It was not ideal for the school. It was an expensive decision, and it came with seemingly inopportune timing, but David Benedict made it anyway. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, UConn released a statement saying Bob Diaco had been relieved of his duties as head coach.
Bob’s three seasons at UConn saw highs and lows but ultimately showed very little meaningful progress. We all believed Diaco would get one more year to right the ship, mostly for financial reasons. But as Benedict took stock of the football program and started trying to work with Diaco to fix it, the first-year athletic director felt a change was necessary sooner rather than later.
Why wait until now, after the coaching carousel started and stopped already?
The primary driver behind Diaco’s assumed job security was a substantial buyout owed to him had he been fired right after the season. With UConn’s strapped financial situation, it could ill-afford to be paying Diaco millions to not coach the team. Waiting until the effective termination date of January 2 saves the UConn Foundation at least $1.6 million.
But still, the widely-held belief is that college coaches, especially those taking on a fixer-upper like UConn, need at least four years before anyone can make a proper evaluation. Diaco rightfully deserved that much time when he was hired.
Unfortunately, he relinquished that right with his own bad decision-making.
Benedict said he believes strongly in continuity, and that this move went against his instincts. He was understandably guarded in his radio interview with Joe D’Ambrosio, but I do believe him when he says the cumulative effect of a number of factors ultimately led to his decision.
Here’s my best guess at the key themes:
Total Offensive Failure
Diaco’s teams had some of the worst offenses in the country. In fact, they were some of the worst offenses in recent FBS history. His gross mismanagement of that side of the ball as CEO of the program is his biggest mistake, as it ended the 2016 season looking criminally inept.
After demoting his first offensive coordinator following his first season, Diaco needed to bring in a forward-thinking mind. Instead, he hired a first-time OC from deep inside his circle in Frank Verducci who had never called plays before and held seven different jobs across the previous seven seasons. It was also a position Diaco gave full autonomy to.
Believe it or not, this did not go well. When a change became necessary in 2016, he made it way too late, and too much damage had been done anyway. The offense was not equipped for the modern version of college football.
Before Diaco’s firing, we were led to believe that he and Benedict were conducting a “national search” for a new offensive coordinator. It’s possible working together on this project revealed to Benedict that Diaco doesn’t exactly play nice in the sandbox. Bob is married to a very specific, deeply flawed, philosophy and may have been unbending on certain ideals of his master plan.
Jeff Jacobs reported that former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was on campus, having expressed interest in the OC job, but Diaco did not reciprocate that interest. Perhaps he didn’t want to sign off on his successor should he falter. Perhaps he should have shown some open-mindedness and at least entertained the possibility.
Kill, who worked with Benedict and football administrator Beth Goetz while they were at Minnesota, has since signed on to be the offensive coordinator at Rutgers. He isn't an insane candidate to be UConn’s next head coach.
Putting the Players in a Position to Succeed
Situationally, in games, we were usually witnessing a train wreck. The mistakes made in clock management, wasted time-outs, key play calls, and refusing to return punts were maddening.
Late-game decisions, inane trick-play attempts, punting from enemy territory, and remarkably non-creative playcalling caused all sorts of losing. When UConn lost to Navy after a very poorly-managed final sequence, Diaco didn’t seem to be fully aware of the situation even after the game.
The handling of the quarterback situation also deserves heavy scrutiny. Bryant Shirreffs played hurt, then Diaco made it seem like a performance issue led to him being replaced by true freshman Donovan Williams, now no longer redshirting so he could play in three games. Diaco traded 12+ games of 22-year-old Donovan Williams for three games of 18-year-old Donovan Williams:
To summarize: The coaching staff took a year off the career of their quarterback of the future in hopes of upsetting three straight teams, and the plan has already failed.
Later it was revealed Shirreffs had been seriously injured since the UVA game, playing through the pain before being benched. He was, however, fully healthy late in the season. Given the results, it’s clear Shirreffs gave UConn the best chance to win and that quarterback wasn’t the fixable problem.
Diaco threw Shirreffs under the bus, hoping for a reset after handing a freshman the keys. But if he was planning on going five or six years before sniffing a competent offense, that’s way too many.
Losing the Fanbase
Diaco punted on any hopes of maintaining goodwill with the fanbase with the team’s performance in the last three games. Following the loss to East Carolina, things were looking bleak but there were opportunities to win back some pride.
They could have knocked regional rival Temple from the AAC East lead, it’s always fun to play the role of spoiler for a rival. Beating BC would have been nice regardless of the final record and also potentially as a boon for regional recruiting. Finishing not last in the American with a win over Tulane may have eased the pain of such a remarkably disappointing season.
Bob decided to shake things up on his 3-6 team, but it didn’t have the desired effect.
The final three games saw two shutout losses and a blowout suffered at home to the AAC’s other really bad team on Senior Day. Those three horrible performances sucked all life and optimism out of the fanbase, with little or no explanation from Diaco for these results.
Bob spoke a lot about his dedication to the fanbase, but it rang insincere when he kept saying games were competitive and fun as his team was getting steamrolled. It reached the point of being insulting to the intelligence of the fans and the writers who cover the team. Jacobs also reported that media coaching was in the works for Diaco—as he didn’t really play nice in the PR sandbox either.
Lastly, good for Benedict for making this work somehow. Diaco needed to go, but the price tag and hit to continuity gave credence to allowing him to have one more year. He would have needed a very good season to continue to hold on to the job, but crazier things have happened.
Benedict either did a great job fundraising or calculated that it was better to take this loss than to keep going along this path. Either way, I applaud the effort, especially given that nobody was able to leak the news before the release from the school. He wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t feel he could find someone better suited for the job, quickly, and that UConn could survive the short-term financial hit.
Let’s hope he’s right, and that we can.