UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — Like many college buddies, Josh McDaniels, Nick Caserio, Dave Ziegler, and Jerry Schuplinski wanted to go into business together after graduation.
Their business just happened to be professional football. And two decades later, business is good. The quartet now owns 18 Super Bowl rings.
“We thought that we would have a chance to do something cool,” McDaniels said. “I don’t know if anyone envisioned this.”
They are some of the most important contributors to the Patriots dynasty not named Tom Brady or Bill Belichick: McDaniels the whiz-kid offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for 12 years; Caserio the No. 2 man in the front office since 2008; Ziegler the director of pro personnel since 2016; and Schuplinski, now with the Dolphins, the assistant quarterbacks coach from 2013-18.
But before they were winning Lombardi Trophies with the Patriots, they were Blue Streaks — teammates in the late ’90s at John Carroll University, a 3,100-student, Division 3 Catholic school on the outskirts of Cleveland.
Playing with no pretense of ever reaching the NFL, the four future Patriots forged close friendships while grinding away on tape late at night and preparing for big games against Mount Union and Baldwin-Wallace.
“They were great teammates,” said 16-year NFL linebacker London Fletcher, the star of those John Carroll teams. “When you know the work ethic and you know the smarts and how those guys go about their business, their success doesn’t surprise me.”
Caserio, who wore No. 18, was the starting quarterback and team captain who graduated with more than a dozen school passing records. McDaniels, No. 12, turned himself into a crafty possession receiver after losing the QB battle to Caserio. Ziegler, No. 8, was a fearless, three-time All-American kick and punt returner. And Schuplinski, No. 44, was a hard-nosed fullback.
Together they helped lead the Blue Streaks to a 27-5 record between 1996-98, including the school’s first win in the NCAA playoffs, reaching the Round of 16 in 1997.
John Carroll has a surprisingly rich NFL history for a small D3 school. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula played there in the 1940s. Three current NFL general managers (or equivalent) are from Carroll (Tom Telesco of the Chargers, Dave Caldwell of the Jaguars, and Caserio). Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and brothers Chris and Brian Polian (Jaguars pro personnel director and Notre Dame assistant coach) went there as well. And Fletcher put the school on the map as a player.
Yet the late ’90s class that included Caserio, McDaniels, Ziegler, and Schuplinski certainly made its own mark.
“Even at Division 3, they took it very seriously,” said Chris Wenzler, John Carroll’s sports information director since 1990. “They were film nuts, and it showed on the field. They were students of the game that wanted to see where that would take them.”
Star in the film room
All four grew up in northeast Ohio and stayed locally for college. Caserio, or “Nicky,” as his coaches called him, arrived at John Carroll in 1994, a year before the others. He spurned Carnegie Mellon’s offer and instead followed his high school offensive coordinator to Carroll.
McDaniels and Schuplinski arrived in ’95. McDaniels came to compete for the Blue Streaks’ quarterback job, but Caserio beat him out, and McDaniels was the backup as a freshman.
“The coordinator was his high school coach, so it was kind of obvious who was going to be the guy,” said Greg Debeljak, formerly the receivers coach at Carroll who is now head coach at Case Western Reserve.
Losing out wasn’t easy at first for McDaniels. He is a football lifer, the son of legendary high school football coach Thom McDaniels. At storied Canton-McKinley High School, they were nationally ranked and sent kids to major programs.
McDaniels stepped away from the team as a sophomore to go home and coach with his father, but returned for his junior and senior seasons, and converted himself into a wide receiver.
“You’re a quarterback at Canton-McKinley and your dad is this revered coach,” Wenzler said. “To have to take a step back and reevaluate and say, ‘I still want to be in this game, what can I do?’ I think that takes a lot.”
McDaniels played in all 20 games over his final two seasons, and caught 41 passes for 732 yards and 7 touchdowns. One of his most memorable plays was a 70-yard catch down the sideline against Baldwin-Wallace on a beautiful throw from Caserio.
“It was great for me because it gave me a different perspective,” McDaniels said of the switch to receiver. “And I got to play in the same huddle with [Caserio]. That was the most fun I had playing in college.”
McDaniels was more of a contributor than a leader on the field. But where he really shined was in practice and in the film room.
“The thing I remember about him is suggestions he had,” Debeljak said. “He was just different than everybody else because of how much he knew already. But he was also very respectful.
“I’m sure there were times in his mind where he was like, ‘What are these coaches doing?’ But you never heard that. I think that’s the way his dad raised him.”
McDaniels was definitely more of the rah-rah guy in the locker room, too.
“I just remember him getting in my ear, picking me up, getting my head straight,” said David Vitatoe, the team’s kicker who is now the school’s director of alumni relations. “Before big games, after big kicks I made, he was one of the first guys to kind of quietly pull me aside and give me some great words of encouragement. And I always thought that was a special quality about Josh. The coach was in him back then.”
Intensity at an early age
Football didn’t come as naturally to Caserio, but nobody was going to outwork him.
“Because it was his high school offense, he knew it better than maybe some of the coaches on the staff,” Debeljak said.
The one word everyone uses to describe Caserio: intense.
“Yeah, real intense,” Fletcher said, laughing. “You would almost worry about Nick like that. This kid, he’s too young to be this serious and this intense.”
“This kid, he was a coach’s dream,” Debeljak said. “And at the same time, you were like, ‘Man, I hope he has some fun at certain times.’ He just was so serious. ‘Would you just relax?’ He was all over their asses a lot.”
