Croce looks to continue Anna Maria football’s successful run

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BY KYLE BRENNAN
CITIZEN’S NEWS
Steve Croce was about to end his college football coaching career on a high note. After Anna Maria College had won the 2021 Eastern Collegiate Football Conference championship and reached the Division III playoffs, he was ready to give up his taxing second career.
Croce, a 1983 Naugatuck High grad who was a firefighter in Waterbury for 30 years, knew he’d had a good run as the Amcats’ offensive coordinator. But the nearly two-hour commute from his home in Middlebury to Paxton, Mass., was starting to take its toll.
“I could not live in the dorm, travel back and forth, be a firefighter — it was getting to be way too much,” Croce said. “The goal was accomplished. I was going to resign after spring football practice.”
After all, Croce didn’t start coaching at Anna Maria with the goal of moving up the ladder. He took the coordinator position to help then-head coach Dan Mulrooney, who Croce coached in Pop Warner and at Holy Cross High, progress in his own career.
“My goal was never to be the head coach at Anna Maria,” Croce said. “My goal was to help Danny — basically one of my sons — win a championship so he could go on and do bigger and better things.”
But when Mulrooney prepared to do just that — he was set to become head coach at Division II Lock Haven University — the 56-year-old Croce stood at a career crossroads.
He called a family meeting with his wife and four of his five kids — the only one absent was his son, Kellen, who plays pro baseball in the Czech Republic — and they encouraged him to take Anna Maria’s head coaching job if he were offered it.
Four hours after Mulrooney resigned, the school named Croce as its head football coach.
“I feel honored,” said Croce, who credited Joe Nelson and Bill Unwin for helping him during his career. “These kids that play here for me, I would take a bullet for [them]. They work so hard and they deserve so much, and that’s why I’m here. I had a feeling that if I didn’t take the job, a lot of those kids would have [transferred]. I would have been doing them a disservice if I left. We have something good going here.”
Much of Anna Maria’s recent success is thanks to Croce, who was named the ECFC Assistant Coach of the Year for coordinating the No. 8-ranked offense in Division III in 2021. Last year’s league title and trip to the national tournament means that the Amcats are adjusting up their goals.
“Our goal every year now is to win the league. The goal is no longer to go .500,” Croce said. “Every year I’m here, I want to win the league. If you’re coaching not to win a championship, you shouldn’t be coaching. Eventually, hopefully I’ll leave the program better than I got it, like Danny did.”
To make it a bit easier, Croce retired from the Waterbury Fire Department a couple of years earlier than he’d originally planned. For his first four seasons coaching at Anna Maria, a small Catholic school with a little more than a thousand undergraduate students, Croce juggled firefighting and coaching by swapping shifts and strategically using vacation time.
“I saved all my vacations for football season, and I would take my vacation in eight-hour blocks,” Croce said. “I’d leave campus at 9:30 at night, drove back to Connecticut, saw my wife that night, went to work until 4, got on the highway, and went back to practice. I was 54 years old living in a dorm.”
He has an apartment near campus now, but that doesn’t mean his local connections are gone. His offensive coordinator, Tanner Kingsley, is a former All-State quarterback at Woodland, and his special teams coordinator, Mike Kennedy, is a former standout lineman at Naugatuck.
“When I say it’s family up here, I really do mean it. It’s not a recruiting tool or a catchphrase,” Croce said. “I graduated [from Naugatuck] with Tanner’s dad, Mike, and Mike’s dad, Cal. It’s a small world.”
Croce also relays his experience as a tight end on Naugatuck’s 1981 state championship-winning team to provide a lesson for his players.
“It’s not the best players that win games; it’s the best team. The year we won everything in 1981, we didn’t have a single All-State player on the team, but we were the best team in the state. We did everything together with that group — we all hung out, all went to Linden Park, and it was one of the tightest knit groups I’ve ever been part of. That’s what wins games; having each other’s back and working as a team. If you’re not a team, it doesn’t matter.”
Croce said his main focus since taking over the job Jan. 31 has been recruiting because “competition breeds success.” When the Amcats kick off their season Sept. 10 against UMass-Dartmouth, it’ll be the culmination of Croce’s 35-year coaching journey that doesn’t compare with many other head coaches.
“People think I’m crazy, but I’m the lucky one,” Croce said. “Since I got out of the military, I’ve woken up every day and never once said, ‘Aw, [shoot], I’ve gotta go to work.’ I loved being a firefighter and I love coaching football.”