On February 18th, I had the opportunity to sit down with Coach Rocco in his office to conduct an interview on behalf of GoHens.net. I was expecting to get 30 minutes of Coach’s time, and hoping for an hour. Three hours later I left having had not only an interview, but a wonderful conversation about his coaching philosophy and his belief in the promise and opportunities for Delaware Football. Before I started recording, Coach talked about a number of things including the mini-helmets on his shelf representing all the schools he’s been at, and he also mentioned that he is on the American Football Coaches Association Board of Trustees (and the lone FCS representative). I mention these two things in particular because they come into play during the interview.
I went into this interview with a number of questions, but also with the mindset that I was not going to ask Coach Rocco why he left Richmond, but rather why he wanted to come to Delaware. I felt it was the respectful thing to do. However, before I had a chance to ask any questions, Coach did touch lightly on the reasons for leaving Richmond, and, in fact, the two topics are tightly intertwined, so it would have been difficult to try to separate one from the other.
Obviously, in 3 hours we covered a lot of ground, so I have broken the interview into two parts. Here is PART ONE. Enjoy!
DR = Danny Rocco. GH = GoHens.
DR: After being at Richmond for 5 seasons and having success there, I came to the realization that I didn’t really think that we could take it any further without changing the model. I didn’t feel that there was any real commitment to reevaluating the model for football; therefore I felt there really wasn’t a vision for the future.
GH: When did you realize that?
DR: My first year at Richmond we took a team that was a 0 and 8 in the conference the year before we got there and we won a share of the conference championship. So early on, I recognized that we could win there.
Four of our five years you’d have to recognize as being very successful – 3 of them were playoff years and 2 of them were conference championships.
Here’s the reality: the landscape is changing and if you’re not changing with the landscape, you’re falling further behind. And that’s the message I was having trouble trying to get people to understand, or add any credence or value to.
Everyone has their own niche and is trying to get out in front of this change, so, to me, it’s all about the ability to sustain success. When we got beat in the playoffs at North Dakota State two years ago, as I walked across the field to shake hands with their coach, I said: “You know, I admire the way you’ve been able to sustain success.” And that’s what this is all about.
I believe this model, here at Delaware – the tradition, the stadium, the geographic recruiting areas and connections that we’ll have here, and the enthusiasm and passion for football, at the University of Delaware – is better to sustain long-term success. I’ll either be proven right or wrong, but that was the rationale behind it.
I don’t claim to have done many things right, over the timeline, as a head coach – we’ve won games and I’m committed to my student athletes on and off the field – but we got personnel right. If we evaluated you and signed you, we’re going to develop you and you’re going to play. If you’re in our program for 4 years, you’re going to be good enough to play. Some play early and some play late, but they all play. So if we’ve gotten one thing right over the years, we’ve identified, and we’ve developed, and we don’t throw kids out the window. That’s an area, right there, that I think we can continue to improve upon.
GH: That’s great insight and it touches on several of the subjects I was hoping to discuss with you, one clearly being the importance of the roster and the numbers, and that you don’t want to have bodies, just to have bodies.
DR: When I was at Liberty, we had a walk-on tryout every year. One year we had a turnout of 90 kids - these were just students at the University that wanted to try out. It all goes back to my time at Penn State. When I was at Penn State, I was a scholarship player, but they’d have walk-on tryouts during the winter session because you lose your seniors in the fall and the freshmen don’t come in until the summer. So that Spring semester, you need to bolster your roster or you can’t have Spring football the way you want to do it. So every January when you came back from the Christmas break, they’d get dozens and dozens and dozens of kids trying out for the team – organized football tryouts – bag drills, catching drills. They all played high school football; they all played at good programs; you know what I’m saying? They had options.
When I went to Liberty, I was shocked. I mean, I had 116 kids on my team one year. I was shocked at the quality. I mean, some of them were transfers from community colleges who played basketball. It was almost like you could line them up and say: “I’ll take him, him and him – him, him and him, go ahead and work them out.”
GH: Are you going to do that here?
DR: Yes, we’ve already done it.
GH: When you were at Penn State, do you know what percentage of those players actually made the team?
