The Driving Force
Adjective: showing or caused by strong feelings or a strong
If you are asked to describe Pat Cerroni in three words, inevitably one of the three will always be passionate.
For Cerroni, the head football coach at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, that passion has been the driving force in turning the Titans program into a national powerhouse. It is a powerhouse that reached its first Alonzo Stagg Bowl last December— and was a score away from winning a national championship. Maybe more important, it is a powerhouse program that was recognized on the national stage for its efforts off the field in 2016.
The teacher becomes the coach
The youngest of four children who grew up in the Johnson Creek area with parents Andy and Maria, Cerroni knew from an early age that he wanted to coach. After serving three-and-a-half years in the military and earning a secondary education bachelor’s degree in history from Carroll University where he played one year of football, Cerroni jumped into teaching, which allowed him to coach.
“I wasn’t a good athlete, I understood that early,” Cerroni said. “What I knew I had was the capacity to learn. For me, specifically with football, I had the ability and capacity to learn the game and to teach it. I also am passionate about it and try to make a difference.”
Cerroni landed at UWO as the defensive coordinator in 2000 after a successful eight years of coaching high school football under great coaches in the Milwaukee area.
During six years as an assistant coach under Phil Meyer, Cerroni not only worked tirelessly as the defensive coordinator but also as the game management administrator for then-athletics director Al Ackerman.
“I worked hard and loved it,” Cerroni said of his first few years with the Titans. “I had a passion for it; it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a college coach.”
His work ethic and passion were noticed by many, including Ackerman.
Ackerman named Cerroni interim head coach of the program in 2007. After a successful 2007 campaign that saw the Titans finish third in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), Cerroni became head coach.
“It was a really great opportunity to be a college head coach. It was my third time being a head coach and having made mistakes at the first two attempts, I was going to build it the correct way—the patient way—and do it right,” Cerroni said.
Building the Titan family
Luke Venne ’05 and ’14 MS, is lucky enough to have played for and coached under three coaches during his nearly 20-year career at UW Oshkosh, including 16 of those years with Cerroni.
“What Pat has been able to do since taking over is make the program feel like a family. He has united everybody into one mission, which allowed our goals to change and allowed us to attack a major goal here—win a national championship,” said Venne, Titans offensive coordinator.
Cerroni and Venne, along with assistant coaches Mark Angeletti ’03 MS, and Craig Stenbroten ’06, are as close as family, having worked together on the sidelines for more than a decade.
“There is a tightness between us,” explained defensive coordinator Stenbroten. “We basically know how each of us is going to react before we react. I think our players feel that brotherhood throughout the coaching staff.”
As the ties that bind this family have grown, so has the coaching staff’s overwhelming love for UW Oshkosh, its community and the football program.
“There is no doubt we are here because we love it here. We love everything about Oshkosh. We love the community and the University. It’s a beautiful place. The education is great and we know that if a kid comes here, they are going to be successful,” Cerroni said. “We all feel the same way about the program; it has always had the potential to be on top and now we are climbing that mountain together. I think Craig, Luke and Mark love it as much as I do.”
The climb to the top of the mountain has been extra special for Stenbroten and Venne, who both donned the black and gold as players in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Having played here, it makes every win so much better,” Stenbroten said. “I know the struggles the program had when I played. Coming in as coaches, the program wasn’t exactly where we wanted it to be. We had to build this thing into something I hope the University, alumni and community can be proud of.”
Leadership program helps turn team around
In 2011, Cerroni implemented a new leadership model that gave ownership of the team to the seniors. It was during his early assistant years at UWO that this unique leadership model took form.
While working 12- to 14-hour work days as an assistant, Cerroni found time to pursue his master’s degree in educational leadership at UW Oshkosh and forged a tight bond with Joe Mostofi—a strength and conditioning coach and position coach with the Titans—who too was working toward his master’s degree. The two wrote and presented a leadership curriculum. As Cerroni tells it, “Joe was the one who had the vision.”
The final step of the four-stage program involves seniors teaching leadership to the underclassman.
“The seniors have total control of the team. Our job as coaches is to guide them. When they make a mistake, we’ll help correct those mistakes, but allowing them this control empowers them to really take ownership of the success of the program,” Cerroni said.
The format has evolved into what current players call the Titan Way—a set of shared values and standards football student-athletes strive to uphold.
“We had completed the first three stages, but when we started with the active participation—when the seniors actually took over—that was the exact moment we knew we had something special,” Stenbroten said.
Sadly, Mostofi was never able to see the fruits of his vision. He was killed in a car accident on the morning of March 5, 2005, at the age of 27.
“Every single day Joe is on my mind. I tell him to look down upon us, tell him we are trying to work hard and tell him that his legacy will live on forever through me, Luke and Craig,” Cerroni said.
Giving back to the community
The Titans program has two goals: to make players role models and to win the national championship.
The team narrowly missed checking off the national championship goal last season but it showcased the extraordinary role models players are off the field.
“It’s about doing something bigger than football,” Venne said.
Last season, the Titans donated $12,000 through the annual car raffle to Be the Match, the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the country. The team also helped feed a record-breaking 500 families in the UWO Athletics Feeding America holiday food drive and welcomed 10-year-old Phoenix Bridegroom—the recipient of quarterback Brett Kasper’s life-saving bone marrow—and her family to J. J. Keller Field at Titan Stadium for an unforgettable weekend in November.
Kasper was honored for his bone marrow donation. He became the first Division III football student-athlete to be recognized as team captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and was highlighted at the 2017 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. In a year that proved to be a whirlwind of achievments, the true gift for Kasper and the team came in the form of meeting the Bridegrooms.
“Phoenix is such a fighter, and she is so inspiring,” Kasper, a supply chain management major out of Two Rivers, said. “She doesn’t have an ounce of negativity in her system.”
Grateful for support
Cerroni is adamant his program wouldn’t be where it is today without support from UWO Director of Athletics Darryl Sims, the University and the community.
“It is important to understand that the success of the program requires administrative support and support of alumni to make it relevant,” Cerroni said. “We also couldn’t have done this without the League of Titans Football, a group of people who donate their time to continually help our student-athletes both on and off the field.”
He also credits both Jim Keller, of Butte des Morts, and Jim Miazga ’74, of Rhinelander, who are friends and mentors to the 51-year-old coach.
“It’s people like Jim and Rosanne Keller who have financially helped us in so many ways that it is hard to thank them enough,” Cerroni said. “Jim and Jean Miazga are inspirations to me. Jim has been a part of Oshkosh football for more than 40 years and his continual guidance and perspective have been influential for our program.”
Driven for more
Enjoying the moment after conquering new heights wasn’t easy for Cerroni. In fact, he has already set aside the excitement of the national championship game. Because although they have reached new levels of success, the Titans’ goals have yet to be met, and with a driving force like Cerroni, there is always more to achieve.
“I’m not saying we’re going to be there every year, but I can say that we know what it takes.”
Honest, passionate, committed.