Sunday, August 24, 2014

Diaco's message seems to be reaching the UConn players

I could devote a week's worth of blogs trying to point out the rather unique way Bob Diaco has gone about his business since being hired as UConn's head coach.

During his introductory press conference it was clear that UConn football was entering a brave new world. Whether it is his use of "key starter" and "key backup" or saying "I am going to scratch where it itches" when asked what his base offensive formation would be. Tangible traits is another favorite of Diaco and he even used "a work in progress" which was a favorite phrase of his predecessor Paul Pasqualoni.

Plenty of people, media certainly included, have weighed in on Diaco and his unorthodox methods. There certainly has been plenty to talk about. Diaco spent much of his time between the end of spring practice and the start of fall camp getting in his car and speaking a meet and greets as he attempts to get the word out about the UConn program he was hired to turn around. During spring camp he invited students to come over knowing that they ultimately hold the key to developing a true home-field advantage. During preseason camp he brought in a steady flow of inspirational speakers and canceled practice one day so the entire team could spend a few hours at Six Flags New England in Agawam. He had walk-ons serve as captains during the spring game and rewarded some of those very walk-ons (Chris DeBerry, Dom Manco and Justin Wain) with scholarships. Who could forget the Women's Football 101 Clinic where the UConn players were having as much fun as the 200 women taking part in football drills. He will have a pep rally on campus Thursday night and has plans for engaging the fans, especially the student section, on game days.

Through all of us the opinions of those most important in Diaco's master plan were not often heard from when discussing the new era of UConn football. It matters little what the people outside the program - including media members like myself - think of the changes. Ultimately, he needs to have the players buy into what he is selling. Diaco predicted that there would be some attrition as some players simply did not fit into his way of doing business and others simply felt they would be better elsewhere. However, as I made the rounds at team media day on Thursday, it was clear to me that the players who remained are very much in tune with their head coach. That is the focus of a story that will be running in the Register tomorrow. Space limitations prevented from getting all the best quotes on the subject into my piece so I will use this space to accomplish that feat.

Let's start with junior linebacker Graham Stewart who knows a thing or two about big-time college football having spent his freshman season at Florida.

"I've played for a lot of great coaches, Stewart said. "Our relationship with Diaco is still new and young but what I can say so far is that he is the kind of guy who can really motivate you and he is an excellent teacher. Sometimes that is hard to find, a guy that can find how you can be taught best. Some guys are visual learners and some guys can learn different ways but Coach Diaco can really get to the core points and teach you things.

"I take great pride in having Coach Diaco as my coach. If I ever make a mistake or an error, I am more upset because I don't want to let him down because I want to show him that I am absorbing anything that he is trying to teach me and exemplifying the type of player that he would want me to be."

Junior linebacker Marquise Vann, one of the team's four captains, said, "at first it was like 'wow, I didn't know a coach like this existed.' Having a coach like this who has that fire, that energy and that level, I want to play for that guy. I am very excited to play under Coach Diaco.

"It is definitely something that is awesome, looking at it, It is better for the guys that are here, guys that don't have to go through those difficult rougher times. It was a little rough for some people but it is something I look at and I hope these guys go to great heights (under Diaco)."

Senior defensive end B.J. McBryde also spoke about Diaco as a players' coach and incredible communicator.

"Meeting Coach Diaco, knowing Coach Diaco and being able to shake his hand is a blessing," McBryde said. "The man is incredible. I went to meet him, I shook his hand and said 'man, you should run for office.' The man knows how to get to people, he knows how to make you feel that energy and how to pull out of you what you don't think you have. He is the ultimate players coach. The fans will be able to see it, everybody will be able to see it."

Let's be honest, in a setting like media day where there are reporters going from table to table and university employees within ear shot, you wouldn't expect to hear players bad mouthing their coach. I am sure if I did the same exercise a season ago that Pasqualoni, the UConn coach at the time, would get glowing reviews. However, my sense is that these players are responding in a more positive manner to Diaco's energetic brand of coaching than the somewhat more distant style employed by Pasqualoni.

Some of the loftiest praise came from Chandler Whitmer and Dalton Gifford, a couple of former starters who lost their starting spots (although an injury to Andreas Knappe means Gifford will likely be the starting right tackle on Friday night).

"I don't know if we have enough time to talk about Coach Diaco but he is a great guy and he is truly genuine which is hard to find in this business," Whitmer said. "A lot of coaches will just try to tell you what you want to hear and not really truly care about you. He keeps it real, he is honest and you can tell that he genuinely cares about his players and because of that we want to play for him. Not only has he increased the energy but he has done fun things that has made us enjoy football even more.  He understands that there is a lot to football but there are other things than football. He gives us some time off to reflect and not just grind, grind, grind all the time."

"I thought he was going to be that young, energetic spark that we needed to reboot the program and kind of get us back to where we should be," Gifford said.

"He is always fired up and getting everybody ready to go. It is great when we can come out here with a high energy practice and he has high energy. It helps with the tempo of practice and the energy of practice and we can translate that onto the game field."

Finally, here are the thoughts from offensive line coach Mike Foley, the only holdover from Pasqualoni's staff.

"I think they have responded very well. I think our guys have bought in, they are trying to do the things that Coach Diaco and his staff is asking them to do," Foley said.

"Obviously he is very knowledgeable about football but I think the energy that he brings in as positive attitude, it is really something that is rubbing off on this team and no matter what happens (Diaco's philosophy is) 'we'll keep moving forward and let's improve on it.'

"He has a knack for feeling people and where they are at and he is an excellent motivator. He is getting these guys to buy in to the things that he wants to do."


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