Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bob Diaco Needs to Be a Better Coach, Now

If UConn fired Bob Diaco after Saturday, I’d understand. I wouldn’t agree, but I’d understand.

It is completely inexcusable to lose a game when you have the ball at the 1-yard line because the clock ran out. An interception. A fumble. A bad offensive play. A good defensive play. These things happen. Not getting a play off? That’s unacceptable.

Yet the most confounding thing about UConn’s loss on Saturday to Navy is how many UConn fans are okay with it. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that UConn used to be so bad that we should encouraged they played well.

The low point was a piece on the UConn Blog that surmised the “feeling” of the Navy game was the real victory.

“But the way I know you felt, you probably haven't felt that way watching this team in five years.”

Come on, seriously? In the immortal words of Herm Edwards, “You play to win the game.” UConn lost the game.

uconn clock runs outLet’s be absolutely clear – Bob Diaco is in his third year as UConn’s head coach and the team made a bowl game last year. UConn is the only team to beat Houston in two years. I’m supposed to feel good about losing to a Navy team playing its backup quarterback?

No, I’m not. No one is.

UConn is in the midst of trying to prove to the world that he deserves to be in a Power Five conference, specifically the Big 12. How is taking a moral victory from a loss to Navy going to show that to the Big 12?

Navy is a solid football team and has been for more than a decade. However, this is not a vintage Navy football team – not with Keenan Reynolds off to the try the NFL and not with its 2016 starter being lost for the season in week 1. This was a game UConn should have won. They didn’t because the coach failed them.

I can accept our players not executing. I can accept play calls not working out. I cannot accept our head coach preventing the team from winning.

Most troubling has been Diaco’s response to the loss, which should have started with the words, “I’m sorry.”

Instead, Diaco’s reasons are worrisome. First, he said UConn blew their last timeout because the clock was running – the clock was not running. Second, he said that the players wanted to run the ball and he was “fine with it” as if he’s not the, you know, Head Coach who makes that decision. Third, he said that he was there to be held accountable and he should take the blame – um Coach, who else were people going to blame?

Bob Diaco has certainly improved UConn since 2013. But UConn in 2013 was literally the worst team in college football. I’m not going to celebrate that improvement like he walked on water. I watched Randy Edsall win football games for a decade. I have a higher standard for UConn football than close losses to Navy.

What has really annoyed me about the post-game fallout is my real issue with Bob Diaco’s coaching – how the hell was UConn down 21-0 to Navy? It was a continuation of Diaco’s worst trait, as UConn seems to consistently start games slow.

Against Navy, how was our defense so initially unprepared for the triple option? Where was the passing game in the first half? Where was the aggressive play calling? Does UConn have to be down three touchdowns before throwing the ball downfield?

The worst part about Navy’s loss is how close UConn was to something special. They would be 2-0 heading home to face two ACC teams that they should be favored against. They were staring a 4-0 start in the face leading to a primetime showdown on ESPN vs Houston with untold hype.

It’s all gone because Bob Diaco is the only football coach in the world that doesn’t throw the ball  -- or at least rolls the damn QB out of the pocket for a pass-run option. He called the worst possible play and then told the world the players called it.

If you’re read my views on UConn, you know that I have been on-board with Diaco since Day 1. I found 13 reasons to be excited about the ultimately ill-fated 2014 season. I’ve made trips up from DC to the Rent to watch some terrible football over the past few years. But I’ve never wavered in my support for Diaco. Until Saturday.

Simply put, a competent football coach does not allow the clock to run out like that. It was a fireable offense. At a school like Texas or Oklahoma, it could be. Instead, UConn fans shrug their shoulders and take solace in the fact the Huskies don’t suck anymore.

Most frustratingly, the same people who think we should be happy that UConn improved will be the same people decrying the empty seats this Saturday against Virginia. Those fans are the problem because those seats would be filled if UConn beat Navy.

There’s nothing confusing about sports. You play to win games. Fans pay to see teams that win games. Right now, UConn isn’t winning football games, so fans aren’t paying to watch them.

Before the season, I believed UConn had the potential to win 9 games, 10 if you include the bowl game. When you have the potential to win that many games, there are no such things as moral victories.

If UConn wants to be a Power Five school, everyone needs to start acting like it, including the fans. The players did their part in the second half against Navy. Now, the head coach needs to do his part.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

UConn Football's Most Important Game, Ever?

