College football: It’s doable for Diaco at UConn
The University of Connecticut football program appeared on one of the biggest stages in college sports when the Huskies faced the iconic Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, 2011.
This year, the team’s season came to an end with just 17,086 fans huddled at Rentschler Field as UConn beat the lowly Memphis Tigers on a chilly Saturday afternoon.
In between, the program had plummeted. Randy Edsall, the man who guided UConn’s upgrade to Division I-A, left for Maryland after the Fiesta Bowl and Connecticut native Paul Pasqualoni took the wheel.
UConn lost 23 of 36 games, interest waned, and Pasqualoni was fired after an 0-4 start this season.
Meanwhile, UConn finds itself in a new league as the national landscape in college football shifts toward the elite power conferences.
So what will it take to steer the program back to its Jan. 1, 2011 perch?
“UConn has the potential to be really good,” said Tom Lemming, a national college football recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “The facilities, the school’s (academic) reputation, everything is there.”
Last week, UConn added the most important piece when the school hired a coach endorsed by Lemming and other recruiting experts. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — considered a personable, smart and tireless recruiter — was introduced as coach and he seemed to instantly energize a fan base that has been dejected because of the state of the program.
In 1986, Jim Calhoun famously uttered the words “it’s doable” when asked at his introductory press conference if UConn could become a national player in basketball. Diaco, far more verbose, had the same message when asked at his introduction about producing a winner.
“We’re going to be on a mission,” Diaco said. “We’re going to understand things we treasure. We’re going to consistently apply the appropriate pressure every single day. And that’s how we’re going to become a champion, again.”
Translation: It’s doable.
Of course, what’s doable for UConn football is far different than what’s doable for UConn basketball.
The program Calhoun built climbed into the national spotlight and became a national champion in a system that gives more than 60 teams an opportunity to compete in a postseason tournament. The success of the UConn football program will be measured by conference titles and bowl appearances, not national championships that feature mainly teams from elite power conferences.
But school administrators think the football program can be a consistent winner, despite some obvious obstacles such as a weakened conference affiliation, a small recruiting base in Connecticut and the tarnish of three consecutive losing seasons. Athletic director Warde Manuel, who hired Diaco, reminded reporters recently that his previous job was at Buffalo, where the football program was 12-79 from 1999 to 2006.
Manuel doesn’t see UConn in rebuilding mode.
“Folks, I was at Buffalo. That is rebuilding, OK?” Manuel said. “So put it in perspective. Why would I not look at what we have — the facilities, the stadium, the institution, and the fans — and say this is a job that (coaches) want because they know we have performed and won multiple championships? We’ve been to multiple bowl games; we’ve been to a BCS game.”
Manuel also cited the athletic department’s overall success in non-football sports as proof the school supports athletics. His point was that the UConn football coaching job was attractive because the program is primed to succeed.
Sure enough, Diaco left the most revered program in the country for an office in Storrs.
“I’m just glad for me and my family because we are where we want to be,” Diaco said. “We’re at UConn. That’s exactly the right fit for us. I’m exactly the right fit for this team and they’re exactly the right fit for me. We’re going to grow together and create championships here.”
Lemming and other recruiting analysts point to UConn’s selling points. The program’s on-campus football facility is considered first-rate and 10-year-old Rentschler Field, despite being slightly undersized and off campus, is viewed as a recruiting asset. Coming off three losing seasons, UConn could seemingly offer high school prospects an opportunity to play early.
But there are hurdles, such as the relative anonymity of the American Athletic Conference and of a program that’s been competing at Division I-A for just 12 years.
Most analysts see the energetic, personable Diaco as the ideal person to sell the program to recruits all over the country.
“But the big question is, is he ready to take over a program that has a lot of disadvantages, coming off a rough season, being in a conference that people don’t seem to care about much?” said Connecticut-based Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com. “That’s going to be his biggest challenge, making UConn relevant again.”
