As spring high school football practice gets underway Monday across South Florida, a handful of new coaches will be taking the field.
They'll be observed by athletic directors. Watched by fans and alumni. Evaluated by their players.
While they'll face many similar challenges, few will be as scrutinized as Rocco Casullo.
It's been a little more than two months since longtime St. Thomas Aquinas coach George Smith retired and Casullo, the 34-year-old former defensive coordinator, took the reins as head coach of one of the nation's top programs.
Things have eased back to normal on campus, but Casullo and those around him understand things have changed.
He's the one now charged with finding a way to keep the state and national champion Raiders on top.
Casullo knows it won't be easy to fill the shoes of Smith, the coach who in his 34 years with St. Thomas built the Raiders into a national power and is still on campus as the school's athletic director.
But the prospect of getting on the field and running his first practices has Casullo excited about the challenges ahead.
"I can't wait," Casullo said. "The announcement was made in February and that was what, 10 weeks ago? You want to be able to get out there and get your mind off things. The coaching comes easy once you're out there and in the flow of things. That's what I'm looking forward to. I'm excited. The kids are excited. We're all ready to get started."
As the shock of Smith's retirement wore off, those outside St. Thomas have been curious about the coach who will be taking his place on the sidelines.
But to those inside the program, Casullo is a familiar face.
He joined the St. Thomas staff as an assistant coach 10 years ago. He has worked with both the varsity and junior varsity programs. In 2007, he was promoted to defensive coordinator after working with linebackers and safeties.
Under his guidance this past season, the Raider defense allowed an average of just 6.9 points and 64.1 rushing yards per game.
And in Casullo's four years as defensive coordinator, St. Thomas has won three state titles and earned at least a share of two national titles.
"Coach Casullo deserves this job," Raiders junior defensive end Jelani Hamilton said. "He's a perfectionist. He's not going to leave any details out. He's worked so hard and everybody knows he has the ability to lead us."
Added Florida freshman defensive back Cody Riggs, who played for Casullo at St. Thomas: "He'll set fire to that team and all the young guys will appreciate the energy he has. I think he's going to do a great job."
Football in his genes
Casullo grew up around football, watching as his father, Bob, made his way through the high school, college and professional coaching ranks.
"My other son [Jamie Casullo] is the running backs coach at Albany and for the three of us, it's football 24-7. It's pretty much all we talk about," Bob Casullo said. "I never really wondered if my boys were listening, but they learned without me sitting them down. To know that makes you proud."
The younger Casullo served as a ball boy for the Syracuse football team before becoming a linebacker and baseball player at Cicero-North Syracuse High in New York.
He eventually earned a spot on the University of New Haven football team where he played for Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.
It was there Sparano saw Casullo had the potential to become a coach.
"When you see these young guys that have football in their background, it makes you pay attention," Sparano said. "He was a smart player. Always very detailed in his approach and how he went about his business. I stepped back and saw he could be a good coach down the road."
After a season at New Haven, Casullo transferred and earned his degree at Central Florida. A master's from Nova Southeastern followed.
But his driven, perfectionist nature extends beyond the football field.
"He has great energy," Smith said. "He understands what it takes to be successful and I think he'll be able to do a fine job as a head coach."
Casullo, an American History teacher and assistant athletic director at St. Thomas, enjoys playing golf or basketball on his time off.
When he's not competing, Casullo spends time with his wife of four years, Vanessa, and the couple's young daughter, Lexi, who was born a day after St. Thomas' heartbreaking state semifinal loss to Bradenton Manatee in 2009.
"He was so upset the night of the game and the next day, he was just so overwhelmed when Lexi was born," Vanessa Casullo recalls. "All of the frustration and anger from the night before were outweighed. He's a great husband and a wonderful father."
And Casullo understands it's his qualities away from the field that may have the biggest impact at St. Thomas.
Spending time with Smith has helped drive home the point that coaching—especially at the high school level—is about more than just winning.
"This is where coach Smith comes in and what I've learned from coach Smith," Casullo said. "He's always had an open-door policy with the kids and I've seen him help many, many lives, not even just here from St. Thomas. People sometimes forget these kids are 15, 16, 17-years-old and you don't always know what's going on at home. You've got to absorb. You've got to listen. Sometimes, their high school and their team may be all they've got."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times