FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With a résumé that includes 23 straight playoff appearances, 83 playoff wins, seven state championships and two national championships (2008, 2010), St. Thomas Aquinas is arguably one of the top football programs in the nation.
Florida high school coaching legend George Smith, now the athletic director, helped build the Aquinas program into a national power and a recruiting hotbed in South Florida during his coaching tenure. In 34 years of coaching the Raiders, starting in 1972, Smith accumulated a 361-66-0 record that included six of the school's seven state titles and both of the national championships.
After winning the national championship in 2010, Smith retired from the head coaching job, and defensive assistant Rocco Casullo was promoted. To say there was pressure on Casullo to win is quite the understatement. He said, however, that he knew exactly what he was walking into when he accepted the promotion. The new coach went on to finish 10-3 in his first year and 13-2, including a state championship, in his second year.
"I started here in 2002 and I was defensive coordinator for four years, and I'm not going to lie, the first year was tough in 2011," Casullo said. "We lost a lot from that national championship team, but we still made it to the regional finals, which is a great year for any other school.
"I think I put enough pressure on myself just being the type A personality that I am and the competitor that I am. We knew in 2012 that we had a good team with good senior leadership, and we start off 3-2 and everybody is hitting the panic button and saying things will never be the same. But I think people sometimes forget that it took Coach Smith 17 years to get to a state championship game, 18 years to win one, and I was fortunate enough to do it in Year 2. I really don't feel the pressure, though. I know what I'm capable of doing, and I know what my staff is capable of doing."
St. Thomas Aquinas has been able to sustain its success despite the coaching change. Other traditional South Florida powers -- Miami Northwestern, Carol City, Ely, Dillard, Central, Booker T. Washington, Miramar and Norland -- can't say the same thing. Casullo thinks the camaraderie on his coaching staff is what has allowed the Raiders to keep their program strong.
"George was a guy that trusted his staff and hired the right people," Casullo said. "He lets his assistant coaches coach. He doesn't micromanage his staff, and he just lets them coach. And when you do that, the staff becomes a lot more comfortable and you just have fun. Just about everyone on my staff either played here or has extensive coaching experience at Aquinas, so you keep that camaraderie."
Having camaraderie among the coaching staff is nice, but having NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter as an assistant doesn't hurt. But Carter isn't the only former pro on the staff.
"Cris does a great job, but not only Cris but Darryl Williams in the secondary, who played at Miami and played in the league, and Al Harris Sr. in the spring coaching the corners," Casullo said. "Everybody knows Al Harris Sr., and he's coaching with the Chiefs now. These guys like to come back, and they love to teach. To watch these guys, anything you can get out of them -- I know I'm always trying to learn and our players get a lot out of it. We are big on technique, and these guys are big on technique and fundamentals."
The Big Three state programs will always be a fixture at Aquinas, but Casullo said the amount of talent he has on his team can sometimes hurt some of the lesser-known players.
"There's so much talent here," he said. "You look at all the kids that don't get recruited, but if they were in any other state they would be three-star kids. And some of these kids can't even find a school. You look at a school like Bowling Green, for example, that has close to 20 kids on their roster from Florida. If I'm a MAC school or some of these in-between schools, I would have to get somebody that can recruit this area. They are the difference-makers."
With all their experience, Casullo and his staff are able to streamline the process to relieve some of the stress the student-athletes face during recruiting.
"We are fortunate enough to have this happen every year because our kids get a lot of looks," Casullo said. "I'll meet with all my juniors, and one, make sure you take the SAT in May and the ACT in June, get your GPA up and then let's get five schools and focus on those five schools -- and that helps eliminate some of the chaos when the season comes. That formula has worked with Coach Smith and it's something that I've incorporated also.
"This whole business is about recruiting now in college football. It's extremely distracting, not only for our kids but for the coaches also. We've got coaches, recruiting services -- it's just nonstop. So we tell them to get to your five schools and that's it."
With the foundation Smith has built and Casullo has maintained, the nonstop ride for St. Thomas Aquinas' success doesn't appear to be ending any time soon.