The fall semester has started and it’s officially time for the 2023 fall season of Montclair State University athletics. For some, this could mean getting back into the groove of things; for others, this could mean starting fresh.
The Montclair State University football team had a season to forget in 2022 finishing 2-8 and winless against the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) at 0-6. But as stated before, it is time for a fresh start.
After 40 years as the Red Hawks’ head coach, Rick Giancola hung up his headset, leaving behind a legacy no one is soon to forget. The now-former head coach left behind an overall record of 260-143-2 (.644) and was one of the winningest coaches among current coaches through all collegiate levels. He leaves the program and such a great career behind. But who better to step in than someone who has been in the program for years as both a player and a coach?
Enter Mike Palazzo.
Palazzo spent the last nine seasons as the recruiting coordinator as well as a defensive coach for the Red Hawks. But before that, Palazzo was a student-athlete at Montclair State as part of the football team and track and field.
“I never would’ve thought I was going to be here,” Palazzo said. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I chose Montclair State because they had a football team. I really wanted to go to Rowan but I got rejected. It was between Stockton and Montclair and I decided maybe I can walk on at Montclair.”
Palazzo stood at 5 foot 9 inches and was never given a second look by coaches. He decided to try out anyway and see what could happen.
“I tried out in the spring. They put me at linebacker, I never played that before and I got cut,” Palazzo said. “It was that motivation that kept building. The more people that said ‘no.’ the more I wanted to get it done. Even when I played as a freshman, I had coaches telling me I should get into coaching.”
Palazzo found his passion in coaching and never looked back. After his time as a student at Montclair State, he stayed as a part-time coach for a couple of years before eventually moving to Towson University as a defensive quality control coach for a year. But when a full-time position opened up back at his alma mater, he could not pass up the opportunity. Fast forward years later and Palazzo earned himself the highest title in the college football world.
So what can the team and its supporters expect from their new head coach? Palazzo wants to share their wealth and let the other coaches and coordinators do their thing without interruptions. He wants to act as “CEO” of the team and help as needed without getting in anyone’s way.
“Coach G was coaching the offensive line, he was a position coach. I don’t want to coach a position” Palazzo said. “Coach [Steve] Sciarappa is our OC [Offensive Coordinator], it’s his offense, it’s his show. Coach [Liam] Nelson is our defensive coordinator, it’s his show in defense, and I’m here to help out. I fill in as needed, but I’m going to let those guys do their thing. I have to do all the extra stuff that the program needs.”
There is a lot of excitement going into the new year on both sides of the ball. With a lot of new faces on the coaching staff and a new set of captains taking the reigns, expectations are high within the program. Captain and senior offensive lineman Sam Ray likes what he’s seen so far in the preseason.
“Coach Palazzo has totally changed the program,” Ray said. “I’m excited as a senior, I’m excited as a captain to be a part of this team this year. Everybody’s at the meetings, everybody is there early. It seems like a program that wants to win this year.”
When Palazzo enters the room, the room falls silent and these student-athletes are locked in and ready to go. The mindset this year is to be an elite football team and adapt to change, as things change in college football every year.
Captain and junior linebacker Nick Burgess explained how the team’s job this year is to be elite and for everyone to do their job.
“Our big thing is to adapt and advance,” Burgess said. “Coaches are going to change, that’s the nature of college football. We’re so focused on keeping the same standard we had last year. On defense and offense, we’re changing our scheme to being explosive this year and I look forward to that. I feel we’re a lot more aggressive on both sides of the ball and special teams. Like I said being elite at everything we do, that’s so important to us this year.”
The biggest goal for everyone on the Red Hawks this year is of course winning the NJAC. The last time Montclair State was the sole title holder of NJAC champions was over a decade ago in 2009. After a few years of not meeting their expectations, maybe this could be the year.
“The number one goal is the NJAC,” Ray said. “This is my senior year and not just for me but for all my teammates, we need this win. There are 10 games. For me as a player my mentality is, I don’t care if we’re 6-4, I want to win this NJAC.”
The Red Hawks open the season on the road in Gettysburg, PA to face Gettysburg College on Saturday, Sept. 9. All the support, hype, and optimism expressed throughout the team this offseason is sure to bring excitement to the regular season for this Montclair State team.