More Than a Coach

Some people become coaches simply for the love of the game. For Dan Gritti, it was much more than that. It was about impacting young men’s lives.

White chalk covers the grass field. Footballs fly through the air. Sweat and the smell of week old laundry lingers in the air. The burning heat and humidity is hell for some, heaven for others. For Gritti, it’s a sanctuary.

When you first see Gritti, a middle-aged average size man, he seems quiet. But when he walks onto the field, that all changes. His emotions constantly change. A missed play, failed technique, lack of effort, and his smile turns upside down immediately and red discoloration covers his face. The vein throbs in his neck and expletives fly. But it wasn’t always this way.

Before realizing he was destined to be a college football coach, Gritti served on a different kind of playing field. The courtroom.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and U.S. History at Vanderbilt University in 1995, Gritti earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1998.

His interest in politics and competitive nature led to his venture into law. It challenged him intellectually and he appreciated the subject matter.

Gritti was a labour and employment attorney, representing businesses and corporations in an attempt to save them money. He also protected them from legal trouble and helped settle cases that included accusations of sexual harassment.

This did not sit well with Gritti. He couldn’t fathom the amount of sexual harassment and assault that occurs in the country.

With the plethora of sexual assault allegations coming out in Hollywood, old wounds have been reopened for Gritti. Because he knows firsthand that sexual assault is a recurring issue the news in Hollywood isn’t a surprise.

“What you’re seeing from Hollywood was something I saw everyday across corporate America,” he said.

He thought he would be impacting people’s lives. Instead, he was saving wealthy employers money and keeping them out of legal trouble.

“Saving a multinational corporation a million bucks is not exactly, you know anything, that is really motivational,” Gritti said.

Gritti loved law and believes it created many opportunities for him. Opportunities such as making a six figure income in his twenties and working with and campaigning with politicians such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Unfortunately when Gore lost the 2000 election to former President George W. Bush, the dream of going to D.C. was put to rest.

Gritti loved the lifestyle, but he learned early in his career that this wasn’t what he wanted to do. He stuck with it, though, until September 11, 2001.

At 27 years old, Gritti went through what most people couldn’t imagine. Having worked in New York, he knew employees in the Twin Towers. He lost friends and acquaintances in the terrorist attack that claimed the lives of thousands. He attended around 35 funerals in 31 days. It took a toll on Gritti, and he does his best to not think about it.

The experience made him realize that life is too short to do something he didn’t enjoy nor felt comfortable doing. He didn’t feel good about himself; he knew it was time for change.

“If I’m going to be on this Earth, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here,” Gritti said. “I might as well do something I like.”

So he switched gears to football.

Gritti was appointed head coach of the Big Blue in 2016. During his first season, his team’s record was 4-6. This year was a different story, and Millikin achieved their first winning season since 2009.

Before becoming a head coach, Gritti served as an assistant coach at various institutions including Indiana, University of Chicago, and Middlebury College.

While at the University of Chicago, he helped lead the defense to a top ten ranking as their defensive line and linebackers coach. The defense was not only ranked 3rd in the country for sacks and tackles for loss, but they were also tied for most punts blocked for touchdowns in a single season.

Gritti finally got his big break when he was hired as the head coach at Rhodes College in 2010. Just like Millikin, Rhodes was a struggling program, in need of change. Gritti saw this as his responsibility to use his leadership to turn the program around.

Similar to Millikin, Rhodes hadn’t had a winning season in years. Gritti knew that he couldn’t fix the program over night. In fact, he believes that when rebuilding a football team, it is a three year process. And three years is all it took.

In 2013, he led the Lynx to an 8-2 season and their first championship in 26 years. In five years at Rhodes, he put up 29 wins and 19 losses. Gritti prides himself on being a defense-oriented coach. In 2014, Rhodes was ranked second in the country in team sacks with 41. They were second in fourth down defense and 12th in tackles for a loss. Special teams also played a pivotal role in the team’s success, placing in the Top 30 NCAA Division III national rankings in multiple categories.

Gritti primarily focuses on defense, but he also puts a lot of his energy into developing the special teams. The Big Blue practices special teams more than most teams in the CCIW. Millikin is on the right track to a successful future on the turf. More importantly, the off the field success is present now.

Gritti and his coaching staff believe education comes first, football second. Attending classes and doing well in them are an expectation. If a player isn’t doing what they need to do in the classroom, the coaches can’t trust them to do their job on the field. It doesn’t matter if they are top tier or a scout player.

For the most part, the players understand this and focus on their classroom performance. Not everyone can handle the tough love. Some players came from programs where their playing ability was held to a higher standing than their academic performance. Those players don’t last long on the team.

Although Gritti hates to see young men with great potential walk away or be turned away, he understands he can’t save everyone. But he believes that he can help most of them.

“If they have that motivation, we can at least do our part to limit the distractions and to give them the structure that allows them to be successful,” he said.

By giving them motivation and structure, he believes that he can help them better their lives, a responsibility he takes seriously.

“We can make other kids, kids who might not otherwise graduate from college,” Gritti said. “Get them a great degree, and be able to improve not just the lives of themselves but their families.”