Farrell, for one, said Diaco was a wise hire. Diaco, 40, is known as an aggressive recruiter with strong ties throughout the Northeast and particularly in talent-rich New Jersey, his home state. He’s also known as loquacious and charming, just the kind of personality needed to promote the program to fans.
“He’s a fiery guy,” Farrell said. “Just a guy who will get kids fired up about coming to the program. So I think from a recruiting standpoint — especially because he does have Jersey ties, he does recruit Jersey very well — he’ll be good for UConn.
“If I’m a UConn fan, I’m glad they’re going in this direction. In this day and age, you need a guy who’s just going to never sleep and have that energy to build the program and be heavily, heavily involved in recruiting. Bob Diaco can do that.”
Lemming said UConn’s decline can be traced to some passive recruiting, dating back to Edsall’s last few years. In the years before he departed for Maryland, Edsall’s name surfaced for other jobs, and word in the recruiting world was that Edsall was looking to leave UConn, Lemming said.
Whether Edsall was looking to leave or not, the rumors damaged UConn’s recruiting.
“You can see it in the record,” Lemming said. “Really, you win with recruiting. You have to have good coaches, but good coaches only win with great players. ... No matter how good of a coach you are, you have to have the difference makers or you’re not going to win.”
Lemming said Diaco must fill his coaching staff with strong recruiters who have ties to important regions such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Diaco has coached at Virginia, so he’s connected in the fertile Mid-Atlantic states.
“Diaco is exactly what UConn needs both from a coaching and a recruiting standpoint,” said Jeremy Crabtree, an ESPN recruiting analyst. “He preaches attention to detail to everybody around him, and to be a successful recruiter you have to be good at the little things.
“You have to remember the name of the recruit’s cousin you met for only 30 seconds after a game two months ago. You have to remember the recruit’s 8-year-old sister had a big soccer tournament last week and inquire about that when you talk to the prospect again. That’s the type of recruiter that Diaco is. He is so energetic and passionate about everything he does, and recruits truly respond to that.”
Diaco has an opportunity to turn UConn into a winner next season. The Huskies’ schedule will be weaker as the American Athletic Conference loses Louisville and the nonconference schedule includes Army and Stony Brook.
Of course, the 2013 nonconference schedule included Towson and Buffalo. UConn lost both games and fans began to drift away.
Bringing fans back and attracting new ones is one of Diaco’s duties. Lawrence McHugh, chairman of the UConn Board of Trustees and former football coach at Xavier High in Middletown, nodded his approval Thursday as Diaco talked about his passion for football and his plans for the program.
McHugh said the foundation is in place, thanks to the work of Edsall.
“We’ve had a tough time the last few years, but we were really just a few plays away from a winning record this year,” McHugh said. “So we’re not far.”
Standing inside a team meeting room at the Burton Family Football Complex, McHugh said the on-campus building puts UConn ahead of many older, more established programs. That base, McHugh said, will help UConn on the path to consistently winning and tapping what he sees as a potentially large fan base.
“I think it’s a huge fan base,” McHugh said. “Football in general in Connecticut, it’s always been popular. You look at the crowds in 1920s and 1930s and 1940s at the Yale Bowl. ... There’s a history here and there’s still a base of football fans here. I think that base can be activated and we can just get the enthusiasm back. I’m very optimistic.”
From his view in Hartford, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy endorsed the Diaco hiring. Malloy, who has been an advocate for UConn athletics, said he was aware of Diaco’s reputation before the coach became a candidate at UConn.
“It was clear that somebody was going to get him and he made a decision to come to the University of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “I like his energy level, I like his work ethic and I’m hopeful he’ll be responsible for returning the program to the level that it was achieving just a few years ago.
“But it’s going to be a sustained effort. It’s tough coming in this late in a recruiting cycle, for instance. I think we need to get out and support the team next year, we need to support him and expect that progress will be made but not made overnight.”