Hens welcome Rocco; new football coach ready for challenge

Delaware coach Danny Rocco talks with some of his new players after Wednesday’s introduction. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — Up until 6:04 p.m. on Monday, this thing still could have gone either way.

Danny Rocco was torn between staying at Richmond, and the football program he had help rebuild, or moving on to his next project, at Delaware.

On Monday evening, he chose the Blue Hens.

And while Delaware’s tradition and its proximity to his Pennsylvania roots played a big part in Rocco’s decision, he also clearly relished the challenge of trying to get the Hens back on track.

“I am very highly-motivated by challenges,” Rocco said at an introductory press conference on Wednesday afternoon. “I am a problem solver. I work to identify and solve problems. I really was looking for another challenge.

New head football coach Danny Rocco poses for a photo in the Hen locker room. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

“And maybe, in some ways, I had taken the last program as far as I thought I could take it.”

The 56-year-old Rocco, who was greeted by an overflow Carpenter Center auditorium crowd of players, season-ticket holders and UD staff at a pep rally, takes over a Blue Hen program that has endured back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1939.

The 22nd head coach in program history made it clear that athletic director Chrissi Rawak was the driving force behind him coming to Newark.

He said, contrary to rumors, he didn’t make up his mind until Monday evening. But he said Rawak worked diligently over the last few weeks to win him over.

“Chrissi was relentless,” said Rocco. “I recognized it from the beginning. The thing I think I appreciated the most was her ability to listen and hear. She was able to always respond to the things that I thought were important.

Athletic director Chrissi Rawak and Rocco answer questions during a press conference on Wednesday. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

“She was able to offer the vision that I wanted to hear. … What she did took an awful lot of courage. There were no guarantees. … It took a lot of courage on her part to continue to believe that she heard the right things from me — to continue to believe that I was, in fact, the right guy.”

“I wasn’t going to rest until I found the right coach for this program,” said Rawak, who is in her first year at Delaware. “We had unbelievable interest. That’s not surprising, it just reinforces how special this place is and how special this program is.

“But I can tell you, as we went through each step in this process, it became so clear to us that Danny Rocco was the right man for Delaware.”

Rocco replaces Dave Brock, who was fired in October, midway through his fourth season at Delaware.

Rocco and his wife, Julie, share a smile after Wednesday’s pep rally. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Like Brock, Rocco has a long resume of coaching stops as an assistant. But, unlike Brock, he’s already been a successful head coach.

In 11 combined seasons at Liberty and Richmond, Rocco’s teams are 90-42. He’s never had a losing campaign.

He took the Spiders to the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs each of the past three seasons, including trip to the semifinals two years ago and to the quarterfinals this past season in a 10-4 season.

Rocco has also been a finalist for national FCS Coach of the Year five times.

That proven track record made an impression on the UD players who were on hand at Wednesday’s event. The Hens have gone 4-7 each of the last two years.

“He’s intense, he’s a winner,” said linebacker Troy Reeder. “These are things that we come here for. Guys want to grind, guys want to work. We’re hungry. This is really exciting.

Rocco talks to a crowd of players, season-ticket holders and UD staff after being introduced. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

“It stinks that we have nine months to go to play a game because, if everyone else feels like me. … I feel ready to go right now.”

“After all the things we went through this season, we’re finally at a place where we can go nothing but up,” said receiver Diante Cherry. “We’re excited. His record shows that he’s a winning coach. He seems like a great guy. We’re excited to see what happens from here.”

“After a long process, after hearing rumors after rumors, it’s good to finally know who our coach is,” said running back Wes Hills. “He’s a great guy. He has a long track record of winning. I can’t wait to get started.”

Former Blue Hen standout George Schmitt came out to hear Rocco talk on Wednesday, too. He said he bought season tickets on Tuesday for the first time in a few years.

“He’s motivating me,” said Schmitt. “He’s got a great background, even as a player.”

In a lot of ways, football has been at the center of Rocco’s life.

He played linebacker at both Penn State and Wake Forest after growing up in a coaching family.

His father, Frank, Sr., was an assistant coach at Penn State as well as a longtime high school coach at various Pennsylvania schools. Rocco’s brothers, Frank and Dave, are high school coaches at Viriginia.

Among his many stops, Rocco worked with future New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin at Boston College.

“He was an outstanding young football coach, and he had his blinders on from Day One: Family, Religion and Football,” Coughlin said in a statement. “He has great people skills, and, as a result, has always been an outstanding recruiter and football coach, and the players enjoy playing for him.”

After Rocco agreed to be Delaware’s coach on Monday, the school put together a video showing quick scenes from the Hens’ storied past. The narrator then points out, “There’s no shying away from the fact we’ve all lost a little bit of that feeling somewhere along the way.

“But we are here today to tell you that we have listened to you, the fans,” the narrator concludes. “And that we are committed to bringing that feeling back. Bringing the tradition back. Bringing the winning back. Bringing greatness back.”

The video then finishes with a closeup of Rocco, who we’ve seen tying a gold-and-blue tie throughout the piece.

Judging by the fans’ reaction online, they loved the video. Rocco loves the idea of bringing the tradition back, too.

On Wednesday, he talked about coming here with Richmond for a game in 2013. He walked the campus, looked at the national championship banners in Delaware Stadium and watched fans tailgating.

“I saw the energy in the stadium — the students, the alumni,” said Rocco. “And I said, ‘That’s what I want.’ Now I have the opportunity to embrace that.

“I’m here to help return Delaware football to a level of national prominence and put our brand back on the national stage,” Rocco told the crowd. “And like the president (Dr. Dennis Assanis) said, I’m here to do it the right way.”

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