Former Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco out at UConn

Mike Anthony
Hartford Courant

The 2016 UConn football season came apart in almost cataclysmic measures, one blowout loss after another and confounding analysis to follow. The problems coach Bob Diaco began referring to as identifiable and fixable grew more disconcerting by the week.

Overall, it was a three-month body of work that would have few, if anyone, questioning a decision to fire Diaco, a former Notre Dame defensive coordinator. Still, the program and the UConn administration turned the page to next season with the expectation that Diaco would return for a fourth season.

A complicated review and planning phase, however, essentially began a 180-degree turn. UConn announced Monday Diaco was fired, effective Jan. 2, ending a bizarre three-year chapter in Huskies history.

"I believe a new leader for our program and student-athletes is needed to build long-term success," athletic director David Benedict said in a statement. "I am grateful to Coach Diaco and his staff for their hard work and the integrity with which they ran the program and certainly wish them future success. ... I know this may come as a surprise to our fans and supporters given the timing of this decision. However, it became apparent to me that a change in program direction is necessary at this time."

With the 2017 transaction date, Diaco is owed a buyout of $3.4 million. The five-year contract Diaco signed in May called for a $5 million buyout had the effective date of his firing come in 2016.

Per the terms of the contract, Diaco is owed that money within 60 days of his termination. However, it is not uncommon for exit negotiations and separation agreements to tweak the timing — or even amounts — of those payments.

Diaco, 43, is 11-26 at UConn. He opened with a 2-10 record in 2014, time spent taking apart and rebuilding a limping program after the Paul Pasqualoni era. The Huskies were 6-7 in 2015, returning to a bowl game for the first time in five years, and entered 2016 with high expectations.

The team's most recent season came apart in dramatic fashion. UConn lost its final six games to finish 3-9 (1-7 AAC). The Huskies had the worst offense in the nation, averaging 14.8 points, and lost their final four games by a combined 130-16.

Reached early Monday afternoon, Diaco said he wasn't yet prepared to speak in depth about the decision or his tenure at UConn. He said he was informed by Benedict Monday morning, that he was shocked and that he would welcome a more detailed discussion in the near future.

"This is obviously not the way I had hoped things would turn out, but I appreciate having had the opportunity to be here at UConn," Diaco said in a statement issued by UConn. "I thank the administration, staff and fans of the UConn football program for their passion and support over these three years. Most importantly, I want to say how much I love the players on this team and will be rooting for their success. I know that there are great things to come for all of them."

The press release stated, "Athletic Department officials will begin reviewing head coach options immediately and will update fans and supporters throughout the process."

The Huskies are expected to move quickly. Early speculation related to a list of candidates has focused on several coaches with UConn ties.

Joe Moorhead, 43, a UConn assistant in 2009-11 and coach at Fordham in 2012-15, has become a national name for his success this season as offensive coordinator at Penn State, which will play Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl Jan. 2.

Todd Orlando, 44, an assistant at UConn for all 12 of Randy Edsall's seasons as Huskies coach, was the defensive coordinator at Houston during Tom Herman's incredible two-year run in 2015-16. When Herman took the Texas job last month, Orlando followed as defensive coordinator after briefly serving as Houston interim coach.

Then there is Edsall, 58, who led UConn to the Fiesta Bowl after the 2010 season and abruptly left to coach Maryland, where he was fired midway through his fifth season in 2015. Les Miles, 63, was fired as LSU coach four games into last season, his 12th with the Tigers. He led LSU to the 2007 national championship and has reportedly expressed an interest in landing another job.

Benedict, hired in late February, has been at UConn less than a year, so program ties don't necessarily carry overwhelming weight. He formerly worked in athletics administration at Auburn (2015), Minnesota (2012-14), Virginia Commonwealth (2010-12), Long Beach State (2007-10) and Arizona State (1996-2006).

He was said to have no interest in firing Diaco down the stretch of a season that was spinning out of control. Diaco had a reputation for running a clean program and players performed well in the classroom. With those staples in place, and a vision for how to fix the offensive problems, the offseason got underway without public statements of support from Benedict — but also without any indication that his line of thinking had shifted or his plans had changed.

In fact, just two days after the season ended with a 38-13 home loss to lowly Tulane, before an announced crowd of 20,764 at Rentschler Field that was more like 5,000, UConn issued a press release to announce that Frank Verducci had left the coaching staff and a national search had begun for UConn's next offensive coordinator.

Diaco had demoted Verducci and promoted running backs coach David Corley to offensive coordinator following a 41-3 loss at East Carolina Oct. 29. The Huskies were shut out in their next two games (Temple and Boston College), the first two in the career of Donovan Williams, who replaced junior Bryant Shirreffs at quarterback. That move was controversial in that it sacrificed the planned redshirt year for Williams, a true freshman. At one point, UConn went 16-plus quarters without a touchdown.

The hiring process for the next offensive coordinator was in full swing in recent weeks and interviews had taken place. Benedict was expected to have a strong voice in the process, with Diaco having lost at least some power in the wake of such a bad season.

Also recently, in discussions between Diaco and Benedict, it became apparent that Diaco didn't view the problems with the team or the program the same way Benedict did. Ultimately, the men were not on the same page in important areas, with Diaco seeing the fixes as far less complicated.

The overall perception of the program had taken a hit, too, and several sources described a scenario in which Benedict wanted Diaco to work earnestly toward improving his communication skills, and perhaps even consult with a media relations specialist.

Diaco probably didn't help himself with several public statements throughout the season, starting with the confusing explanation of the final play and expiring clock in a Week 2 loss at Navy and continuing beyond a Week 10 description of a "Molotov cocktail of ugliness" following the ECU loss, to his handling of the Shirreffs/Williams situation.

Diaco's press conferences were always entertaining, rife with off-the-wall comments that make a coach sound quirky if he's winning, overwhelmed if he's losing. UConn lost, fewer fans were on hand to watch and now the job to build a program with Power Five aspirations but Group of Five struggles is someone else's.

Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant while the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2012, was hired at UConn Dec. 12, 2013 by then-athletic director Warde Manuel.

In this Nov. 28, 2015, file photo, Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco looks down as he rubs his head during the second half of a loss to Temple in Philadelphia. UConn athletic director David Benedict announced Monday that the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator had been relieved of his coaching duties, effective Jan. 2. (AP Photo/CHRIS SZAGOLA)