St. Francis football alumni a natural fit in high-level positions
While St. Francis graduates would probably say, ‘it’s always good to be a Red Raider,’ that particularly rings true with the national news being made by their football alumni this month.
It seems wherever you turn, former Red Raiders are making a splash on the very highest level of the gridiron.
In the same week, David Caldwell and Tom Telesco each earned two of the most sought-after positions in all of sports, being named NFL general managers, while Brian Polian became a Division I head football coach.
Caldwell, a 1992 St. Francis graduate, was tabbed as GM of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 8 and Telesco, who graduated a year prior, was introduced as the GM of the San Diego Chargers just a few days later.
Then there’s Polian, a 1993 St. Francis graduate, who was hired as the University of Nevada’s head coach on Jan. 7. Just like that, Polian brought more good news for St. Francis as he joined his former Red Raiders and John Carroll University teammates in the national spotlight.
“It was a great week for St. Francis,” Caldwell said in summing up the three hires.
Jerry Smith, whose been heading St. Francis’ football for 26 seasons, believes it’s no coincidence that Red Raiders now hold the pulse of two NFL franchises in their hands and that others are getting high-level opportunities in the sport, as well. And he would know best, having coached each one of the three young men while they played for the Red Raiders.
“It’s a tremendous reflection on the role the school played in these young men's lives and that includes everyone here — teachers, coaches and priests. The whole school in general is real proud of these guys,” Smith said.
“Coming from this type of environment — one small school, and we now have two of the most sought after jobs in all of sports and all of the business world. ‘Holy mackerel.’ And there may even be three of them soon.”
Smith is speaking of Chris Polian, whose father, Bill Polian, is the former architect of Buffalo Bills teams that played in four consecutive Super Bowls. Bill, who sent both of his boys to St. Francis while he resided in the Buffalo-area, helped get his son, Chris, along with Telesco and Caldwell, their first opportunities in an NFL front office while with the expansion Carolina Panthers.
Chris Polian is now working as the West Coast scout for the Atlanta Falcons, the organization from which Caldwell was plucked. Chris Polian and Telesco had moved on to the Indianapolis Colts when Bill Polian was hired there as GM, a post he held from 1997 until last season.
They won a championship in 2007, beating the Chicago Bears, and played in two Super Bowls while with the Colts. Telesco remained in Indianapolis until his hiring in San Diego.
“These guys are both from the Bill Polian family tree,” said Brian Polian, who was Texas A&M’s special teams coordinator this season after stints with Stanford and Notre Dame. “I’m really proud of them.”
When Smith thinks about what has made a group of his former players so appealing to NFL organizations and big-time college football programs, he looks no further than what they learned from their mentors.
Telesco, Caldwell and the Polian boys were instilled character and pride and certainly gained plenty of football knowledge from Bill Polian, the former NFL executive turned football analyst for ESPN.
“Bill Polian is a great family man and he remembers where he came from and where he’s been,” said Smith, who noted Polian grew up in the Bronx before bringing his family to the Buffalo-area when becoming the Bills general manager in 1986. “Tom and Dave are the same way. That’s one of the keys to having success. They treat everyone like their family and have honesty and integrity, just like Bill.”
These St. Francis graduates and those who came after the Polian-era in Buffalo also learned a thing or two from Smith and the high school they once attended in Athol Springs.
Someone messaged a radio personality on Twitter after the hiring of Telesco and Caldwell, that ‘if you want your son to be a GM in the NFL, send him to St. Francis.’ Though it was written in a light-hearted manner, it couldn’t ring more true these days.
“We always talk about believing that the school is doing a good job and when guys go out and accomplish big things like that it only validates it,” said St. Francis athletics director Steve Otremba, a 1990 graduate, who was a teammate of Telesco. “What’s even more impressive is that these guys are 40-and-under and running football organizations. It’s unbelievable. We’re excited to say the least.”
Bill Polian not only has formed a family tree that extends beyond just his bloodline, he’s helped to form a GM tree, which now includes Telesco and Caldwell.