Even though Gritti is strict when it comes to education, he understands it’s not easy for everyone. If a kid is underperforming in the classroom, they don’t see the field. Though they are held out of practices, they aren’t kicked off the team. In addition, the coaches work with them to find tutors and bring up their grades because Gritti cares about his players.

“I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t express I care,” he said.

Though the players are not currently participating in games, their spring season is in full swing. That entails several lifting and practice sessions during the week. The hope is that the hard work they are putting in during the spring and summer will show through on the field in the fall.

Although Gritti does not have the option of forcing his players to sit out of games if they aren’t working hard in the classroom, the same expectations apply right now. His athletes still are required to check into all of their classes, work hard on their studies, and still compete in practices.

Gritti believes that a player is more likely to be a successful if they realize that their coaches and educators care about them. Not just from a skills standpoint but a personal standpoint.

Not only does Gritti know every player’s name and number, he also takes the time to get to know them as a person. Regardless of age or playing time, he knows them.

Remember the story of the kicker whose coach had never spoken to him until he made the winning field goal? He was elated when he told the reporters that the coach finally spoke to him.

During camp, before the season starts, he really gets to know these kids. And they get to know him. He says it becomes quite clear early on, who’s a good person and who may be a troublemaker.

Some of them just need that tough love. They aren’t the same, and may need something different. Some need a bit more guidance.

It might not seem fair, when a player gets a different punishment for the same offence. It might not seem fair when one player is turned away, while the other gets to stay on the team. And it might not seem fair when a player is getting yelled at while another is coddled with a soft talking to. But it may be what they need to get the best out of them.

“We are not going to treat everyone equally, we are going to treat everyone fairly,” Gritti said.

And he lets the team know this early on. They may not agree with it, but at least they realize the coaching staff is honest with them.

Along with education and behavior, Gritti is also very strict when it comes to how his players treat others. Having dealt with issues of sexual assault and mistreatment of women has made Gritti more sensitive to the issue. He wants his guys to treat women respectfully. He says it all the time. If you wouldn’t say it to your mother or sister, don’t say it to someone else.

His players seem to have really taken to Gritti. They know he means business, but they also know he is a fun loving guy. He’s someone they can joke around with.

But the guy doesn’t joke about his candy.

That’s right. Gritti has a sweet tooth. It seems like every practice one of his assistant coaches brings him a pocket full of candy. Gritti’s go to is chewy Sweet Tarts.

His players are jealous of this and have oftentimes tried to sneak into their assistant coach’s bag to steal some of those delicious goodies.

Gritti, with a smile on his face, responds by letting them know that if they continue, they will be running all of the practice.

The Boston native can be seen every practice wearing a pair of socks that feature his favorite Boston teams. From the Red Sox, to the Celtics, to the Patriots; he loves them all, and he seems to have multiple pairs of socks for each team and player. One day, he wears Rob Gronkowski socks, the next David Ortiz.

And it’s not just Boston team socks. He has over 50 different pairs, ranging from ones that have cheetah print to others with his favorite rappers on them.

He has a love for music. In fact, he loves all genres. His playlist includes everything from Notorious B.I.G., to Katy Perry, to Garth Brooks.

Along with music, he also enjoys Broadway and ballet. He has an appreciation for the arts that he got from his mom. When he was younger, she used to make him and his brother attend ballets with her. If they refused, they wouldn’t be allowed to go to sporting events.  

Gritti’s lighter side can also come out at practice. He might not be jamming out to Big Poppa with his players, but he still has some fun.

He can strike fear in the hearts of his 300 pound linemen, but he can still be goofy at times. This became evident during one practice. One minute he was just standing there, the next he was running back and forth on the football field. Several bugs began to swarm him. No longer paying attention to the 7 on 7 drill in front of him, he was fixated on avoiding the little creatures. He slapped himself, trying to knock off the bugs. He was bit several times despite his efforts to swat them away..  

While he continued to freak out, his players were completely oblivious. To them, it was business as usual. It seems they are used to the strange behavior from their head coach. After suffering from a few bites, Coach Gritti joked to his coaching staff about suffering an injury that could keep him off the field.

Gritti plays many different roles. He is a drill sergeant, a teacher, a coach, a father figure, a friend, and a lawyer. But his biggest impact has truly come as being himself.

At least his players tend to think so.

When asked about what he thinks of Coach Gritti, junior quarterback Nicco Stepina had a lot of praise for his head coach.

“I think he’s a great guy, he really is,” Stepina said. “He came in here day one and said he’s going to put us in the best position to win, and the best position to succeed. And he will always have our back as long as we have his. That’s been his motto since day one.”

Stepina has seen that Gritti has kept his word. One of the first things Gritti did for his team was get them new uniforms and Nike gear. Stepina couldn’t believe it, and had never seen anything like it at Millikin. All Gritti asked for in return was for them to do what they needed to do. So far, the players have held up their end of the deal.

They are excelling on the field, in the classroom, and as members of society. So far, none of his players have had any serious off the field issues. If they continue on this path, they will succeed, which is all Gritti wanted.

After years of law and switching careers, it seems like Gritti has found his place. And he’s doing what he loves.

“What drew me here, in large part, was the chance to help people have a better life,” Gritti said. “And use football to do it.”