One Year After Change, Future of Football Program Is Bright

One year ago today, dramatic change came upon the UConn football program as an early morning announcement revealed that head coach Bob Diaco had been fired by athletic director David Benedict. Despite the way 2016 had concluded, the change came as a surprise given what had been shared publicly following the season, as well as what was communicated internally. An adjective for the coaching staff? Shocked. After all, just weeks prior to heading home for Christmas, all assistants had agreed to contract renewals and the documents had been completed and signed for their return for the 2017 season.

For the fans, the response was largely in unison, falling in agreement with the decision. It was a joyful celebration and viewed as a late Christmas present. For media? It’s well-documented they were also aligned.

In the meantime, no press conference was held to discuss the move or the search for a new head coach [imagine the reaction surrounding a similar move at a major P5 institution]. Left in the dark, except for a quick interview given by Benedict with WTIC 1080, the school was silent.

One report that referenced a member of UConn, ‘not Benedict,’ quickly surfaced that part of the reason for the move was the lack of interest in former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, who had interviewed for the Huskies open offensive coordinator position and was on campus in mid-December. That report was not accurate according to several sources directly involved in the search. The staff offered Kill the OC position and it was expected he would be named UConn’s new play-caller. That was until Kill notified UConn that he was offered the same position at Rutgers, where he was to be paid the most lucrative assistant coaching salary in RU history, during a three-year deal that would see him pull in a starting salary of $600K in his first year. In comparison, current Huskies OC Rhett Lashlee was paid $350K this season.

WHAT WOULD 2017 HAVE LOOKED LIKE?

The news Kill gave to UConn that he would not be joining the Huskies, triggered Diaco and his staff to resume their search for a new offensive coordinator. Interviews began and more were scheduled for the week after Christmas, which of course, were ultimately cancelled. Entering the break, there was a front-runner for the job, Al Borges, who ultimately landed as an offensive analyst at Auburn after a shuffling of their offensive staff following Lashlee’s departure to Connecticut.

Borges would have brought 29 years experience as a play-caller, but it remains unknown what the public reaction would have been for the potential hire. He had served as the play-caller during a stretch with Auburn that saw them register 41-wins in 50-games, including the 13-0 2004 season with Jason Campbell under center. He also was closely tied with Brady Hoke during a successful stint at San Diego State, prior to their arrival in Ann Arbor, where a lackluster final year caused Hoke to be let go. In all, Borges served as OC for high profile schools like Boise State, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Indiana, Auburn and Michigan.

As Diaco and his staff continued their search for a new OC, it is documented that Benedict was simultaneously having discussions with Randy Edsall about his return behind the scenes. Given how things played out, it’s clear it was an all-or-nothing move with Edsall; convince the former Huskies head coach to return, or roll the dice with Diaco one more year, with a new OC.

The coaching community is fairly tight and had Benedict held conversations with prospective head coaches at the college level at the same time the Huskies existing coaching staff was casing the landscape for an OC, things could have crumbled quickly. Sources also confirmed that at no time did the Huskies staff have any discussions with, nor were they asked to talk with Rhett Lashlee, who, of course, was ultimately named OC under Edsall.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?:

The staff that left the program was one that saw a myriad of success and disappointment in 2017, but certainly a disastrous one for Diaco himself, who went on to take over as defensive coordinator at Nebraska alongside Mike Riley. The Cornhuskers performance in 2017, leaves Diaco looking to find yet another new gig in ’18, following the cleaning house in Lincoln after Riley was let go.

Anthony Poindexter (DC) – Poindexter found a landing spot just six days after Diaco was fired and was named co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at Purdue in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers had newfound success in 2017, compiling a 6-6 regular season and are awaiting the kickoff of the Foster Farms Bowl tomorrow night in San Francisco against Arizona. It’s the first bowl appearance for the Boilermakers since the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Frank Verducci (OC) – Verducci was hired by UCF head coach Scott Frost as an offensive analyst for 2017. The Knights of course are the only unbeaten team in all of college football and will take on Auburn in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day. Frost, the new head coach at Nebraska will be bringing Verducci with him in the same role, as he’s been spotted in Nebraska gear on the recruiting trail.

