Mar 21, 2014
06:22 AMConnecticut Today
UConn Football, New Coach Bob Diaco, Eager to Improve
New UConn football head coach Bob Diaco addresses the media during his introductory press conference.
It’s the first week of February and Bob Diaco is less than 24 hours removed from his first National Signing Day as UConn head football coach. He sits in his new office at the Burton Family Football Complex, wearing dark blue jeans and a button-down shirt. As he sips on his morning coffee from a Huskies mug, he speaks with the similar tone and energy that he showed during his introductory UConn press conference back in December. Behind him, in the right-hand corner of his office, his Broyles Award trophy is on display. He earned the award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant, in 2012 while at Notre Dame.
UConn fans are hopeful that is a sign of good things to come. It serves as an indicator of a bright and promising future. But how bright? How promising?
UConn boasts a pair of storied basketball programs. Its men’s soccer team reached the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA tournament. The field hockey team has won a national title. The baseball team has advanced to the NCAA tournament in three of the past four seasons. The list goes on.
UConn fans want that kind of success for Huskies football. The bar is set high, but at this point, UConn is deep in its own territory. The Huskies went 3-9 last year and 13-23 over their last three seasons.
Diaco won’t talk about a turnaround. He refuses to discuss the future for the Huskies or the expectations for the program. “You’re not going to get me to say an ultimate goal for the program,” says the 41-year-old head coach from Cedar Grove, N.J. “I don’t believe in that. I’m not going to say it. I truly, in my DNA, believe in trying to be better than I was yesterday. And I want to help the team to do that. And a byproduct of a job well done there will be winning. To what extent? How fast? I have no idea.”
He does chat about his recruiting plan. Of course, there is Connecticut—each of his assistants will cover a county within the state. And there will be a few metro cities that, as Diaco explains, have multiple connections to Bradley International Airport and have American Athletic Conference connections, places such as Dallas, Cincinnati, southern Florida and Charlotte. Diaco breaks out a pen and paper, illustrating and simultaneously explaining it all. To Baltimore, up to Boston, as far west as Buffalo, N.Y, which encompasses Syracuse and Rochester, he says. Then down into eastern Pennsylvania and snap a line south to Washington D.C., he adds. “We expect to be a force in that area,” Diaco says.
UConn appears headed in the right direction with Diaco at the helm, but college football has changed over the past few years. The landscape has changed. The playoff system has changed. To know the realistic expectations for UConn football, one has to have a clear understanding of this new era.
Gone is the 16-year run of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS); here now is the College Football Playoff. The new system includes six bowls plus a national championship game. Three of the bowls have contracts with specific conferences: Rose Bowl (Big Ten and Pac-12), Sugar Bowl (SEC and Big 12) and Orange Bowl (ACC). The champions of the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 are guaranteed bowl bids. A sixth spot will go to the highest-ranked champion from the other five conferences: American Athletic (UConn’s conference), Mountain West, Mid-American, Sun Belt and Conference USA.
Realistically, the chances UConn is picked as one of the four teams to compete for a national championship by the 13-member selection committee, over a school from one of the five power conferences, are slim-to-none. “Success for UConn is competing for a conference championship,” ESPN college football analyst Joe Tessitore says. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
UConn’s best season came in 2010-11. Randy Edsall, now head coach at Maryland, guided the Huskies to their first BCS berth. But an overmatched UConn team was handed a 48-20 loss by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
That season was an anomaly. UConn won the Big East title that year and was consequently grandfathered into earning an automatic BCS berth.
“That was an 8-4 team that lost to Rutgers and Temple,” Tessitore says. “Its signature win came against an average West Virginia team. That was one of the straws that broke the camel’s back of the BCS system.”
UConn joined the Big East in football in 2004 and enjoyed a rapid ascension in the sport, which took years for other big basketball schools like Kansas, Kentucky and Duke to find. But it was a unique set of circumstances at the time for UConn, and the situation is much different now. And, as Tessitore explains, UConn fans have to realize that.
Part of UConn’s challenge is also that the Huskies play in the Northeast, which can be limited by cold weather issues later in the season, and at Rentschler Field, which although it holds 40,000, is small for a college-football venue. In addition, Tessitore points out that the American is not a strong football conference and the Huskies aren’t among the big spenders when it comes to college football. UConn’s football expenses totaled $14.4 million in 2010, according to the Business of College Sports; in comparison, top collegiate programs spend much more, such as Alabama ($31.1 million in 2010), Ohio State ($31.8 million) and the University of Southern California ($20.8 million).
Tessitore is not criticizing—the current climate of college football simply is what is. He thinks highly of the Huskies choice of Diaco. “It’s not a good hire, it’s an outstanding hire,” Tessitore says. “He’s not going to be outworked. He’s connected to the game. He’s a very good recruiter. He gets after it. He works passionately.”
He adds that the American is the proper fit for the Huskies, and they should see a quick improvement under the guidance of Diaco, perhaps contending for a conference title in the next two to three years.
Matt Cersosimo served as an UConn graduate assistant for a couple of seasons and then wide receivers coach from 2006-12. He was part of the Huskies run to the Fiesta Bowl and he believes that’s not the ceiling. “Everything is in place to be an elite program,” Cersosimo says. “I really believe that. When the athletic department has its mind set on something, it’s going to get done and that’s going to result in a national level program. Basketball, soccer, field hockey, they want to take hockey to the next level. They don’t do things just to do them, to be part of the group. They do it to be the very best.”
The resources are there, he adds. When he was coaching at UConn, Cersosimo says multiple NFL scouts were quite impressed with the on-campus facilities during visits. He described the atmosphere at Rentschler Field as “magical,” a venue Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said was the toughest place he’d played while at Baylor. Cersosimo, too, praises the Diaco hiring.
UConn athletic director Warde Manuel brought in Diaco. Manuel is a football guy who played for the University of Michigan; one of his brightest accomplishments during his tenure as athletic director at the University of Buffalo was helping turn around a struggling football program.
Like with all UConn sports, Manuel has a vision for his football program: He wants to put it in the best position to be successful. He mentions bringing in athletes who are committed both on the field and academically, and talks about picking up next season where UConn left off last year when the Huskies closed out the regular season with three straight wins. He openly discusses eventual conference championships. “There’s no timeline on it,” he says. “The goal of any team is to win the games they play and win a conference championship. Then go from there.”
How far that is, only time will tell.
UConn Football, New Coach Bob Diaco, Eager to Improve