Diaco has UConn bowl eligible in second year

STORRS, Conn. (AP) Not many outside UConn's football complex predicted the Huskies would be bowl eligible this season, but second-year coach Bob Diaco insists his rebuilding program is not ahead of schedule.

''We're right on time,'' he said. ''We're not any further along beyond expectation, but not behind where we were hoping to be either. We were hoping to be bowl eligible in year two.''

The Huskies got their sixth win last Saturday by beating previously undefeated Houston. They travel to Philadelphia this weekend to close the regular season against Temple (9-2). A victory would give UConn its first winning record since its Fiesta-Bowl campaign in 2010 and the departure of Randy Edsall.

Since then, the Huskies have gone 5-7, 5-7, and 3-9 under Paul Pasqualoni. And in Diaco's first season, they were 2-10.

The former Iowa linebacker came off like a car salesman when he was introduced as head coach in December 2013, promising that the winning would begin immediately.

He was exuberant and filled with cliches about building a champion.

When the program instead struggled a year ago, he talked about how he had torn it down to its foundation and was building, layer by layer. He promised things were being done the right way.

A lot of eyes looked at him askance.

''The one thing about Bob is he hasn't changed in his plan and his thoughts about how to get there,'' Athletic Director Warde Manuel said. ''He has adjusted, but we all need to adjust in life. He had a plan, he had a vision of what this team could accomplish.''

When the team was picked in the preseason media poll to finish last in the American Athletic Conference, Diaco responded by telling reporters he believed the team would win every game and end up in the national playoffs.

There were chuckles.

But his players were not laughing. They said the comments were a reflection of the culture Diaco was building behind the scenes.

He came in and changed everything from the players' diet to the paint on the walls. The players said he explained what he wanted to do, how he would do things and then did them that way - building a trust. A big part of that, Diaco said, was changing the notion that there were separate groups in the football complex - coaches and players.

He brought in a staff comprised almost entirely of people he had coached with in the past and with whom he has a personal relationship.

''Over time, with love and care and trust and respect for each other, family grows,'' he said. ''And in that you can work with each other, you can coach each other, you can help each other, you can be critical of each other in that dynamic without getting feathers ruffled.''

Junior wide receiver Noel Thomas said the players bought in, and are now starting to see the rewards.

''When you are playing in a game and you are on the field, you are not on the field with your friends,'' he said. ''You are on the field with your brothers and it just means so much more to you when you feel that way.''

Diaco said he's also been growing as a coach.

In the last year, he has learned to be a better communicator and less of a micromanager, trusting his assistants and administrative staff to do their jobs, he said. But even while the Huskies were losing, he said, he's always had faith that he is going about things the right way, he said.

''We're excited about the growth that's going to be made,'' he said. ''It's not going to stop and we're nowhere near our shelf or pinnacle or anywhere close to who we're going to be.''

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