Wayne Lineburg (QB’s) – Lineburg is part of another P5 bowl team, Wake Forest, who appear in their second consecutive bowl game on Friday against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl. The former QB coach is working with tight ends and is the Demon Deacons’ special teams’ coordinator. He also was the lead recruiter from an already developed relationship with 3-star recruit from E.O. Smith and the fourth rated overall player from Connecticut, DE Rondell Bothroyd, who signed with Wake Forest last week.

Erik Campbell (WR’s) – In 2017, Campbell coached the same position at Delaware, where the Blue Hens went 7-4 this season.

Mike Cummings (OL) – Cummings served as offensive line coach with VMI (Virginia Military Institute) in 2017, going 0-11 on the year. [NOTE-this is a correction as the original version indicated Cummings was not coaching at the college level this season.]

David Corley (RB’s) – Corley joined the staff at Army this year as the Black Knights wide receivers coach. Army won their second consecutive Army-Navy game and also won the Commander in Chief Trophy for the first time since 1996. They finished the season 10-3 following their 42-35 win over San Diego State in Saturday’s Armed Forces Bowl.

Vincent Brown (Co-DC/DL) – Brown, the former All-Pro New England Patriot, made his way to Howard, serving as the Assistant Head Coach, Defensive Coordinator and LB’s coach for the Bison. The highlight of 2017 came in week one, which saw the biggest outright upset against the spread (45-point underdogs) in college football history at UNLV to open the season. Howard finished with a 7-4 record this year.

Kevin Wolthausen (LB’s) – Wolthausen went with DC Anthony Poindexter to Purdue, serving as a Defensive & Special Teams’ Analyst.

Josh Reardon (CB’s) – Reardon made his way down to Macon, GA as a member of the Mercer staff, coaching safeties in 2017, going 5-6 on the year. They were competitive against Auburn in week 3, falling just 24-10, but were easily handled by Alabama in their season finale, 56-0. Reardon also tied the knot with former UConn sideline reporter Emily Noonan in July.

FUTURE IS BRIGHT:

Having been around Edsall for the better part of a year and being a close follower since the development of his program here beginning in 1999, if there’s anyone that should be tasked with turning around UConn football, it’s him. Randy Edsall IS UConn football in the FBS era, a program that he built and brought to five bowl games, four consecutive, including the Fiesta Bowl in his first stint with the Huskies.

No one needs to be reminded of that, but it needs to be referenced as it only adds to the story. It helps one understand what this school, his players and this program mean to him. While Edsall doesn’t need to come out and say it directly, you can see it, hear it and feel it from him when he reflects not just on his time here, but what happened upon his departure, all the way to where things are today; especially where things are today.

Even more, it’s those around the program, the ones who played for him and the family that he built, that are all behind him just as much as he supports them. Last week, Edsall met with a few members of the media, myself included, to discuss his thoughts on the state of the program. The majority of the two-hour long session was off-the-record, but it gave further insight and complete understanding into the task at hand and the approach that will be taken to reverse course and bring the program back to national respect.

One thing that stood out with Edsall himself during that meeting was the frustration level that he wore on his sleeve at times during the season was gone. Following the loss to UCF in Orlando, the head coach unloaded some things he’d been holding in for quite some time to myself and the Hartford Courant’s Mike Anthony, an off-the-record discussion/venting session, that reflected what Edsall couldn’t say at the post-game presser that day.

With a graduating class departing and almost a dozen more leaving the program through early graduation or transfer, the turnover is great, leaving the program very young, with just seven scholarship seniors on the 2018 roster, but it also gives Edsall and his staff the opportunity to bring in several more players that fit into what they want to do as a program.

Another piece of information that may be exciting for fans to hear is Edsall’s confidence in the quarterback position, which he called the deepest he’s had at any point during his time at UConn, with four players that are certainly capable. It’s a testament partly to the recruiting of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and it leaves further confidence that this program is well on it’s way to getting closer to what fans and the state expect, a winner.

From conversations around UConn Nation, despite the 3-9 record again in 2017, there’s a belief that things are headed in the right direction, from offensive production, trust in recruiting and player development and much more. One thing that is utterly important for a program is the support they receive, not just from the fans, but from those who played here and gave their all for an extended period of time. Earlier this year, I shared a text message that Edsall received from a former player and I’ll again close with that, as it sums up the belief those who played here have in him.

‘Stress your vision until they start to live by it. That’s what you did for us and it became a reality. Everyone’s vision of greatness is different. Continue to sell yours, show passion and it will become the culture again.’

MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR

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2 years ago
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Football
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