Since the start of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s football program in 1893, there have been 23 different head coaches. Eight have led UWO for at least five years, with four of those remaining at Oshkosh for at least 10 years.
Current head coach Pat Cerroni is one of the few coaches who has stayed at UWO for at least 10 years. Through 183 games, he holds a .671 winning percentage, making him the highest-winning coach in Titan history.
Cerroni is the fourth-longest tenured coach in UWO’s history, with only Russ Young, Ron Cardo and the namesake of UWO’s gym, Robert Kolf, having longer coaching careers as a Titan. Cerroni has recorded the only three double-digit season win totals in the history of the University, with two of those in consecutive years, 2015 and 2016.
Cerroni arrived at Oshkosh in 2000 as the defensive coordinator after being the head coach at Menomonee Falls High School. Working at the high school level provided valuable experiences he was able to rely on when moving up into the college ranks.
Cerroni’s coaching career dates back to the early 1990s, when he held positions as an assistant at Waukesha Catholic Memorial and Hartland Arrowhead high schools before moving on to Menomonee Falls.
“Coming from being a high school coach, to have six years of understanding how to recruit, how to bring in a group of guys, to logistically get through a football camp, a season and spring ball was crucial,” Cerroni said.
Cerroni was at UWO seven seasons as the defensive coordinator under then-head coach Phil Meyer before being promoted. Meyer left for another position in 2007, and Cerroni was named the interim head coach in January while a coaching search continued.
It was eventually determined that the best option to take over the team was already on staff. Cerroni was given the keys to the team, had the interim coaching tag removed and became the program’s 21st head coach later that year.
The two main coordinators at UWO are Stenbroten and Venne, with Stenbroten leading the defense and Venne overseeing the offense. Stenbroten just finished his tenth season at Oshkosh, including his second year as the defensive coordinator. Venne completed his 16th season coaching for UWO, which he began as a student coach while attending UWO.
Both Stenbroten and Venne were on the team at some point when Cerroni held the defensive coordinator position. Venne said being a player helps teach what the game is all about.
“When you are a player first, sometimes it does help you understand what it takes to be a coach,” Venne said.
Under Stenbroten, the Titans have produced many award winners, including one first and one second-team All-American from D3football.com this year. In 2015, Stenbroten coached linebacker Taylor Goodman to the first All-American award for the Titans.
Linebacker Reese Dziedzic earned a first-team D3football.com All-American nod this year, with safety Johnny Eagan taking home second team honors for the Titans. Stenbroten also helped four Titans earn a first-team All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference bid and three earned second team honors.
Both Stenbroten and Venne had playing careers in black and gold, with all three main coaches on the staff earning a degree from UWO. Stenbroten was a linebacker who appeared in 34 games during his playing career, and Venne made 35 appearances as an offensive lineman during his tenure as a player for the Titans.
Stenbroten said the familiarity of both the University and the program helped him understand his coaching roles, especially as he made his way through the ranks to the defensive coordinator position.
“All the same dorms, food and professors were there to help freshman adjust to campus life,” Stenbroten said. “I played for coach Cerroni as well, and it gets intense at moments, but his passion is what I have experienced.”
Venne has had a hand in the offensive unit for 16 years so far, with positions that include managing the offensive line and overall offensive cordinator, as well as assisting with the strength and conditioning program. He was at the helm of the offense in 2015 when the team set a WIAC record for most 60-point scoring games in one season with three and set a UWO record by putting up 86 points in an early-season contest.
By putting up record-setting seasons, Venne said the results stemmed from lessons learned and challenges faced during both his playing career, his rise through the coaching ranks at UWO and he especially credits coaching the offensive line.
“Being an alumnus and having this type of success means a lot,” Venne said. “The detail that you have to have when coaching a specific position helps in the transition to coordinator. I love being the offensive coordinator and everything with it, but coaching the offensive line is something that I definitely miss.”
Graduate assistants and student coaches are also a dominant part of the coaching staff. They help the program succeed and Cerroni said without the help of these men, the team would not be where it is today.
“There are a lot of programs out there that struggle and do not look outside the box,” Cerroni said. “To even give a kid a chance to coach, I am not afraid to do that. I am not afraid to let a 19-year-old have a position and be coaching because they are good enough to do it.”
Coinciding with student leadership is the freedom players have for controlling the game. Stenbroten said for the team to succeed, players must take advantage of the fact they have the majority of say as to what plays and formations are run.
“You learn how to teach either the defense or the offense to the players we currently have,” Stenbroten said. “Specifically, the way we call the defense is so interesting, with the linebackers calling fronts and the safeties calling the coverages, so the coaches do not call a whole lot. It just all comes down to teaching.”
With the culmination of the season an appearance in their first-ever Stagg Bowl, Cerroni said through and through, this team earned everything it received. The team’s dedication and improvements it showed throughout the course of the season described the drive of wanting to follow through on a goal players set at the beginning of the year which was to win the Stagg Bowl.
“We were not satisfied to be here, we wanted to win the [game],” Cerroni said. “I am really proud of these guys for how they worked and what we have created is a warrior-class of athletes at Oshkosh. These kids work hard, they have done a great job and I could not be more proud of them. They sacrifice their bodies for this university.”
Cerroni gives credit to the conference as a whole and said in order to perform well in the playoffs, you must play well during the regular season.
“We will be back,” Cerroni said. “If you win the WIAC, you are a pretty good football team and you are going to contend for this every year. Our conference is really good and we beat a lot of really good teams this year. We have nothing to hang our heads about.”
By making their first appearance in the championship, the Titans were able to make it to the game that both UW-Whitewater and Mount Union had essentially lived at for the past ten years.
This was the first time since 2004 that neither the Warhawks nor the Purple Raiders made the Stagg Bowl, making for a unique part in the history of D-III football.
Previously, the farthest the Titans went in the Division three playoffs was to the semifinal round in 2012, when they finished 13-1, only losing in the playoffs.
Coaching is an aspect of the game of football that survives through experience. To be a successful coach on any level, on-the-job training is necessary to improve.
Their appreciation for the game, their dedication to improving game plans and schemes while instilling a sense of dedication and grit into their players is why coaches are put in leadership positions. Their want to reach the promised land and bring home the hardware while helping their players understand the importance of leaving it all on the field is what differentiates coaches and legends. Cerroni said he has the utmost faith in his coaching staff and the promise they have for upcoming seasons. He said he is already looking forward to next season.
“The core of coaches have predominantly stayed the same for a very long time,” Cerroni said. “I think that has a lot to do with our success. I think we are very unique that way in how we have a lot of guys that help us out and we would not be in the position that we are without them.”
What Cerroni, Stenbroten and Venne have instilled at Oshkosh has led to remarkable results.
Six of Cerroni’s ten teams have finished third or higher in the WIAC standings, with two of his three WIAC championships occurring in consecutive years in 2015 and 2016.
UWO has finally made an appearance on the national stage, bringing 122 years of football lore with it. Even with the second-place finish in the national championship contest, the results of this season and the solid nature of the coaching staff are reasons to believe that Oshkosh’s future is very bright.