DR: No, I don’t, so it would be unfair of me to hazard a guess. But, I will tell you that in subsequent years, Penn State has done a great job of recruiting walk-on types from the state of Pennsylvania. So, if they are calling you a priority walk-on at Penn State, and you’re flirting with the MAC schools and CAA schools and Penn State has truly got a little connection there, they may end up at Penn State.
GH: Yeah, I can think of a couple over the last two years – one that we kept and one that we lost to PSU who were offered preferred walk-on status there.
DR: And you think about how valuable that has been to Penn State over the years … you think about that 3rd and 4th and sometimes even 5th fall and those kids have become veteran players in your system that know the expectations and can perform and do jobs for you. It’s all about developing depth in your program.
GH: Because, at 63 scholarships in FCS, you need to do that.
DR: I spent one year in the NFL. FCS football is like the NFL when it comes to managing your roster. The NFL has a very small roster when you compare it to Alabama and Penn State. So your decisions, when it comes to putting your roster together are similar in terms of how you are able to manage the numbers.
I’ll give you an example. This isn’t a headline kind of statement, but one of the reasons I play the 3-4 on defense is because when you play the 3-4, you have more linebackers on your team. The more linebackers you have on your team, the more special teams players you have. So, when I was with the Jets, they had more linebackers on their team that could be special teams players. When you only have 63 players in FCS, the more defensive linemen you have, you’re losing value on your special teams. So everything you do is related to roster management. Absolutely, positively, every decision you make is somehow related to managing and maximizing your roster.
You know, the NCAA is changing all of their practice recommendations for contact. I’ve been under that limitation for quite a while, so it’s not going to be that much of a challenge for me to be in line with.
GH: I’m going to want to follow up on the 3-4 defense later, but the very first question I had written down is: “What is the Vision that was shared with you that attracted you to come here and contributed to your decision?” Did it involve facilities, future conference alignment – those sorts of things? And that speaks to another question I have about what’s going to happen with NCAA football in the next 5 years. You’ve got the “Power 5”, the “Group of 5”. Is there going to be some merging of the “Group of 5” and higher-level teams from the FCS into some other level beneath the current FBS and above FCS? And is that part of the vision we have here?
DR: Well, I would say that the “Vision”, to me, is to compete for a National Championship at the FCS level. The “Vision” is to make Delaware Football the best possible entity that we can make it. And, with that, I recognize a strong support and commitment from our University President. I felt that he was saying to me all the things that are going to be very important to me as the football coach in terms of his understanding the significant role of athletics within the University community, and the specific role of football within that Athletic Department, and realizing that this is a priority project for us to get our football program back out and on top. And a recognition that this will be a great help not only to our Athletic Department, but also a great value to this University. And then, I’d say, with Chrissi, she offered a support mechanism that allowed us to put the staff together in a way that we were able to prioritize the needs that we had, assemble the staff that we needed to assemble, to give us the best probability to be successful. I have often said that I’m in the “probability business”. Everything that we do, that I do, within the department either increases or decreases the probability of us winning. Every action has a consequence, every single one of them, and I think that Chrissi recognizes that. She recognizes that it matters who’s coaching the defense. It matters, who’s coaching the quarterbacks. It matters who these people are, and they supported this transition in a very prominent way, which they spoke of on the front end. So, if you really took a step back and said: “Well, who really came here with Coach?” it’s been about as seamless as it could be. The strength coach is here. The guy who was the director of football operations is here. We still have Jerry (Oravitz), whose role will become even more prominent. But I think we’re staffing to be able to create the best “Delaware” we can create, to be able to respond to the things that are happening externally in the landscape of college football, so that we can, in fact, be in front of some of these changes that are going to occur.
I went to Chrissi the other day to talk about my desire to expand my roster limitation number. So, I’m always thinking about “What’s next?” And then, she offered me a vision for facilities and what that will look like.
If I’m sitting in this chair (pats chair arms) in 10 or 12 years, I’ll be extremely blessed and extremely happy because it would mean a couple of things: it will mean that we have met some expectation of winning and success or else I wouldn’t be sitting here. And it’ll mean that a lot of things that we’ve talked about will have taken place. I appreciate a comment that you made earlier – my best years are ahead of me – but I am a point in my career, where I have perspective on a lot of these different things, and I’m at a point in my career where I think I know what I need.
