Coaching connections lead Caponi to University of Arizona football program
Making connections can lead to new opportunities in any profession, but this is true especially in the vagabond world of college football coaching.
Just ask Matt Caponi.
The 2000 Baldwin High School graduate is in his first year as a full-time assistant coach at the University of Arizona where he's overseeing the safeties as the Wildcats churn through spring practice.
So how does a local product, with no previous playing or coaching experience more than a couple hours from home, land his first full-time Division I coaching gig on the other side of the country?
Take a look at Caponi's football path (you may need to sketch a flow chart).
After a stellar playing career at Baldwin, Caponi went on to play college football at the University of Mount Union, one of the top NCAA Division III programs in the entire country. While at Mount Union, Caponi and the Purple Raiders went 55-1 and won three national championships. During that time, Caponi emerged as a starting safety, team captain and all-conference selection.
Obviously, Caponi had been around football coaches from the time he was a child, but it was during his playing career at Mount Union that the thought of becoming a coach really took hold.
“When you're around football your whole life, you end up spending more time around your coaches than you do your professors,” he said. “You see them every day. I realized how much of an impact that had on my life.”
He expressed this interest to Mount Union head coach Larry Keheres, who then offered Caponi a graduate assistant position on his staff for the 2004 season. That position led to a job as the Purple Raiders' linebackers coach the following year.
The Division III connections he made at Mount Union led him closer to home when he landed a position on the staff at Washington & Jefferson College. He coached at W&J from 2006 to 2010, the last three as defensive coordinator.
In 2011, when one of Caponi's former W&J players, Dave Bucar, took an offensive graduate assistant position at the University of Pittsburgh, he told Caponi of a defensive graduate assistant position on head coach Todd Graham's staff.
The local product pursued the opportunity, with the chance to be a part of a Division I football program.
While he was on the Pitt staff, he became acquainted with veteran coaches Tony Gibson, Calvin Magee and Tony Dews, all of whom had coached previously under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia and Michigan.
Graham's regime at Pitt lasted just one year as he bolted for Arizona State after the 2011 season. Meanwhile, Rodriguez, who was fired by Michigan in 2010, was hired by Arizona before the 2012 season, and Gibson, McGee and Dews reunited with their former boss in the desert.
When the new Arizona staff was looking to fill a graduate assistant position, they looked to Caponi, whose work they were familiar with from their year together at Pitt.
Caponi took the gig. He then was promoted to full-time assistant coach in February when, ironically, Gibson left Arizona to return to West Virginia.
“Moving around a lot is something you know comes with the territory when you become a football coach,” Caponi said.
Caponi explained there are both striking similarities and startling differences between coaching at small Division III schools and at a major program that routinely takes on the likes of USC and Oregon.
“The schemes are the same. All programs run the same schemes,” he said.
“The biggest difference is the speed of the game, the athleticism of some of the kids ... also, recruiting is different. At the Division III level, it's more about recruiting numbers. You're trying to convince 17- and 18-year-old kids to pay $45,000 per year to play for you because you don't have those athletic scholarships to give them.”
While Caponi's job involves studying film, contributing to Arizona's defensive game plan and working with players on their technique, the biggest portion of his job involves recruiting.
“Being from Pittsburgh, I was always able to recruit (in) Pittsburgh,” he said. “Out here, I'm recruiting (in) San Francisco and Sacramento. I'm getting familiar with the high school football there, and getting to know the high school coaches.
“As coaches, if you're a great recruiter, it makes your job as a coach easier for you because you get guys that fit your program and can make an impact from day one.”
At Arizona, Caponi is part of program on the rise. In 2011, the team limped to a 4-8 record. Last year, the first under Rodriguez and his staff, the team made a substantial improvement, going 8-5 and beating Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl.
Caponi likes what he sees on the Wildcats team this spring.
“We're vastly improved from where we were last year at this time,” he said.
“We're seeing a lot of effort. A lot of coaches emphasize technique and fundamentals in the spring. We're doing that, but we also coach effort, and that's probably the biggest improvement I've seen.”
Caponi is relishing his new position, but has to merely look at his own resume to know that things can change quickly in college football. Where will the coaching road take him next?
“I can see myself staying at Arizona the rest of my career, I like it here,” he said.
“But if other opportunities come up or situations happen, I know that, at some point in time, I'll have to pick up and move again ... it's part of the job.”
No matter where football takes him, however, there will always be a place in his heart for Baldwin.
His parents, Richard and Donna, and his sister, Lisa, still live in Pittsburgh (he also has a brother who lives out of town), and he still keeps tabs on the Fighting Highlanders.
“On Friday nights or Saturday mornings, I get online to see if they won,” Caponi said. “I still have buddies who coach there, and they let me know how they're doing.
“I know the program is going to get back to where we were when I was a senior.”
Brian Knavish is a freelance writer.