In August of 2012 I attended the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic All Star Game at Mohegan Sun.
I'd never been and it turned out to be a great, great, great experience, even though some of my all-time favorite Huskies (Khalid El-Amin, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler) couldn't attend.
If you remember, that was right around the time Calhoun had fallen off his bicycle and injured his hip. He was going in for surgery so was unable to attend.
That left MC duties up to Kevin Ollie—assistant coach Kevin Ollie, that is.
I remember listening to him speak that night. It was a quick address of the crowd announcing Calhoun's injury and updating us on his condition. He also spent a few moments talking about what the charity game meant, what basketball at UConn stood for, and what he expected from the team going forward.
After he was done, I turned to my friend who was with me and said “That's the next head coach of UConn basketball, right there.”
That was my first real impression of Kevin Ollie as a coach. He spoke for only a few moments before a charity game in the beginning of August, but he was both funny and inspirational. A few weeks later, at the press conference to announce his promotion to the position of head coach after Calhoun's retirement, he further inspired, talking eloquently about what UConn meant to him, what he saw for the future, and how excited he was to be a part of it.
He gave us the “escalators are for cowards” line … an instant hit with the fan base.
I bring this up because, whether we admit it or not, first impressions are important. They don't have to define a coach's tenure at a university, but they sure as hell can set the tone.
I've written before about how, after Paul Pasqualoni got the UConn job, I had the chance to twice hear him speak in small-group settings. He was a perfectly nice, smart man … who couldn't inspire a rat to jump off of a sinking ship. Not his fault. Some men are just not very charismatic. I think Coach PP thought charismatic was some small city in the Ukraine.
I had never heard Bob Diaco speak before Thursday's press conference. I'd seen the pictures, read a few stories that featured quotes, and perused a couple of Note Dame message boards to get a sense of what they really thought about their departing defensive coordinator.
But, as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
When this whole process started, I, like everyone else, insisted that all I wanted was someone who could turn the program around. It ultimately didn't matter if it was a Pete Carroll, rally-the-troops kind of motivator or a Bill Belichick clone, sporting the personality of a dead Cod fish left out in the sun for a day. All that mattered were results.
BUT … if I had my choice, I admitted, I wanted to be excited about UConn's next football coach, the way I was after hearing Ollie speak for the first time. I wanted to feel like good days were ahead and the Huskies had someone at the helm in which to believe.
For about 45 minutes on Thursday, Bob Diaco had me believing.
If you didn't have a chance to see it live (most of us, I'm sure, did not) then I highly recommend finding the video of the press conference and watching. Diaco, who admitted to being on only a few hours sleep over the course of about three days, was an absolute ball of energy. He sounded like someone truly, deeply happy to be the next head coach at UConn.
He raised the bar of expectations. He said the winning began immediately. He talked about being AAC champions. He talked about the football program “getting back” to being championship-caliber.
He also did his homework. At one point, Diaco mentioned the number of cities and towns in Connecticut – 169 – and a reporter – Jeff Jacobs from The Hartford Courant, I believe – suggested that half the people in the room didn't know that statistic.
He referenced the championships UConn athletics have won not just in basketball but also in field hockey and beyond. This wasn't someone trying to figure out how to pronounce Bridgeport. It was clearly a man who had walked into his interview with UConn AD Warde Manuel ready to impress.
He certainly carried that over into his press conference.
It was easy to see why Diaco is considered a terrific recruiter. He's 40 but looks 30. He's young enough to be able to relate to his players but seems to have enough maturity and intensity to demand respect from those same players and a staff of coaches.
I can imagine that, after hearing a Bob Diaco pitch, an athlete is convinced he will be the best player in the game. Hell, I was convinced UConn could take the field right then and there and beat virtually anyone in the country.
It was a whirlwind affair to watch him talk. He was quoting St. Augustine in Latin one minute, Knute Rockne the next. He was talking about how, for a little while at least, he had considered moving to France to become a chef, before his father talked him out of it because it would be “too much work.”
He mentioned “energy buckets” and “energy vampires,” and even lauded the American Athletic Conference as one that would be fun and competitive in which to play.
I don't know that he gave us a “no escalators” moment ala Ollie, but the feeling I got from watching him was similar.
Bob Diaco looks thrilled to be a part of Husky Nation. That's a pretty cool thing.
Maybe it was all just template stuff – what you say when you get hired at a new place – but everything about Diaco seemed to be genuine. He mentioned how, when he first sat down with Manuel, he immediately said he wanted to be UConn's next head coach. He wasn't looking for the Huskies to sell him, he was looking to sell himself. When a reporter asked him as to how hard it was to leave a storied program like ND for UConn, Diaco, while profusely praising the Fighting Irish program, said it wasn't hard at all. This was the job he wanted. This is where he wanted to be.
I have no idea what the next few years will bring. Both Manuel and Diaco have stated that this isn't a rebuilding job, but there isn't a way to escape the fact that the last three years have really hurt this program and its placement on the college football landscape. It might not need rebuilding, but it definitely needs a complete overhaul.
It also remains to be seen who Diaco chooses as a staff. I'd love to see TJ Weist stay on as offensive coordinator, but would he want to do that after being passed over for the head coaching position? Was his steady hand at the helm these last few weeks enough to land him a gig as a head coach at a smaller school? Does Diaco want someone different anyway?
There's definitely a lot of work that remains, even before players put on their shoulder pads in 2014.
So the only thing Diaco can do now is make an impression. He did that Thursday afternoon, in a big way.
If I'm Warde Manuel, I'm excited. If I'm the players, I'm excited. If I'm someone being recruited by UConn, I'm excited.
As a fan, I'm pretty damn excited.