‘I need everybody’: Troxell deflects credit, but his pedigree has Lafayette surging
EASTON, Pa. – What do Holy Cross’ Bob Chesney, former Yale and Columbia great Al Bagnoli and former longtime Villanova head coach Andy Talley all have in common?
Each became a majorly successful Division I head football coach after stints as Division III head coaches. That’s a largely untraveled path to be given the roles they’ve earned, but the same can now be said of Lafayette College head coach and alum John Troxell, who in just his second year as a DI head coach has his Leopards off to a 6-1 start and in the Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2009.
Before this, he spent 16 years as a division III head coach at Franklin and Marshall College.
This trend warrants a deeper look and being the most recent example, Troxell’s story epitomizes how that drastic leap up two divisions can be done rather gracefully: it’s mainly about the people around him.
“There was a lot on your plate at the lower level and you had to do a lot more with a lot less,” Troxell said. “So I don’t want to say that makes this job easy – it doesn’t – I put in just as much time, but you have more resources at your disposal.”
At Franklin and Marshall, his workload was like a lot of other DIII head coaches. He coached position groups, coordinated special teams and fundraised, just to name a few things – all with just the help of two other full-time coaches. He learned the expectations, nuances and importance of each role, understanding what exactly it takes to succeed in them; knowledge that today, is invaluable.
At the DI level where he has an abundance of help, he can allocate that work to a specific coach he finds fit and stand back as more of a supervisor. He can spend more time with players on both sides of the ball, focus on relationships and assist with the intricacies where needed.
His time at the DIII level left no stone unturned as to what to expect of or how to manage every part of a football team, and that trained eye has put together all the right pieces of the puzzle, further proving that being a DIII coach primes you for the main stage.
“The elephant in the room is the Division III thing but … I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference (From DI to DIII) in terms of the football side of things,” Troxell said. “Obviously managing a bigger budget, having more people to help in terms of staffing, but the football side is the football side.”
A match made in heaven
After nearly two decades of operating in every role on the Franklin and Marshall football team, Troxell got to Lafayette and knew just what kind of person was needed for each role.
That was his main focus during his first months with the Leopards – finding the right men to do the day-to-day work with each individual position unit, nailing down the subtilties. These are the guys who would make each group click, the ones doing the real dirty work while he oversees it all.
And to do that appropriately, he needed to analyze why the Leopards hadn’t had much success in previous years. The people he would pick to fill his coaching staff wouldn’t just have to check out by his standards, but they’d also have to understand the college’s culture – something he’s also very familiar with having been an assistant there way back in the day, plus an alum.
“From the outside it’s like man, why are we losing because we have a great education, great facilities – ours are as good as anybody’s at this level – and we’re in a great location,” Troxell said. “We’re an hour north of Philly, we’re an hour to the west of New York City, you can get kids from Washington DC all the way up to Boston. I kept thinking why are we not doing good, so the first thing was to take the first six months and evaluate what’s going on, what’s wrong, what do we need to fix, how can we get to a point where we can compete nationally. So for me it was OK, now I have to go out and find the right guys who can do the things that I want but without me having to do them.”
That’s where offensive coordinator T.J. DiMuzio came into the picture. And then defensive coordinator Mike Saint Germaine. Then tight ends coach Tyler Noll, running backs coach Anthony Johnson and offensive line coach Kevin Baumann – so on and so forth.
There was a common denominator in all of them that relates back to Troxell’s days in the NCAA DIII: each one of them has been a coordinator at the DIII or DII levels. They’ve been tasked, like Troxell, with more work than they can handle, and it’s prepared them to deal with and simple anything thrown their way in FCS coaching.
“Strategically, if you look at our staff, we have 7 that have coached at the DIII level,” Troxell said. “When I say coach … they’ve all coordinated so you don’t have one guy in the room trying to figure it all out by himself. So that was really important to me and again, you go back to the DIII thing, I’ve had people say you need to not act like a DIII coach now and act like a DI coach. Well I’m going to act like a DIII coach because them guys, there are some really good coaches who have to make a lot out of a little and it’s a shame people put labels to it … I think I learned a ton that has given me the experience on and off the field that prepared me for what we’re trying to do here.”
He knew that more likely than not, they’d be able to bounce ideas off one another because they’ve all had vast experience beyond singular position groups. They are a team of coaches, not just individuals.
And he knew he had the right ones, giving them full authority in their roles regardless of the results, starting with the leader of the offense.
