UConn relieves Bob Diaco of football coaching duties

When Bob Diaco arrived at UConn, he was viewed as the type of high-energy rising star that could breath life into the UConn football program.

On Monday the university announced that he was being let go after managing just eight wins over Football Bowl Subdivision teams in three seasons.

“I believe a new leader for our program and student-athletes is needed to build long-term success,” UConn director of athletics David Benedict said in a release. “I am grateful to Coach Diaco and his staff for their hard work and the integrity with which they ran the program and certainly wish them future success.

“I know this may come as a surprise to our fans and supporters given the timing of this decision. However, it became apparent to me that a change in program direction is necessary at this time.”

When Benedict was named as the new AD following Warde Manuel’s departure for Michigan, one of his most prominent moves was agreeing to an extension for Diaco featuring much larger buyouts.

The move will take place on Jan. 2 because the buyout would be $3.4 million. If he were fired immediately, the university would have paid the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator $5 million.

“This is obviously not the way I had hoped things would turn out, but I appreciate having had the opportunity to be here at UConn,” Diaco said in a statement. “I thank the administration, staff and fans of the UConn Football program for their passion and support over these three years. Most importantly, I want to say how much I love the players on this team and will be rooting for their success. I know that there are great things to come for all of them.”

UConn was coming off a 6-7 season in 2015 as a three-game winning streak highlighted by an upset of No. 8 Houston propelled the Huskies into a bowl game for the first time since playing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2011.

However, after a 20-9 win over Cincinnati gave the Huskies a 3-3 record and put the program in position to become bowl eligible for second straight season with a favorable schedule down the stretch, UConn not only lost its last six games, but the Huskies were outscored 130-16 in the last four games of the season. Diaco finished with a record of 11-26 and his .297 winning percentage is the second worst of any UConn coach at the helm for at least 10 games.

Diaco made a last-gasp effort to keep his job when he demoted offensive coordinator Frank Verducci, benched starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs and pulled the redshirt off of true freshman quarterback Donovan Williams.

Williams completed 47.4 percent of his passes for 300 yards with one touchdown pass and five interceptions while rushing 31 times for 52 yards in losses to Temple, Boston College and Tulane.

UConn finished last among 128 FBS teams in scoring offense after finishing 125th and 121st in his first two seasons. UConn had only one first-year starter at the beginning of the season on offense, redshirt freshman left tackle Matthew Peart.

Diaco had a hands’ off approach with the offense. He left it up to Mike Cummings, his offensive coordinator during the 2014 season, Verducci and then David Corley, who served as interim offensive coordinator for the last three games.

Diaco, a first-time head coach, also had coordinators who had never called plays on a full-time basis. That lack of experience led to some clock mismanagement issues late in games.

Diaco was criticized for a conservative approach in all three aspects. His bend but don’t break defensive philosophy that helped him become the national assistant coach of the year while at Notre Dame, did not have the same impact with the Huskies, especially during the 2016 season when the Huskies gave up 11 scoring drives of at least 75 yards in the first five games. Three of those drives went for 99, 96 and 95 yards.

Offensively, issues with the line have persisted since his predecessor Paul Pasqualoni was hired following Randy Edsall’s departure for Maryland. In a conference full of newly-hired aggressive play callers, UConn’s methodical, measured style stood out for the wrong reasons. Diaco also instructed his punt returners to settle for fair catches and rarely put pressure on opposing punters, resulting in the Huskies finishing last nationally in the number of returned punts in each of the last two seasons.

UConn will lose record-breaking receiver Noel Thomas (100 receptions as a senior) and safety Obi Melifonwu, as well as defensive starters Matt Walsh, Jhavon Williams and Mikal Myers, starting offensive linemen Richard Levy and Andres Knappe, reliable punter Justin Wain and kicker Bobby Puyol.

It remains to be seen what happens with Shirreffs, a top-notch student who could play immediately at another program as a graduate transfer.

Barring any early departures, the Huskies would return 10 of their top 15 tacklers, their top two tailbacks, including leading rusher Arkeel Newsome, and seven of nine players to catch at least eight passes a season ago.

UConn currently has 13 players committed in the incoming freshman class, including six who committed earlier this month after taking campus visits. At least 10 more spots are available for the next coach to fill.

While Diaco was proceeding with the belief he would be returning, Benedict has had time to put together a list of possible replacements and for the sake of the program, he will likely move rather quickly to name Diaco’s replacement since the coaching change comes during a pivotal time in recruiting.