GH: You’ve touched on at least three of the questions I have in the answer to that question: The first is that there is constant disagreement on the board about FCS football vs. moving up. There are those who say “I would rather play for a national championship at the FCS level, then play in some minor bowl game as member of the MAC or Sunbelt or whatever conference.” And there are others who would rather see MAC or Sunbelt teams come to Delaware stadium than any FCS team.
DR: Well, I’ve had some opportunity to pursue jobs in the MAC – I was offered a job in the MAC as a head coach – and I just wasn’t, in those moments, motivated or driven, to think that that’s what I wanted to do. See, the only reason I had you look at those helmets, is that it offers perspective – none of it makes me any good – it just offers perspective as to where I’ve been. And you knew that – you’ve done your research – but when you really think about what that means – every time you relocate, especially when your kids are younger… So here I am now, 56, at Richmond – (whispers for emphasis) “We Beat Virginia!” – I was going to have opportunities. So, I’m looking at Delaware or the MAC. That’s the way things played out this year. I was of the mindset that I didn’t think I was going to get the things I needed at Richmond. So, I’m weighing your exact question – “What’s better?” Well, any time you can be in a conversation for a national championship, that’s a better conversation to be in. Now, we’re not in the conversation right now. But, neither are those MAC schools. Most of the guys who head jobs in the MAC want to get into the Big 10.
GH: And that touches on another question: How do you address the perception that when you move from one school to another and you bring your staff with you, whether a portion of your staff when you went to Richmond, or almost your whole staff when you came to Delaware, that it’s just a stepping stone to take position with an FBS school after you’ve had 3 or 4 years, of success here?
DR: Well, I don’t know if I totally get the question. I don’t know what the staffing has to do with it – the staffing helps us win, and everyone would be interested in that I would think, you know, the thought that you would have the opportunity to have that cohesion. But it’s a fair question. (Thoughtful pause) I think I’ll repeat what I said earlier – If I’m sitting here in 10 or 12 years, I’ll be very happy – I didn’t come here to go somewhere else, if that’s the question.
GH: Yes, I think that’s what those comments are addressing – is UD a stepping stone?
DR: No, there is no connection – Delaware is not a stepping stone. I think the reality of some of those MAC jobs is that those are more stepping stones, because then people feel like they have to get into the FBS … You see, I spent 23 years in the FBS. I’m not enamored by the thought that the FBS means something. I spent 23 years there and I’ve worked with some of the best programs in the country.
I think that, to compete on a national platform, to compete in the post season, to be in the best conference in FCS football – I think the question I would eventually get from you and I have already been asked is: “Why would you take another job in the CAA?” Well, if I’m going to stay in FCS football, why would I leave the CAA? It’s the best conference in the country.
GH: Right, but the question revolves around: “If I’m going to stay in FCS football.” It seems as though your point is that you don’t have this great desire to leave FCS football.
DR: I don’t.
GH: But, from what you’ve said, it sounds as though part of the new vision here is: If the landscape changes to the point that it makes sense to move up, that you see there is the backing and the ability to do something like that. But you are still focused on winning an FCS Championship, at this point in time.
DR: Definitively. No doubt. There has been no conversation in my taking this job, or my decision to be interested in this job, that has had anything to do with transitioning to the next level. And, that’s a real strong thing for me to say. This is a guy that, when I took the job at Liberty, they were 1 and 10 and they had 3,000 people at their games and they were talking about moving to FBS. And I thought: “OK, whatever!” I just wanted to build the program and win games – build the program and win games – build the program and win games.
So, I’m here to build the program and win games. I want to build the program and win games. That’s what I’m here to do. (tapping on desk for emphasis) And, if I think that we can continue to build the program and win games, and build the program and win games, and develop a roster, and develop depth, and be one of those teams that, at the end of the year people come up to me and say Coach, I really admire the way you’ve been able to sustain success, then I’d be really happy.
GH: Back to the discussion on the board about FCS vs. FBS, there are 2 camps – those who love the competitive aspect of the playoff system and the ability to win a National Championship on the field vs. those who say “I don’t care about that because it’s not at the FBS level – I’d rather be at that level and go to any bowl, anywhere” - even though most schools lose money doing it, unless you’re an upper-tier Power Five School. The MAC and Sunbelt schools lose money at it. I have to admit, I’d rather be playing for a National Championship.
DR: You’re accurate in your assessment, philosophically. For me – it’s not even in my world – it’s nothing I think about. I will spend no time, energy, or thought on any kind of transition.
GH: So, if you can do the things here that you want to do, and you get the support you are seeking, whether it’s roster size, or facilities, or whatever, the future will take care of itself.
DR: The future will take care of itself – I think that’s well said. And those are all things totally out of your control. They really are, because the landscape is going to dictate more of those things. I think the best thing for me to say, is: “We want to position ourselves to be the best “Delaware” that we can be in the conference that we are in.” So we are always going to be one of those schools that has options available to it, if and when anything were to happen.
But in this moment, the CAA is my battle cry, and that’s the banner that I’m carrying, and I’m excited about it.
I also think that, for me, I have always been committed to what I call “constant and continual improvement”. I want to keep growing. After 5 years at Richmond, I didn’t know if I could have taken it any further; I didn’t know if the model was going to allow me to feel like I was still moving and growing and this challenge was what I thought was the right challenge for me at this stage of my career, with my acumen and my knowledge, and understanding of the league, the area – so all those things factor into me stating I want to be a coach here.
GH: This next question, you’ve answered in a number of ways, but what do you believe makes Delaware unique vs. other FCS programs – understanding that you are getting the support you want – but is there anything else aside from the support that makes Delaware unique?
DR: Well, I sense a genuine passion for “the brand”. And “branding” is not something that’s spoken of very often in FCS football. Most all FCS programs are located in a state where they’re trumped by somebody. So, in the State of Virginia, the Spider helmet is a very neat logo, it’s a very identifiable product, but the branding in the State of Virginia, we were fighting for 4th, 5th, 6th – whatever. The tradition, the history, and the branding here is a little unique in FCS football. North Dakota State has developed that. Geographically, it’s a factor; their success is a factor in those kinds of things. So I recognize that as being a value. I think the name, the helmet, the logo, the branding here is still very viable in recruiting today, and I think when you combine that with the passion and the tradition, I think it’s a really, really neat combination.
I think if we were going to model this program after another, I think it would be Penn State. They have good students and good athletes. What model do you think Chrissi wants? Michigan – good students and good athletes. So, to me, I think the brand here speaks to good students and good athletes. And, that’s what they’ll hear me talk about. I’ve talked to these kids more about academics and character development than ANYTHING else since I’ve been here. I’m just trying to build that foundation.
GH: How has that been received?
DR: It’s been good. Our Winter Session we had a 3.1 grade point average and that was very good. What I’m challenging the kids to do academically is just – “be better than you were”. You can’t compare this guy to that guy. Just compare yourself to yourself. Are you doing better? Are you giving a better effort? Everybody but 2 guys increased their cumulative average over this little winter session. Back to your question: I think when you look at FCS football, our brand remains strong.
GH: Changing gears here a little – I want to ask about scheduling. Have you participated in that in the past? Is it important to you to participate in the process or not?
DR: I’m an active participant in the scheduling process. Chrissi Rawak and myself will work with Jerry Oravitz, who will do most of the legwork on this, but these decisions moving forward will be joint decisions. Now, in saying that, what’s in the books is in the books, which always seems to get left by the wayside a little bit because we’re usually a good 2, 3, sometimes 4 years ahead in our scheduling, and that’s kind of the case here.
Now, the CAA has a proposal out that we play 9 conference games a year instead of 8. I’m not saying that has traction right now, but I’m offering that just so there is an understanding that, that landscape changes too. So, then you’d be looking at just 2 non-conference games per year and I am one of those FCS coaches who is not in favor of a 12th game unless it falls in a year when you have the appropriate number of weekends. There is another proposal out that is just in favor of 12 games and I am not in favor of that.
GH: Would you rather have 2 or 3 non-conference games?
DR: I think, because scheduling is getting more difficult, I’m in favor of expanding the conference schedule – it creates a little less uncertainty. It’s not just me, it’s everyone else in the league. There is this strategizing about scheduling games you can win; games you can make money on. There’s different ways people go about this. But if you have 9 conference games, you only have to make 2 decisions.
