UConn coach Bob Diaco engineered one of the most impressive and unexpected turnarounds in college football last year. The Huskies went 2–10 in Diaco's first season, but improved to 6–7 last year after a loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Signs continue to trend up, as UConn returns eight defensive starters from a unit that ranked first in the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense, rushing defense and red zone defense. After ranking 86th in scoring defense in Diaco's first season, the Huskies skyrocketed to 15th during his second year in charge.
Overall, UConn returns 18 starters and all of its specialists and is quietly poised for another leap in 2016. Diaco sat down recently to reflect on his unique path to the Huskies, his former love of motorcycles, the Fettuccine Alfredo recipe he swiped from JFK, his football philosophies and his time at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly.
Campus Rush: Let's start with some fun stuff. You sold cars after graduation from Iowa?
Bob Diaco: I'm married 22 years, so when I finished playing, part of it is I have a wife, we're trying to have a child. What am I going to do? How am I going to provide? My buddy was a general manager at a car dealership just outside Iowa City. I went through the training, said I could give you half a day. So, I worked for half a day at this car dealership and sold cars. I actually broke their sales record for cars sold in a month.
CR: You also took the LSATs. What interested you about studying law?
Diaco: I've always studied and been intrigued by behaviors of people and behaviors of groups. As my time at Iowa was finishing, I got more disciplined in that, activated and energized by a great teacher, Mark Chaffee, who I'll never forget. And I thought maybe I'll go into law and just grow this whole inspecting whether it's attacking, or helping whatever field you go into.
CR: Did you ever apply to schools?
Diaco: I didn't. At the time, a graduate assistantship opened at Iowa, coach Hayden Fry invited me to fill that spot, and I said yes.
CR: Coach Fry has such an unreal coaching tree. Who were some of the boldfaced names you worked with?
Diaco: Bill Snyder had just left. Barry Alvarez had left. He was held in high regard and was close with coach Fry. Dan McCarney had just left. Bob Stoops went with coach Snyder. When I showed up there, Mike Stoops was a graduate assistant, and I was on the team with Mark. So, I'm on the team, Mike's a graduate assistant, I'm on the team with Mark, Bret [Bielema] is my locker mate. I'm not sure there really was anybody between B and D. I was basically lockered next to Bret for all those years. So many guys you could just keep going. Some great, great, very highly successful coaches.
CR: What's one trait in running a program you took from coach Fry, a secret to his success you think has trickled down from his guys?
Diaco: It is truly a player-centered program. Don't make an excuse. Never blame the players. It's always your fault. Don't even go there. You're responsible for them, and they're good enough. Everyone was born to be successful at something, find it, get them excited about it, and let's cultivate and develop and that. In a nutshell, that was Hayden Fry. Everybody that has continued that mentality, that work with young people, has had success.
CR: You won the trifecta of working at all the directional Michigans, among other places on your circuitous route. What did you pick up grinding through a lot of smaller stops?
Diaco: That track from Iowa to Western Illinois to Eastern Michigan to Delaware State University to Western Michigan to Central Michigan to Virginia to Cincinnati to Notre Dame to here was spectacularly hard. My 18-year-old [Angelo] has moved 10 times. That's been very hard on him, but he's also got some traits and some conditioning and a perspective and a relationship with his sister [Josephine] and brother [Michael] that transcends a lot of the other kids his age and relationships I see them have with their siblings.
For every minus, there is a plus. I got a chance to see a lot of head coach management styles succeed and fail. I got to see what it was as an assistant for almost 20 years and do things that were not done right, contradictory and contrary to what I believe to be appropriate. I also did some things really well and felt good about. Because when you look back on it, you're not going to look back on what the season was, you're going to look back on what your relationships were and the work you've done with the young people.
CR: How did you meet your wife?
Diaco: Julia and I met at Iowa my first year. She was a pom-pom … I don't even think they call them pom-pom anymore. Dance team, I don't know. She was on the dance team. I was a freshman, she was a rising senior. Her girlfriend was going to get married, and they were having a wedding shower at the apartment where I was staying in. We were out and about in the afternoon, just me and my buddy, and then she was out playing with the dog and I walked up and just started talking to her. The rest is a history lesson.
CR: You also rode a motorcycle back in those days, right?
Diaco: I used to really enjoy riding motorcycles. Had a couple different motorcycles. My first motorcycle was, even though we lived in the city and grew up in the city, we had dirt bikes. Honda, Yamaha. My street motorcycle was a Honda Nighthawk, and then I got an Intruder, which I bought from Mike Wells. I bought a new Intruder, then I had children and got married and that was the end of that.
CR: OK. Here's the real question. [UConn director of external football relations] Andru Creighton was talking up your world famous Fettuccine Alfredo that allegedly has ties to JFK. How did you adopt a presidential Fettuccine recipe?