A September game against Navy should never be the most important in school history. Yet, here we are with UConn football.

The first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have started any worse for UConn, who stumbled through a thoroughly uninspiring last-second win against Maine. Maine might be great this year, but they play FCS football and were 3-8 in 2015. UConn needs to win that game by more than 3 points.

For all the hand-wringing and disappointment about the opener – terrible offensive line play, awful defensive lapses, an empty stadium, the looming feeling of being stuck in the Group of Five – the first weekend of the 2016 college football season could not have gone any better for UConn.

That all starts with Navy, who thrashed Fordham in week one but lost its starting quarterback, who in turn was replacing the school’s best QB (Keenan Reynolds) since Roger Staubach. Vegas has noticed, as the line for the Navy/UConn game has shifted dramatically toward the Huskies, down from an opening line of Navy -7.5 to Navy -3.5.

What looked like a terrible loss after the Maine game now looks eminently winnable. Beating Navy and Maine should not be cause for celebration at most places. UConn is not most places in football. It’s been a long, hard, painful slog since Randy Edsall left and UConn made the single worst coaching hire of the 21st Century.

Is being 2-0 that important? Yes. UConn has gone 2-0 once since 2008 and it was last year when UConn beat Villanova and Army, then promptly followed it up with five losses in six games. This could be so much different.

We don’t need to address the elephant in the room – UConn needs to impress the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and/or ESPN. A huge part of that is ticket sales. How do you sell tickets? You win football games. UConn has not won many football games.

A win over Navy, though, could be a springboard. Did I mention how well the opening weekend went for UConn? After Navy, UConn returns home to face a Virginia team that just got throttled by FCS Richmond and is clearly already deep into a “tear it down to build it up” year. UConn should win that game.

Okay, now we’re talking about a 3-0 UConn team – UConn hasn’t been 3-0 since 2008! – with past, future, and always rival Syracuse coming to town for the first time since 2011. It’s already a game circled on every UConn fan’s calendar. It will almost certainly be a sellout, if both teams were 3-0 or 0-3. Even better, Syracuse is beatable. Yes, they could be improved, but they are well within UConn’s reach.

Let’s see, four games, four potential wins, could UConn actually end September undefeated? What would that do for the fan base? What would that to do about the “narrative” that UConn football stinks? How would that play in the Big 12 offices?

This is where I reveal why Navy – and all the subsequent games – are so important. UConn ends the month by traveling to Houston for a Thursday night primetime showdown on ESPN. Houston is already ranked #6 and should remain in the Top 10 when UConn rolls into town. Houston is by far, by an order of magnititude UConn’s toughest opponent. Still, UConn beat Houston with a backup quarterback last year.

Can you see it? Can you see the ESPN hype?

Undefeated Houston hosting the only team that’s beaten them in two years and, oh by the way, they’re undefeated too with 2 wins over ACC teams. It’s the type of game that not only puts UConn on the map, but also solidifies the AAC as the top Group of Five conference. Like in 2006 and the Big East’s big Thursday night games, it could be the catalyst for the AAC to be taken seriously as a football conference on the same level of Power Five conferences.

Am I getting ahead of myself? You damn right I am. That’s the beauty of sports. And it’s the beauty of having everything fortuitously fall into place.

Houston had to beat Oklahoma. Navy needed to show vulnerability. Virginia had to show it sucked. Syracuse had to, well, just be Syracuse.

Walking out of the Rent following the Maine game, I would have slapped anyone who said, “UConn should be 4-0 when it plays Houston.” Yet just a week later, I’m saying the exact same thing.

It all hinges on Navy. Sure, UConn should still beat Virginia and could still beat Syracuse and enter the Houston game at a respectable 3-1. It’ll be a fun storyline with the revenge factor. It wouldn’t, however, move the needle.

An undefeated UConn facing an undefeated Top 10 Houston in a revenge game would definitely move the needle. That, in a nutshell, is what the Big 12 is looking for. Fans can spout garbage about attendance or market sizes or apparel contracts. The Big 12, and any Power Five conference, wants to add a school that moves the needle in football.

Right now, Houston is moving the needle in football. If UConn wants to rejoin the big leagues, they need to start moving the needle in football again. It won’t happen with a win over Navy on Saturday – but it cannot happen without a win.

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