GH: I get that, but I think from a fan base, we’d rather see 3 non-conference games as long as there’s at least one FBS game, preferably a BCS game, plus one against a team you may have a long-standing rivalry with, and a new team you haven’t played much or at all before. What are your thoughts about that – especially an FBS, game? Are you concerned about getting people hurt? I never felt that Delaware needed the money – I always felt like there was another reason to play those games – the fans wanted those games.
DR: You know, the driving thing is that your players want to play in a BCS game.
GH: And does that help with recruiting?
DR: I think that there is real value in that. It’s one of those things that I could argue with equal ability. It’s one of those things that you’re selling an opportunity to play a BCS opponent in front of 70 - 80,000 people. You’re playing in the best FCS conference in the country, and outside of your league you’re playing a prominent opponent. I’ve always felt that I wanted the BCS game to be relatively geographic. Some other people have gotten away from that – they’re using it as an “experience” or an away trip, or simply for the dollar value. At Liberty we played Wake Forest, West Virginia. At Richmond, we played Duke, Virginia, Maryland. This year, here, we’re playing Virginia Tech. The following year we do not have a BCS game on that schedule, then Pittsburgh in 2019, and N.C. State in 2020.
GH: So, let me ask this – do you go into those games trying to win? That may not be the right question to ask, but I know that, when we played Navy, we went into those games, most years, as fans, and I think players and staff, planning to win. I know that there were a number of years where the team would spend time in pre-season camp practicing for the unique Navy schemes, because we wanted to win those games. I don’t know that we had or felt that the last several years. It was almost like: “We can’t compete – let’s just go play and try to get out of there without any injuries.” And I think that filters down to the fans, it filters down to the players. How do you go into those games?
DR: It’s a really good question. You know, I’ve evolved in that area over the years. I do think, though, that my bottom line starting point is: “We practice to win. We prepare to win. We take the field to win.” There is no other way to teach this game of football. The in-game decisions, from year-to-year have maybe been a little different for me as the games unfolded, but I don’t think there’s ever been anything leading into the games that was not 100% consistent with your focus on doing the things you have to do to win, strategizing to win, game-planning to win, and utilizing your resources to give yourself a chance to win.
GH: Next, I wanted to touch on recruiting. Under the last staff, the philosophy was to recruit within 5-hours and devote all their time to getting to know those schools, staffs, and players within that radius, and there was a belief that people within that 5-hour radius identify with Delaware more than those beyond. There are those fans who prefer the approach of the staff before that one and feel we should be recruiting in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas. They look at our competitors, like Villanova, who recruit California, and feel we should be doing the same. From the comments I’ve heard from you so far, it sounds like your philosophy is much more similar to the 5-hour radius approach.
DR: Well, I think, anywhere you go, you have to have a model. You have to have a footprint that you want to follow. When I was at Liberty, we had no name recognition, no brand, so for us to get kids from Virginia, was hard. They would have way too many other options that they were more familiar with. So, we had to go out and find people from a distance, who we were able to bring into our program that fit our needs. You know, sometimes, when you bring players in from a distance, people don’t negatively recruit against you because they don’t know you. When you recruit within a footprint, people will recruit against you because they know who you are.
At Richmond, the school’s admissions are extraordinarily high. The pool had to be academic profile schools from outside your state. So, we had to go to Nashville, we had to go to Memphis, we had to go to Dallas, to recruit at schools that were similar to, or that were actually sending some of their student body, to Richmond.
Here, I feel really good about our ability to focus in on Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland, and let that be your footprint. Now, everybody on my staff is assigned a primary and secondary area. So, we have people assigned to Ohio and Michigan and Texas and Florida and Georgia. BUT, I go back to the “brand”. You heard me say it up front – I couldn’t be more excited about being in this geographical location, at … this … school. It’s a good position to be in.
There is a theory in recruiting that has kind of run it’s course a little bit, but it says that, for every hundred miles you go away from home, you know 10% less about that kid.
So, if’ we’re going to recruit someone here in Delaware, we’re going to know everything about that kid – his makeup, his academics, his character, his skill set, we’re going to have him in camp, we’re going to have him on campus, we’re going to know his mom and dad. Go 100 miles away, you have a 90% chance of knowing all those things. You go 200 miles away, you have an 80% chance, which is still a good chance to have him in camp, have him come up for a game, get to know mom & dad. You go 300 miles away, now your shooting a 70% chance of being able to get that right. The further you go, the less the probability of getting to know everything you want to know and need to know about that student athlete.