Diaco: It's not mine. And I wasn't there, but the person that told me was one of the greatest, finest men I had met in my life. Jim Hayes, who's a world-renowned lawyer, is a great, great friend. He went to Loras College, a small Jesuit school in Iowa and was president of student body. When JFK was campaigning, doing the Iowa caucus, he did a speech at Loras College. All the finite details, I'm not sure of. But the speech ended and Jim, JFK, the monsignor of the school and another priest find themselves hungry. And there's no place to eat, but they do have access to the cafeteria. JFK says, "You know? How about I cook you guys my Fettuccine Alfredo recipe?" Jim Hayes is taking diligent notes of this moment, and then he taught me.
An Italian kid from Essex County, N.J., all I ever consumed was Italian food. You figure I'll get my fettuccine recipe second-generation from JFK.Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant via AP
CR: So what makes JFK's Fettuccine so special? Is there a secret?
Diaco: There's a couple of things, but I think the main thing to talk about is the Alfredo is made and put together and built structurally with the pasta. You make an Alfredo, you boil the pasta and you incorporate the two. Even if you incorporate the two in a pan rather than pour it into a bowl, it's still separate. This Alfredo is entirely built as the pasta finishes cooking. So, they kind of really cook together. There's one other ingredient that I'll have to leave as a secret.
CR: So to transition to football for a bit. You went from 2–10 your first year to a bowl last year. What can we expect from UConn in year three?
Diaco: We expect to compete for a championship in the American Conference. We don't intend to get pushed around, we intend the games to be tight and have an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. There is a difference between piloting the space shuttle and moving the space shuttle into space. They're both important jobs, but one is a bit more technical than the other. A two-minute drill in a bowl game would be like piloting the space shuttle. We weren't ready to win those games. We need to be ready to win those games next fall.
We also work on tackling and block destruction every single day. Not a day goes by we don't work on it.
CR: You just signed an extension through 2020. Are you excited to keep building here?
Diaco: I am, I love it. It's the nicest place we've ever lived, absolutely beautiful state, beautiful community. I think President Herbst is the best president in the country. She's fantastic, great to work for, so down to earth. She's really hands-on. Even at Football 101, she's throwing passes. She caught a couple of touchdowns and spiked the ball.
And then, I get to come to work every day. If I want to, and even if I don't want to, I get to talk to coach [Geno] Auriemma. I get to talk to coach [Jim] Calhoun. Get to talk to coach [Kevin] Ollie. Get to talk to coach [Nancy] Stevens. Get to talk to coach [Ray] Reid. We're talking about an athletic department staff that if you put the national championships on this giant table, they wouldn't fit. That's spectacular. What a resource. They're so down to earth and available to me at any time, that's an honor.
CR: What's Geno given you advice on?
Diaco: We talk about food a lot. He's a foodie, loves great food, especially Italian food. Loves great wine. So do I. I love great food. You mention employment after football, I actually thought I was going to be a chef, so most of our conversations revolve around food. But he's been so helpful to me. Just even working with the media, being better there, I'm learning, I'm new to the job and he's been a huge help that way.
CR: Lot of food talk today. What's the best Italian restaurant you've found around here?
Diaco: Geno's Grille. (Laughs). That's easy.
CR: You felt some social media backlash after creating the trophy with UCF for your first year. Was that a moment of learning?
Diaco: I learned that social media and the media is a very powerful force and a tool, but it's an awesome medium for information. I enjoyed all of it. I know why we created the concept of it. It was out of pure respect for the university, for Central Florida. They were the best. They have a spectacular infrastructure. I'm sure coach [Scott] Frost is going to bring them back to being the best, and coach [George] O'Leary might've done the same thing. He's a great coach.
They're in our half of the conference. I thought it was a unique distinction, we're the northern-most team, they're the southern-most team. We played for the Cy-Hawk Trophy when I was at Iowa. We played all these different teams for all these trophies. Notre Dame was the same thing, play USC for the Jeweled Shillelagh.
CR: On last year, sense of quarterback Bryant Shirreffs? How's he evolving?
Diaco: Yeah, he needs to make better decisions, some of those small, finite decisions. What will help him do that is a better offensive staff plan for the offense and him. He needs to be able to break the huddle, turn around and have more than seven seconds to operate. Sometimes there were moments where he could've threw it and very easily ran it. Other times there were moments he ran it and tried to get extra yards when he should've slid. Those little, successful finishing details would be to me a nice next step to him.
CR: Got a favorite Brian Kelly story from your time at Notre Dame?
Diaco: Coach Kelly is one of the greatest, greatest coaches in the country. I loved working for him. He allowed me to sit at that table and hear decisions and why. I don't necessarily have a story other than he is one of the most aggressive, tough, fearless coaches I've ever been around. Absolutely fearless. He'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime.