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Making Of A Head Coach: Brush With Mortality As Teenager Fortified Husky Coach's Football Passion

Elementary school officials had concerns about what was going on at home when a young Bob Diaco showed up one day with his arms all smashed up. It seems Diaco, in third grade at the time, was toughening himself up for football. He took on a concrete piling and, of course, the piling won.

But Diaco won one of the biggest battles of his lifetime a few years later. At 16, he was in a New Jersey hospital bed being read his last rites. He had double pneumonia, a staph infection and a case of measles he caught in the hospital.

With family members coming in one by one to say goodbye, all Diaco thought about, prayed about, was getting out of that bed, not only to live but to play football again.

He did.

And when he left home to attend Iowa on a football scholarship, his father, Robert, handed him his sack of clothes at Newark Liberty International Airport and told him not to come home. Sounds harsh, and Diaco said his father was “a hard dude,” but young Bob knew he could come home any time he wanted. But he also knew the larger message was about commitment.

Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry has called Diaco, UConn's first-year coach, a classy individual, a notoriously hard worker, a lover of the game, intelligent and good-looking.

Those are just a few characteristics that have molded Diaco into the coach he is. Diaco, 41, is somewhat private with his personal life but never so with his love for the game and his focus of molding young men.

“If anyone had the opportunity to spend any time with him, they would feel like they would want to be a better person,” Diaco's brother Frank said. “That's the kind of guy he is every day. It's not something he has to get psyched up to do. That's his DNA; his goal is every day of every year that he's capable of [coaching], he wants to make these young men better people and more productive through his interaction as it relates to football.

“He uses football as a vehicle to make the people who come in contact with his life better. Everyone.

“I'll tell you, I graduated from Officer Candidate School in the Marine Corps. I would say that's probably among the toughest proving grounds for leadership. I would follow my brother anywhere and I wouldn't even ask why.”

Near-Death Experience

Bob was the youngest of three brothers growing up in Cedar Grove, a township in north central New Jersey. Frank, the oldest, and Joe were football players before Bob. And they lived in Giants country.

“Football to us was really everything,” Frank said. “My father was Mr. Football at Barringer High School in Newark. I played through high school, two years in college and then I coached football — before I started my business. I was a health and [physical education] teacher and a head football coach at Rutherford High School for eight years. My middle brother played. You know, everything we did just revolved around football and it was all we cared about.”

Frank, 45, said although he was the oldest, “Bobby was the biggest and the strongest.”

For Bob, that was the case at 8 years old when he was pounding those arms into the concrete piling by the house. Yes, he was big and strong and already consumed by football.

“To get toughened up for football,” Bob Diaco said. “I was all bruised up. ... [School officials] thought I was getting beatings at home, but I wasn't. I just always have loved football. It has been an obsession of mine, so yes, I did things like that.”

Imagine if it was suddenly taken away?

Diaco will tell you he's lucky to be alive today.

It was between his sophomore and junior years in high school that he spent three weeks in the hospital.

“They said he had this infection and he wasn't responding to whatever meds they were giving him,” Frank said. “We have a large family here in New Jersey. A lot of people were coming to see him, and there was just one night there where my father was told ‘He has to make it through this night' almost as if there was a possibility he may not.

“It was absolutely unbelievable. We were all fairly athletic. Bob was a big star with football. I'm the oldest and the smallest. Bob was the youngest and the biggest. He was a big, strong kid full of life and full of energy, just a great young man and suddenly this just sucked the life out of him in a couple of days. It was crazy. You're sitting there in the hospital and the whole family is upset and my father was a mess. We just didn't know if he was going to make it. What do you think when you're 19? [I'm] watching this and there's nothing you can do.”

Last rites at 16?

“I'm sleeping on an ice blanket trying to keep my fever down,” Diaco said. “And I remember vividly the Super Bowl [XXIII] was playing, San Francisco vs. Cincinnati, and I'm kind of watching the game, kind of hoping, I mean the people are coming in, my brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins are coming in one by one in a row to say goodbye to me — and I'm trying to watch the game.

“And I remember my Uncle Ted had this necklace on and it had a Jesus head on it and he put it around my neck and he said, ‘Let's pray.' Now, I had never prayed with my Uncle Ted before and I have never prayed with my Uncle Ted since. He's a very guarded individual. So he kneels down by my bed, which was shocking, and this is a demonstrative dude, and he starts to pray. I close my eyes and I start to pray.

“And I start praying about football. I just wanted to be saved so I could play football again. That was it. That's what I asked for.”

It's unclear what exactly caused Diaco's turn for the worse.

“That night the doctor said, ‘Let me just try something else,' so where they would normally scope he kind of jerry-rigged something at the end of that thing and took a sample, which was how they first realized it was staph, or else they would have never found it because the medicine wasn't working,” Diaco said.

The doctor pulled a sample from inside Diaco's lungs, allowing doctors to focus on attacking what was making him sick.

He got better somewhat quickly ... and returned to playing football.

“You know when you have that moment and you're aware of it and it's all facing you, what you treasure is going to be what you're thinking about, what you're clinging to, so to have in that moment be a very visual, very visceral, strong reflection on football, really that's all I wanted to do.

“I was dedicated before, but after that it was completely fortified.”

Iowa Days

When Diaco headed to college football practice, it was tough to leave behind Cedar Grove and a strong, tightknit Italian-American family that operated an electrical construction company.

That's when his father got tough with him — but not in a bad way.

“It was like, ‘Make it happen,'” Diaco said. “I understood my father immediately. You come home, you're coming home as a failure. The warm embrace of the family is there unconditionally, but just so you know, if you come back here, you're coming back as a failure.”

Bob's leaving also meant something else, and the UConn coach might not have realized it at the time.

“My dad has always been there and has always pushed us to stand on our own two feet, be our own men and chase our dreams and not to give up,” Frank said. “But it killed him to have Bob that far away. He was happy for him, wanted him to succeed, and that's where Bobby wanted to be, so he wanted him to compete there. And Iowa was a great fit for Bob, but for my father to have to take two airplanes to see him was a big deal.”

At Iowa, he would be in the hands of another man who helped shape his life, legendary coach Hayden Fry.

Fry was floored by Diaco when he met him and still is.

“He was such a class individual, very intelligent, really good-looking,” Fry said. “He turned out to be one of my all-time leaders as a linebacker.”

Diaco played for the Hawkeyes from 1992 to '95 and was an All-Big Ten selection as a junior and senior.

“All the players highly respected him and listened to him,” Fry said. “His last year he played with a bad shoulder. He could only tackle with one [shoulder] and still led the team in tackles. He called my defensive signals. I tried to utilize everything I could with him because he's such a great young man. He's still the only prospect I tried to recruit that on his official visit to the University of Iowa wore a suit and tie all three days he was there.”

Diaco wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase while leading the Huskies onto Rentschler Field for the spring game in April.

Fry laughed.

“I'm not surprised; he hasn't changed much,” Fry said. “He's official. There's no question about that. He's very professional about everything he does.”

Diaco became a graduate assistant at Iowa in '95 and absorbed a lot from Fry.

“I see he hired Don Patterson [associate head coach and quarterbacks coach],” Fry said. “Don is a good man.”

He's also a former assistant to Fry. When Patterson became head coach at Western Illinois in 1999, Diaco went along as his running backs/special teams coach.

But it all goes back to Fry, who always has a story or two. Fry said he grew up on a farm and remembers lessons from his father.

“‘I want you to remember this for the rest of your life,'” Fry remembers his father saying one day in the barn. “‘Son, I don't know what you're going to become when you grow up, but if you're going to be successful, you're going to be a winner, you have to surround yourself with winners.' And as a result I never hired an assistant coach in my life unless I was completely convinced that he was motivated to become a head coach. Then I knew he'd study the game and see that his players graduate, all the things a head coach should do. Well, I have 26 assistants out there who are college head coaches or coached in the NFL — because I surrounded myself with winners. I'm sure Bobby has put together a winning staff.”

Home Team

Much of Diaco's staff has worked with him before.

And he has a plan.

“My wife [Julia] may not want to hear this, but I had a plan,” Diaco said. “She's more of a romantic. I probably am a romantic, too, but she believes that we could have met at a gas station on the road somewhere had we not met at the University of Iowa.

“But I had a plan. I knew what my life was going to look like, what I wanted it to look like. I met her and made a very early decision.”

That was just before his junior year in college.

Bob and Julia, who have two sons, Angelo and Michael, and a daughter, Josephine, celebrated their 20th anniversary in July.

Diaco's life is working out the way he wants — with a whole lot of football involved. He's trying to impart his wisdom on a bunch of young men.

“I can't think of another word to describe [Diaco] besides excitement,” said offensive lineman Gus Cruz. “It's just been a great experience, honestly, as a college football player and student athlete. I feel like for the first time I'm getting the college football experience with Coach Diaco. He really takes care of us, listens to what we have to say. He'll talk to us and he'll look us in the eye if we have a concern and say, ‘I'll see what I can do about that.' When you have a coach like that, you feel like you can go up to him and talk about anything, but ‘exciting' is the word. I don't think you can put another word there.”

So those lessons learned from Cedar Grove to Iowa, to assistant coaching stints at Western Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Virginia, Cincinnati and Notre Dame seem to have paid off. At Notre Dame, he was national assistant coach of the year in 2012. He wasn't even 40.

Diaco, the 30th football coach in UConn history, has a big job in front of him. There is pressure to win. There always is at this level, but more so because the Huskies have been 13-23 the past three seasons, including 3-9 in 2013, and have not been to a bowl since going 8-5 in 2010.

It has been ugly.

But this is what Diaco signed up for.

Asked whether he believes Diaco can turn around the UConn program, Fry, 85, snapped quickly.

“Oh, there's not any question in my mind,” he said.

How big is Diaco?

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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