GH: I hadn’t heard that. Maybe this next question is not a fair one, but I’ll ask anyway. Who would be the “crown jewel” of this recruiting class?
DR: Well, it’s a good class, there’s no doubt about that. Time will tell. I think the prize recruit is the quarterback. I think because of the fact that he is “in-state”, because he is, hands down, one of the most impressive young men that I’ve been around. In terms of his demeanor, his character, the way he carries himself, and he’s a leader – the kid is a leader. You seem disappointed in my answer.
GH: I’m not, but I can tell you this …
DR: I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care – I know what my job is.
GH: I know you made the comment on signing day that, if he was bigger, he’d be at Penn State or Michigan.
GH: And I think the size issue colored some people’s opinion of him early on and they could never come off of that. They heard from people that watched him play that, as a junior, he was, maybe 5’10” and 160 lbs. and they soured on him. We know now that he’s closer to 6’ and 170 lbs and he will get bigger. They don’t take the intangibles into account.
DR: Here’s the short term – long term, you didn’t ask me “Who is the most “ready” to play?” Not him. It’s the reason that I do what I do – is to be able to chart these courses and make these decisions, and advance our program. We’ll go through Spring football here and we’ll assess our roster and, if we feel like we need to make some moves, we’ll make some moves. The beauty of being a head coach is that I’m the only guy in this building, that is totally unbiased to offensive or defensive success. Everything I look at is team success. There’s a reality that my perspective is always going to be different from Chris Cosh’s or Matt Simon’s. If you asked me a question whether I’d rather win 6 – 3, or 58 – 51, I don’t care – I just want to win. If you asked Chris Cosh - he just wants to win too, but he’d rather win 6 – 3 and Matt would rather win 58 – 51. I … don’t … care. I really don’t care. Most people in this building would rather win 58 – 51, even Chrissi would. I Don’t Care. The fans would probably rather win 58 - 51. I don’t care. So, my perspective is unique because I really don’t care. And when you’re looking at the decisions that we have to make, I owe every team the best chance to win. So what that means, at the end of Spring ball, I will do the things I think I need to do to give this year’s team the best chance to win.
GH: There are a couple of questions that kind of relate to that. One is: Do you expect a tug-of-war between your offensive and defensive staffs over Luke Frederick, who was recruited as a tight end, even though he received accolade over accolade for playing defense?
DR: I welcome tugs-of-war over the personnel on our team. Some of the neatest stories we tell are those stories of how somebody is wanted by the other coaches on both sides of the ball. When those kinds of conversations take place – the best thing you can ever hear in a staff room is when a receiver’s coach says: “I like him, I really want him” and then the DB coach says: “Well, if you don’t want him, I’ll take him.” You know, that’s a real positive thing. You’re darn right Luke Frederick could play on either side of the ball! You know, I always talk about where I’m going to start a guy. I’m going to start him on offense at tight end with the understanding that all of our guys will get evaluated.
GH: So, one of the questions was: “I assume coach has watched a lot of film of our players and has some idea of switches he may want to make. Is that the case?”
DR: That’s premature.
GH: I thought your answer would be: “That’s what Spring ball is for.”
DR: Actually, what we’re going into right now is the player evaluation phase. When I got here, Phase 1 was hiring a staff, setting the standards and expectation for the players, and recruiting. The only real contact we had with the players was conditioning and that was mostly with Coach Stewart. The rest of us were on the road recruiting. Phase 2 is player evaluation and player development. So, we will be assessing. There are a lot of guys who have some position versatility. We’ve got to be able to identify where their skill sets are and where they can help. It’s amazing with these young people today how astute they are. Players have already come forward and said: “Coach, I’d really like you to consider …” Of course, we’re not going to do anything yet. We’re going to evaluate all these guys. Young people want to play and if they are sitting behind someone they aren’t as good as, they may be looking “over there”, or “over here”. So, those realities are ever-changing - they’re ongoing evaluations.
This is the end of PART ONE. Stay tuned in the next couple of weeks for PART TWO.