The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
SCSU operations manager Criscuolo, 18, has seen her role evolve into job as assistant wide receivers coach
Fittingly, Charliana Criscuolo was talking about her football past and setting up her football future while having her nails done two days before the North Branford High senior prom.
She was in a salon last spring when Southern Connecticut football coach Tom Godek called, offering a job as the Owls’ team operations manager that she would accept and turn into so much more.
“We had been looking for help with equipment, filming, data input,” Godek said. “Slowly and steadily she started to work her way from operations and smaller things like that, and all of the sudden she started to absorb the coaching stuff by being around it. Here we are today and she’s moving deeper and deeper into our playbook.”
Criscuolo, 18, might be the busiest person on the state’s sports scene, a nursing student and now, with her freshman year wrapping up, Southern’s assistant wide receivers coach. She remains the operations manager, too.
Her evolving role on Godek’s staff is among the most unique experiences in college sports, the continuation of a passion Criscuolo developed as a manager for several sports while in high school — and an important showcase for the broadening opportunities for women in a college sport played by, and almost exclusively coached by, men.
Many young women, Criscuolo understands, might have the football interest and the football knowledge — but not necessarily an understanding that they can have the football opportunity. Her persistence in seeking out the job and quickly becoming an indispensable member of the Southern coaching staff shows what is possible.
Which is this, essentially: whatever one properly gameplans for.
“It’s important for young women and young people to see you can do it, that there are different avenues,” Criscuolo said. “I’ve never stepped foot on a field and played but I’m figuring it out and I’m trying to coach in a different way, bringing a new coaching dynamic.”
To sum up what Criscuolo does for the Owls is probably to ask, What doesn’t she do?
She organizes and publicizes camps, running a website and remaining active with outreach on social media. She charts statistics, helps with daily clean-up, fills drink jugs, hauls equipment to and from facilities. She coordinates team gatherings and meetings, handles meal lists and practice music and travel itineraries. The paperwork and emailing, much of it having to do with recruiting, is seemingly endless.
Those are just some of her managing duties.
Criscuolo was promoted to the coaching staff, a role for which she receives a stipend, in advance of the Owls’ March spring practice session. Criscuolo coaches players through workouts. She reviews film and asks questions and makes suggestions. She was involved in the between-plays discussions over the headset during spring ball and is expected to be during the 2023 season. She calls in play signals from the sideline. She’s in every staff meeting that her schedule allows.
There were, initially, the occasional quizzical looks from players trying to wrap their mind around an 18-year-old — a female freshman, no less — helping guide them through their Division II athletic experience. Godek assumes, too, there was probably some underthe-breath snickering at times.
But one of Criscuolo’s gifts is an ability to communicate with those players. She quickly developed a trust essential to any football operation.
“I like to be involved with what’s going on with their lives, learning more about them, making that connection,” Criscuolo said. “I can talk to those guys. Not every little issue needs to go to [offensive coordinator Chris Bergeski] or Godek. Things can be handled. They have a million things going on. That’s what I bring as far as realizing my voice, and where I am as a coach, being able to further myself in coaching by helping the players with that aspect — not just the playing, but making a difference in their personal lives.”
Criscuolo has a talent for making more of an opportunity than it appears to be on the surface.
Looking for something to occupy her time and mind while going through a rough patch in high school, she took a job as the North Branford football team manager. By the end of her high school years, Criscuolo was the manager for both the North Branford and Guilford football teams, as well as the North Branford boys hockey, boys basketball and boys lacrosse teams.
“It was [initially] described to me as doing statistics and cleanup, nothing crazy,” she said. “But I realized they needed a lot more help in organizing. I turned it into a real job. You need someone to be there for those guys and help trainers and do statistics and send emails. It was explained to me in high school that managing is the joke of the school. I did it because I loved it. I was doing it for myself and because I was helping people. You can see at the end of the four years, the impact you have on [players]. I like to see that. That’s what I get out of it.”
Criscuolo’s senior capstone project focused on these experiences. She made a 10-minute video montage of players, parents and coaches speaking to what her presence meant to their high school sports experiences.
Criscuolo applied to three colleges and emailed the head coach of those football teams directly last spring, seeing if she could continue working in the sport. When Godek got around to searching Criscuolo’s name on Google, and came across the video on YouTube, he picked up the phone and interrupted her prom manicure. She was at a prospect camp days later.
“Charlie really went in headfirst and gave us everything she had,” Bergeski said. “If you look from a wider lens, society and sports and opportunities for individuals all over the place is kind of a driving area right now. Our conversations have been about finding a balance of being comfortable with our athletes and making sure she feels comfortable with the coaching part of things and being herself. It’s a business where you’re continuously learning and trying to find new ways to do things. The X’s and O’s is going to be the newer side of things for her. I believe our players have done a nice job of adjusting and respecting and listening. Her responsibilities have just continued to increase.”
It’s not abnormal for a student to be part of a coaching staff.
But usually they’re graduate students, 22 or 23 years old. And they’re almost always former players.
Criscuolo is pushing through barriers earlier than most, differently than most.
She has befriended Michelle “Mickey” Grace, hired in April as an offensive analyst on UConn coach Jim Mora’s staff. Grace’s hiring was celebrated as a breakthrough for women, and women of color. When her story was shared on Twitter, Guilford High coach Anthony Salvati, a former North Branford assistant, took notice and made a connection.
“Check out our former manager Charliana Criscuolo now as an assistant WR coach at @SCSUFB!” Salvati wrote to Grace.
Grace reached out to Criscuolo, who was a guest for a day with the UConn staff a few weeks ago.
Criscuolo will take an exam to enter the School of Nursing at Southern in the fall — around the time, of course, that football season begins.
She refers to the football offices as her “calm place,” which is funny in that such buildings are known as anything but. Football coaches are notoriously around-the-clock workers.
“When I first started, my major thing was camp,” Criscuolo said. “Coaches are here for 13-hour days or longer and my responsibility was only practice. So if I wanted to gain the respect of the players, I was going to be here early in the morning, before anyone, and be with the coaches when they left. Now that we stepped into the coaching role in spring, it’s not something that’s common in this sport and something that the guys would have to get used to. There are bumps in the road but I think a lot of them did great with helping me out. They understood that I was putting it all together.”
Criscuolo is in the football offices before classes and afterwards.
“She’s a really good student,” Godek said. “She will just keep growing and keep learning, like all of us. It’s about bouncing ideas off each other. Everyone has ideas. You just want to work together to make the team better than it was the day before.”
Criscuolo has plenty of time to refine career aspirations.
“I call nursing my backup plan,” she said. “It’s a pretty big backup plan. But you never know what can happen or where I can go with that. Maybe working in [a neonatal intensive care unit] or labor and delivery, and do a little coaching in the afternoon. That’s my plan, but everybody tells me I need sleep.”