That tree is extended also to A.J. Smith, who became the San Diego Chargers GM and would mean that his son, Kyle Smith, a promising young scout who played a few years of professional football, would also be a benefactor of it. Kyle was just recently named by the Redskins their SEC post to scout Division I’s premier conference
“You hear about the (New England Patriots) Bill Belichik coaching tree, but you would be surprised about the GM tree that Bill Polian has established,” Smith said. “Guys who have worked for him have gone on to be very successful GMs. All they’ve been around is rebuilding teams and they’ve turned them into champions. How can you not take ideas of proven winners. Bill is tremendously respected around the NFL.”
Looking further into what St. Francis has produced, Brian Daboll, also a 1993 graduate, will return as a coach to the New England Patriots, where he won three Super Bowls on that staff before holding offensive coordinator jobs with the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
On the field, defensive lineman Doug Worthington was on the active roster of the Washington Redskins, who played in this year’s NFL playoffs. And there’s even more former Red Raiders working in front office or coaching positions in the professional and collegiate ranks that you may hear more from in the coming years.
How it began and then starting in the business
For the three men who are now living their dreams, those visions started in Western New York. In fact, Chris Polian and Tom Telesco knew one another since grammar school.
The friends began to get to know each other playing a different sport — basketball. The pair played together in the Little Cagers program in Hamburg.
As time went on, both enrolled at St. Francis, and Telesco became Polian’s math tutor. Bill Polian, who at that time was general manager of the Buffalo Bills, was thankful to Telesco for how helpful he was to his son.
“My dad would bring Tom, my big brother, Chris, and I to training camp as ball boys,” Brian Polian noted.
While Smith had an understandable feeling that both Chris and Brian Polian would remain in football due to their bloodline, Telesco and Caldwell just continued what they started as talented and dedicated two-way starters at St. Francis and from there, climbed up the football ladder.
Following graduation from St. Francis, the three formed a further connection having all attended John Carroll University in Ohio, where longtime NFL linebacker London Fletcher was also playing at the time. Brian Polian and Caldwell became roommates.
Caldwell said his path was not as clear as Polian’s. When he left college, he did not know what his future would hold.
“I didn’t have any idea at that point in time,” Caldwell said.
After interning under Bill Polian in Carolina, and entering a career that led him to scouting with the Colts and Falcons, his vision for his future became much clearer.
He said he and Telesco also became much closer friends once they began working together with the Panthers and eventually in the Colts organization.
Meanwhile, Brian Polian had a passion for coaching and went down a different route than his friends.
The years he spent around his father led him to the realization that he wanted to coach after spending time with the likes of Bills Hall-of-Fame coach Marv Levy, and assistants such as Elijah Pitts and Don Lawrence, whom he said were major influences in his life.
At that time, he was also heavily influenced by his high school football coaches Jerry Smith and John Scibetta.
“Some people may be jealous and say, ‘they got a break,’” said Smith, whose own son, Chris, is an offensive line coach with Northern Colorado. “In the world, many times the job you get is from a break, somebody who knows somebody. Getting an interview is one thing, but getting it and excelling at the job is another.”
A St. Francis perspective on the new GMs
Smith remembers two very different personalities in Telesco and Caldwell but they were effective just the same.
Telesco exhibits an easy-going, unassuming demeanor. Smith said Telesco is extremely professional and precise in all that he does. He remembers a receiver who caught nearly everything that came his way and a good basketball player, as well, after honing his skills after his playing days with the Hamburg Little Cagers.
“He’s a laid back guy but he works hard at everything he’s done,” Smith said. “He was one of those kids that you looked at and thought he could be an Ivy League student.”
Otremba remembers an athlete who not only wanted to play the game but also understand it. When they played in college — Otremba at Buffalo State, the two would call each other to share and compare notes. After Telesco began helping out with the Bills, Otremba knew his friend was well on his way in the NFL.
“From the shoulder pads up, he understood the game and how to break things down,” Otremba said. “You knew he was meant for this. He was always so meticulous and is such a loyal guy.”
Caldwell, who was a star tight end and linebacker on the Red Raiders’ unbeaten 1991 team as a senior, was the more aggressive of the two. He likes to put a jolt in people whether it’s on or off the field and has a more dry sense of humor, according to Smith.