“I’ve known TJ (DiMuzio) for a long time, have a great deal of respect for him, he was the first guy I targeted to be our offensive coordinator because I’ve listened to him clinic, had all the confidence in the world of him,” Troxell said. “I told him this is going to be your show, I’m not calling the plays.”
“And then in year one its funny because I saw how frustrated he would get because we weren’t very good on offense. And it wasn’t a scheme thing, it was starting six freshman on offense and playing Temple, William and Mary in the Top 10, Holy Cross in the Top 10, Fordham in the Top 20. It was a gauntlet, and we just weren’t good enough … I know TJ did a great job a year ago and our offense was ranked 122 out of 123 … But we didn’t flinch in the belief of our philosophy and what we were doing.”
This allows Troxell, for the first time, the privilege of stepping back and making relationships with every player on his team. It’s led to trust, belief and continuity throughout the system.
“The first practice that I went out to here, I was kind of lost because I was not coaching multiple positions – the guys were doing it,” Troxell said. “So here, now, the best part is getting to build relationships with kids on both sides. During camp every night I’d go into a different position meeting and watch our coaches teach and be there with our kids and give them a chance to hear me as well.”
Once a Leopard, always a Leopard
The other aspect of the program that Troxell wanted to change was alumni engagement. It was something he made note of in his introductory press conference.
Equally as important as the coaches around him are the former players who have been through the program. Their presence and yes, their donations, go a long way in preserving and improving the place they care about. But rather than asking alumni for generous gifts, Troxell found a way to make them more connected to the program than just monetarily.
“One of the things I found that’s great is we do a “Sponsor a Player” program where an alum gives money to buy equipment for a kid,” Troxell said. “They’ll come in and have new helmets and new shoulder pads, and it’s all expensive stuff, but it does two things. One, it connects guys back to the program. They have a player now that they are following, communicating with, and two, it gets those alums excited about the program. Like, ‘Hey, I’m coming back on campus, getting to see my guy play,’ and they feel like they are contributing without having to give $50,000 or $100,000 and that’s been really important.”
But aside from their help in providing funds for the team, Troxell values their opinions and experience at the college.
For guys currently navigating the challenges of playing for the Leopards, an alum’s advice or stories of their own participation can go a long ways. Plus, they’ve played a hand in building the program into the version it’s come to be and Troxell wants them to enjoy it too.
“This year we invited all the guys back from different eras for different games and it gives them a chance to reconnect, meet our staff, see our kids,” Troxell said. “I can’t tell you – you probably haven’t gotten a chance to see our facility here, it’s a beautiful building, a football-only locker room, weight room, offices, meeting space, all of it – and I can’t tell you how many haven’t been in the building. Like man, if we win, come in the locker room, hug the kids, this is all of our program.”
“This isn’t about me, I’m not the guy who is going to be the savior, I need everybody.”
Playing as project manager
With all the help he’s received in running the team, Troxell can now do what a head coach is supposed to do.
He leads from the top, talking to the players about goals and how to block out the noise and continue playing good ball. He’s a voice of reason and trust for a group of young men.
His formula has them ahead of schedule, one of the hottest teams in America midway through 2023 when they had a losing record just a season ago. They beat No. 10 Holy Cross two weeks ago to prove that it’s not fluke either – they are a force, maybe even a bit to their own surprise.
“I think if you asked anybody here, when we talk to the kids in the building and as a staff, I don’t think we thought we’d be where we’re at yet,” Troxell said.
But doing his job, he talked through goals with his players prior to the season and they set them as follows: 1) Beat Sacred Heart, their first opponent of the year. Get out to a positive start. 2) Win every home game, which if achieved, would give them their first winning season since 2009. 3) Win a league championship.
They figured if they could knock off one and two in succession, three could become attainable and so far, so good. They beat SHU 19-14, have protected home field and now one challenge remains: the Patriot League title.
With a real chance to do it, buzz has grown nationally about the Leopards, giving Troxell another chance to step in as head coach. Now he has to manage young minds and keep them focused on the task at hand.
“I asked them, and I’m hoping they are doing this, but I said, ‘I’m asking you for the next bunch of weeks, starting this week, don’t read anything about what just happened because it’s over, its done. Don’t read about what people are saying good or bad. Just ignore the noise and listen to what’s going on in this room and do it for each other. If you want to open your computer and read about stats, you’re not focusing on the task at,’” Troxell said. “’Next week doesn’t matter, the week after that doesn’t matter, they don’t matter unless you take care of this week.’ I told them, ‘In 5, 6, 7 weeks you can go back and read anything you want.’”