Caserio knew every detail of the offense, and expected the same of his teammates.
“He was just one of those guys that you didn’t want to mess up, because you’d let him down, frankly,” Vitatoe said.
“Not a lot of laughter, but a lot of intensity and a lot of direction came from him, that’s for sure,” said John Priestap, a receiver and one of Caserio’s best friends.
But Caserio’s coaches and teammates admired his focus. The son of a concrete contractor, Caserio was all business from the moment he stepped on campus.
“He was the hardest-working guy on the team. Nobody else was even close,” said Fletcher, a four-time Pro Bowler. “He was really a very accomplished quarterback, and a tremendous athlete. Good at football, good at basketball, and a great leader for our team.”
Caserio ran a pro-style offense, transforming Carroll from a running team to a pocket-passing team. Starting for 3½ years, he threw for 8,434 yards and 78 touchdowns and led the Blue Streaks to their first playoff win, a 30-20 victory over Hanover in 1997. Caserio earned induction into John Carroll’s athletics hall of fame in 2009.
The Streaks just couldn’t get over the hump against Mount Union, the legendary program with 13 national titles and a 110-game win streak from 1994-2005.
“We played them in the playoffs and Nick took an absolute beating,” Debeljak said.
“Nick got a hairline fracture in his jaw, against Mount Union in 1997, and stayed in the game,” said Priestap.
Schuplinski arrived in 1995, the same year as McDaniels. The two quickly bonded over wrestling and NASCAR (and football, of course) and became roommates and close friends.
The Blue Streaks made Schuplinski a no-nonsense fullback, mostly a lead blocker and occasional receiver out of the backfield. The experience helped develop him into an NFL quarterback coach.
“He carried the ball maybe five times in his career,” said Debeljak, “but he just knew everything — knew every protection, every blocking scheme, and sacrificed for the betterment of the team.”
Ziegler was a couple years younger, arriving in 1997. He was a player in the Julian Edelman mold — short, undersized, unassuming, and absolutely fearless.
Before the 1998 season opener at Stonehill College, a stranger in an airport chatted up the team and was trying to guess everyone’s positions.
“We point to [Ziegler], and he says, ‘What is he, the kicker? Student trainer, right?’ ” Debeljak said. “It was really funny, but you could argue he was our best football player.”
Ziegler had seven return touchdowns in his career (four kickoff, three punt) and was named an All-American three times.
“I sprung him for a couple touchdowns,” Fletcher boasts.
Ziegler was inducted into Carroll’s hall of fame in 2010.
“If he was a couple inches taller, a couple pounds heavier, he would’ve been playing Division 1 football,” Vitatoe said. “Every time he touched the ball, he could take it to the house.”
After graduation, the four went their separate ways. McDaniels used his football connections to land a graduate assistant job at Michigan State under Nick Saban. Caserio went to work at Merrill Lynch in Cleveland. Schuplinski and Ziegler coached high school and small-college football.
Caserio didn’t last long in the financial world.
“Six months into that he said, ‘I can’t do this, I need to get into football,’ ” said Priestap, who worked at Merrill Lynch with Caserio. “He said, ‘I know I’m not going to make any money, but I know I have to be in football.’ Then he walked away from Merrill Lynch to be an assistant at Saginaw Valley State.”
But their loyalties drew them back together.
In 2001, a friend of McDaniels’s from Michigan State, Brian Daboll, landed a job with the Patriots and persuaded them to hire McDaniels as a personnel assistant. McDaniels then persuaded the Patriots to bring aboard his old buddy, Caserio, in the same job.
The two won three Super Bowls together, with McDaniels becoming the quarterbacks coach in 2004 and offensive coordinator in 2005. Caserio quickly rose up the ladder as a scout, coach, and personnel director.
When McDaniels was hired as Denver’s head coach in 2009, he brought Ziegler out of the high school ranks and added him to his scouting department. In 2013, when McDaniels was back with the Patriots, he brought Ziegler and Schuplinski into the fold.
The quartet has since won three more Super Bowls together, before Schuplinski left for Miami this offseason.
“If you had told me that these guys would all be really successful, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised,” Priestap said. “The fact that they happen to do it in the game they love, I do have to pinch myself sometimes.”
And they have kept the John Carroll pipeline flowing. Patriots tight ends coach Nick Caley and scout D.J. Debick both played at Carroll, in a later era. Colts assistant special teams coach Frank Ross, who also played at Carroll in a later era, was with the Patriots scouting department for five years.
“I think what we’re probably the most proud of is when we recommended somebody, that person did such an incredible job of representing what you represented,” McDaniels said. “It’s exciting to have some of these life experiences and share them with the guys that you grew up with and are some of your closest friends.”
They don’t get back to John Carroll much, since they’re usually busy with the Patriots in the fall. But they send autographed Brady jerseys and other Patriots swag to John Carroll fund-raisers, and contributed video messages in 2017 when the Blue Streaks had a 20-year reunion of the 1997 playoff team.
The Patriots may revolve around Brady and Belichick, but there is no denying the impact that a small Division 3 program had in creating the NFL’s greatest dynasty.
“Whenever we get an opportunity to get together, we talk about everything they’ve accomplished and we reminisce about where it started,” Priestap said. “You can’t believe a handful of your teammates have accomplished the greatest accomplishment in pro football.”