“He also worked tremendously hard and was a linchpin during that undefeated and championship team,” Smith recalled.
Otremba saw Caldwell at a 20-year reunion high school function over the summer. He spoke with him as both played in a golf tournament and of course, much of the talk was about St. Francis football.
“It was neat to see him and know that St. Francis is not far from him and that he still talks about St. Francis as it was and as it is now,” Otremba noted. “It’s a tribute to what we’re all about here.”
Smith and Scibetta spent time with Caldwell and Telesco, along with the Polian family when Bill flew them down for the Super Bowl in 2007. It’s an experience Smith will cherish and never forget.
Seeing where the young men had gone and were going in life was also quite special for the St. Francis coach. Smith said they stayed in the players’ hotel and enjoyed full cart blanche to attend team practices and functions.
“We hung around the Polians, the guys and everyone; it was pretty surreal,” Smith said. “Being that we’re coaches, we were interested more in what a team does and how they handle themselves going to a Super Bowl. We went down to their complex and watched them. It was pretty neat.”
Former Red Raiders get used to their new posts
Caldwell admitted he had to go into “scramble mode” after he was told “you may have some opportunities for GM jobs.”
After a whirlwind week, in which he assumed the Jacksonville job, relieved Mike Mularkey as head coach of the Jaguars, and following the interviewing of four candidates ultimately named former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley as his first head coach, Caldwell then boarded a plane on Saturday (Jan. 19) for Atlanta, to watch the Falcons take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game the next day.
The Falcons, a team he played a role in helping rebuild into a contender, jumped out to an early 17-0 before the 49ers rallied and held on for a 28-24 win.
Such is the life of a general manager in the NFL, Caldwell did not have an opportunity immediately to speak with his long-time friend Telesco about their new posts.
Caldwell said it was not until Saturday (Jan. 19) morning, before he headed to Atlanta, that the two men finally had a chance to talk on the phone. Both were quite busy searching for head coaches right after they were hired.
Telesco’s first move was to bring aboard Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to replace Norv Turner, who was let go immediately after the end of the regular season.
The Sun could not reach Telesco before deadline but he had ringing endorsements on the Chargers’ website from Colts owner Jim Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson, former coach Tony Dungy and of course, Bill Polian.
“I’m thrilled that Tom has been named the general manager of the Chargers,” Bill Polian said. “He is a first-rate executive, a first-rate football man and a first-rate person. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for 20 years and I can assure Chargers fans that he will do a great job for them.”
Brian Polian was prepared to return for another season after being passed over for a couple of other college coaching positions, when he saw a crawler on ESPN that said Nevada head football coach Chris Ault was retiring at the end of the season.
“It was quite frankly a bit of a whirlwind,” Polian said. “I had kind of mentally moved on (from coaching interviews).”
Once named head coach, he did not have much time to settle in to his new position as he hit the recruitment trail by the weekend.
“It has been a dead sprint from the moment I got on campus,” Polian noted.
Time at St. Francis leaves lasting impression
Seeing this type of success from its graduates only makes the list of about 180 former Red Raiders that have gone on to play college football and beyond look even that more impressive.
Like Brian Polian, Caldwell also feels fortunate to have learned from instrumental people at St. Francis. He said a lot of the traits he still carries with him today date back to his days playing under Smith.
“He had a huge impact,” Caldwell said, adding that his former coach taught principles such as hard work, loyalty and passion for the game.
Although his football life has taken him far from Athol Springs to states such as Ohio, Texas and Nevada, Brian Polian still considers Hamburg his home and said he has “warm feelings” for St. Francis as he begins his first job as a college head football coach.
He still finds pride in that his high school has landed a number of graduates in the NFL and produced so many good men.
“For one thing, it’s humbling to realize that it’s the football end of it that these guys reached the epitome of what you hope to do in this profession,” Smith said. “All of these guys have been successful and that includes guys who have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, CEOs and those successful blue-collar family men.”
“I think here at St. Francis we like to talk about being a ‘Renaissance Man’ and I think that has helped all of those guys when they move on,” Smith added. “They can adapt to anything.”
For Telesco, Caldwell and Brian Polian, especially, that means adjusting to some of the most important and challenging positions in all of football.