The Detroit Catholic League football coaching carousel took a few more turns during the offseason, with a pair of programs once led by two of the winningest coaches in state history welcoming new leaders for this fall.
Two former understudies to those longtime mentors now find themselves with the top jobs directing programs that have combined to earn 18 MHSAA Finals championships.
Adam Korzeniewski, 43, is the new coach at Birmingham Brother Rice, replacing Dave Sofran, who replaced legendary coach Al Fracassa after the Warriors won their third consecutive Division 2 title in 2013.
Dan Anderson, 48, is the new coach at Detroit Catholic Central, taking over for recently-retired Tom Mach, who directed the Shamrocks to a Division 1 runner-up finish nine months ago.
“It is daunting,” Anderson said. “You question yourself. Would Tom have done that? You want to keep the tradition alive. I’m not Tom Mach. I can learn from him and put my stamp on it.”
He and Korzeniewski will seek to do so while navigating what continues to be one of the most competitive leagues in the state. Detroit Catholic Central (10), Brother Rice (8) and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (7) have combined to amass 25 MHSAA football titles, while Warren DeLaSalle has added two more.
But when Mach announced his retirement from DCC in February, it continued a recent run of Catholic League Central programs passing the baton. Following the 2015 season Paul Verska – who led DeLaSalle to the 2014 Division 2 title – stepped down from the Pilots, and Mike Giannone left Macomb Dakota to fill Verska’s spot. Fracassa retired after the 2013 season with a record of 430-117-7 since starting at Royal Oak Shrine in 1960 and moving to Brother Rice in 1969; he holds Michigan’s record for most high school football coaching wins, while Mach is third with a record of 370-94 from 1976-2016.
St. Mary’s longtime leader George Porritt (256-71 since 1989) will enter this season as the league’s only coach with more than a year heading up the program at his school.
“I’m not a tight T (formation) guy. But I will run it right at you,” Anderson said in explaining a philosophical similarity to Mach. “And I do run some tight T plays. You can’t get rid of the wham. Tom’s philosophy was defense wins championships. That won’t change while I’m here.”
The wham is a basic run play into the middle of the line, a trademark of Mach’s offense. It’s simple but often effective. Anderson said he will install a multiple offense incorporating formations and plays from a variety of schemes as the Shamrocks look to add to last season's 13-1 run.
Anderson has been well-schooled, at Catholic Central and a number of high schools in Ohio where he grew up, played football and coached. He came to Catholic Central in 1999 as a freshmen coach. The next five seasons he was the head junior varsity coach. In 2005, he became a varsity assistant – and in 2007 he became the defensive coordinator.
Anderson played defensive end and offensive tackle at Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, located near Dayton. He earned a scholarship to University of Pittsburgh where he played guard and was a starter his junior and senior seasons.
Long before then, he knew he wanted to become a teacher and a coach. A junior high history teacher, who was also a coach, played a major role in Anderson becoming the person he is today.
“He coached me in CYO (Catholic Youth Organization),” Anderson said. “He made a big impression upon me. I was 12 or 13 years old, and I knew then I wanted to teach history and coach.
“I love the game (of football). As soon as I got out of college (1992), I started coaching as a volunteer assistant at Penn Hills (Pa.).”
And he hasn’t stopped coaching since. After leaving Penn Hills, Anderson went to Pomfret, Maryland, located just outside of Washington, D.C., and coached three sports (baseball, basketball and football) at McDonough High. After two years, he went back to his alma mater and spent five years there, the last three as the head football coach. His wife at the time was transferred to General Motors in the Detroit area and, again, Anderson sent out applications and was hired by Catholic Central as a history teacher and football coach.
Anderson said he feels fortunate to be in this position. Learning and having mentors within a parochial school system prepared him for this opportunity and challenge.
“Mach, to me, was a heck of a mentor,” he said. “My high school coach, Ed Domstiz, was one of my mentors, too. And he’s still coaching.
“Tom was laid back. He didn’t take things too seriously. With all of the extracurricular things that go on now, he wanted football to remain a game. That bothered him, the kids jumping from one school to another. To me, high school was a great time, all of the friends that you made. When you move around you miss that.
“For Tom, it was more of his relationships with people. He had the Xs and Os, but it was about building men. That was always an emphasis. You had to develop them into great people. What you saw with Tom is what you got. It was refreshing.”
Though Korzeniewski isn’t directly replacing a legend, Fracassa’s shadow still looms over Brother Rice football; history doesn’t leave us that quickly. Expectations remain high for a program that won three straight Division 2 titles from 2011-13. The Warriors finished 7-4 last fall.
There’s an added unknown for Korzeniewski. He’s never been a head coach before. He’s coached for 17 seasons, including six as Fracassa’s defensive coordinator. The last two seasons Korzeniewski was the defensive coordinator at Birmingham Seaholm, working under his good friend Jim DeWald. The two were teammates at Western Michigan during the mid-1990s.
Korzeniewski’s approach is to keep things simple. He doesn’t see his job as having more pressure than most head coaching positions. As a coach, you teach. For the players, they learn.
“To me, it’s my job,” he said. “I go about it as I would anything else. To other people it would be different. I do my job every day.
“I didn’t come here thinking other people did this or that. It’s the kids. It goes back to why I got into coaching. You see the progress. It’s important to them that they get better. Football is important to them.”
Just as Anderson learned from his predecessor, Korzeniewski has borrowed much from Fracassa.
“I learned the importance of a team,” Korzeniewski said. “Nothing is more important than the team. And there’s something else. He made every player feel a part of the team. He had a way to make kids compete. I wish I could do that.
“What’s important to me is that things get taught and understood. You have to be demanding and supportive. (It’s) the action and reaction.”
Rest assured, both coaches will be watched as if through a microscopic lens. They understand that. They also understand they are heading into once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and they’re going to make the most of them.
“I’m excited,” Anderson said. “We have a great group of kids. We have a great group of coaches and we’re going to enjoy each other’s company.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Catholic Central's Dan Anderson (left), here coaching the defense during the 2016 Division 1 Final, and Brother Rice's Adam Korzeniewski, the Warriors' defensive coordinator during their 2012 Division 2 title run, are taking over top Detroit Catholic League programs this fall. (Middle) Former Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa (top) retired after the 2013 season, while DCC's Tom Mach stepped down in February.
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)