A’s rugged Region 4, which includes Fairfield, Hueytown, McAdory, Parker, Pleasant Grove, Wenonah and Woodlawn.
“It’s a quality region, without a doubt,” Musso said. “There aren’t any wins you can pencil in. If you’re not ready to play every week, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Despite the upgraded expectations from alumni and fans, Musso is cautious when setting goals for his team in 2010.
“We’re trying to make every game a weekly championship game,” he explained. “We’re just going to concentrate week by week on the opponent we’re facing. If we approach it that way, good things will happen.”
Nobody knows what’s in store for the new season, but one thing is certain: The good times are back for John Carroll football. The days of long losing streaks are now just part of a distant past.
Musso and his staff may not be miracle workers, but for the people who love John Carroll, they are certainly close enough.
The Over the Mountain Journal
2016 Columbiana Road, Vestavia Hills, AL 35216
Phone: (205)823-9646 Fax: (205)824-1246
For editorial submissions, sports submissions, and circulation questions, please send e-mail to: email@example.com>