Lake Zurich graduate Matt Janus developing a winning culture at Wisconsin-La Crosse
The seeds of Matt Janus' coaching career were planted while still playing football at Lake Zurich High School.
A starting linebacker his senior season in 2004, he considered then-Bears coach Mike DiMatteo and defensive coordinator Bill Helzer, now at Barrington, to be role models.
"I looked up to them and appreciated what they did, and it was probably my first interest in coaching," Janus said.
The appreciation, and the interest, got paid forward.
Even at the young age of 36, Janus commands respect as the coach at Wisconsin-La Crosse, D3football.com's fourth-ranked team in the nation.
"He's a genuine guy who really invests in everyone he recruits and retains on the roster," said fellow Lake Zurich grad Mike Bertoia, a four-year starter on the Eagles' offensive line.
Coming off a 62-7 win over Minnesota-Morris, La Crosse (10-1) hosts No. 12 Aurora University at noon Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Division III Championships.
"They're going to be explosive," Janus said of coach Don Beebe's Spartans (11-0).
"We've just got to try and limit their possessions, try to limit their explosiveness and try to get stops series by series," Janus said.
It's worked so far for Janus, the 2022 and 2023 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.
Living in Holmen, Wisconsin, and married to a Packers fan with whom he has three children, Janus came out of the football program at his alma mater, Wisconsin-Platteville, to join La Crosse in 2016 as a defensive coordinator.
Named interim coach in December 2019, Janus was promoted to coach two months later.
The 2020 season scrapped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Janus has since led La Crosse to a 28-6 record and three straight Division III championship playoffs after the Eagles had not qualified since 2006.
This year's 10-1 campaign is La Crosse's first 10-win season since 2003, its 7-0 conference record the Eagles' first outright WIAC title since 2004.
"Leaning heavily," he said, on veteran assistant coaches such as Mike Anderson, Steve King and Frank Tierney, this season Janus has led La Crosse to a 5-1 record in one-possession games. Its only loss came in Week 2, 28-21 to perennial toughie Hardin-Simmons (Texas).
Beginning his coaching career working with linebackers as a Platteville graduate assistant in 2010, then as defensive coordinator from 2011-13 at Sheboygan (Wisconsin) High School, Janus said most La Crosse players come from Wisconsin and Minnesota.
He keeps tabs on Illinois, though.
"We look for high-academic kids a lot in Lake and McHenry counties, sort of our little pocket in Illinois," he said.
Bertoia was one of them. At Platteville, Janus recruited Bertoia, who did go there but got hurt and left school.
Bertoia was working for a moving company with plans to go into the trades, he said, when Janus reached out to him from La Crosse.
"I wasn't playing football and he still remembered me," Bertoia said.
The 6-foot-3, 315-pound communications major just earned his third straight first-team all-WIAC honor at right tackle. He was a D3football.com second-team All-America pick in 2022.
"I think part of the reason it was so easy for me to see his plan or the potential in it is I knew where he was from and the strong tradition at Lake Zurich. I definitely have a sense of pride when I see the team and him doing so well, knowing we have similar origins," Bertoia said.
Janus agrees - and also is proud of the culture he's helping create at Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"Not only do our kids play at a really, really high level of football, but they are wonderful students and they are having a ton of fun in our city," he said.