In their first season, UD’s head coach and AD have the players believing. The fans may be a harder sell.
Danny Rocco, who seven months ago was picked to lead the Delaware Blue Hens football team, is entering his 34th year of coaching—the last 11 as a head coach in the college ranks.
Football coaching is the Rocco family business, with dad Frank having been a longtime coach at both the high school and college levels; two brothers who spent their lives as high school coaches; and son David, who coaches wide receivers at Western Illinois.
After six years at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., then five seasons with Richmond, Rocco, 57, was hired by first-year Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak as UD’s new head coach in December.
As a head coach, Rocco has never had a losing season, and he doesn’t plan on seeing that streak broken now as he leads the Hens into the 2017 campaign.
“Success starts with high expectations, and Delaware expects to have a very competitive football team that’s smart, fast, and physical,” he says. “Our focus is on finishing better,” he adds, referring both to individual games and the season overall. “If we can finish better, we’ll be competitive.”
A competitive team is something die-hard fans like husband and wife Brian and Sarah Raughley have been waiting years to see again.
Brian, owner of Dead Presidents in Wilmington, and Sarah are long-time season ticket-holders and have spent many fall Saturday afternoons cheering on their alma mater at Delaware Stadium.
In fact, their midfield box has been in Sarah Raughley’s family for more than 50 years, and three generations of relatives from all over the state regularly gather in Newark for home games.
In recent years, however, both the on-field product and the highly unpopular University of Delaware Athletic Fund season-ticket tariff have dampened their enthusiasm.
“There’s a group of eight of us,” says Brian Raughley, “and one guy was ready to give up his ticket last year.”
That’s partly because Delaware is coming off two dreadful 4-7 years—the first back-to-back losing seasons since 1939—and a six-year postseason drought. One has to go back to 2010, when K.C. Keeler led the Hens to the FCS Championship Game, to relive some of that former Blue-and-Gold glory.
Asked about the slump, Rocco says, “As a coach, I’m always trying to identify problems without attaching blame. A number of things needed attention, including player development.”
Improving this area has been an early focus of his tenure, and seven months in, Rocco sounds upbeat.
“Things are going well. We’re off to a good start,” he says.
His boss agrees.
“He’s done all of the right things so far,” says Rawak. “Rocco’s done a tremendous job and I’m excited about the future.”
As for Brian and Sarah Raughley’s pessimistic box-seat companion?
“He decided to stick it out one more year after Coach Rocco was hired,” says Brian Raughley.
Four Coaches in 62 Years
Delaware football has a storied history that includes national championships, Hall of Fame coaches, NFL standouts and an enthusiastic fan base.
UD accumulated six national titles between 1946 and 2003, and is one of only two schools in the country to have three consecutive coaches enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame: Bill Murray, David M. Nelson (who instituted UD’s famous Wing-T offense and gave Delaware the iconic Michigan-style “winged” helmet), and the now-legendary Harold “Tubby” Raymond, who retired in 2001.
When Keeler took over in 2002—only the fourth head man in 62 years—he brought with him a new offensive philosophy and installed a no-huddle, spread offense in place of the Wing-T.
He took Delaware to its last national championship – its first ever in Division I-AA—in 2003, but his teams lacked consistency over an 11-year tenure. Despite being given a 10-year contract extension in 2008, Keeler and UD parted ways after the 2012 season, when the Hens finished 5-6.
Rocco has made some changes of his own, the most significant being the installation of a 3-4 defense. This alignment dates to his stint as linebacker and special teams coach with the New York Jets in 2000.
He has stuck with the 3-4 because, he says, the extra linebackers add versatility and more depth on special teams. Also, he says, “it’s very hard to recruit defensive linemen at the CAA level.”
Former Concord High standout Grant Roberts, a senior defensive lineman with extensive game experience for the Hens, figures prominently in the new defense. Despite having to adjust to the new coaching staff and a new defense, the Wilmington native expects a big debut for the ‘17 Hens. “We expect to win. We all expect to be successful,” he says.
Roberts, who has 48 tackles (27 solo) to his credit entering his final season, would love to end his college career as a champion, but he isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“Our focus is first getting back to a winning season,” he says.
When Dave Brock became head coach in 2013, Roberts says, “Everyone was excited and there was a strong vibe going into the future.” But Brock managed just one winning season, and was fired midway through his fourth year. The Hens were 2-4 at the time, en route to another 4-7 finish.
Delaware’s football family is a tight-knit one, and people are loath to criticize Brock for the team’s downturn.
“Coach Brock was great,” Roberts insists.
But things clearly weren’t working and a change of direction was needed, so Brock’s firing wasn’t a surprise.
Roberts is focused on moving forward. “There were definitely some tough games—some of which we should’ve won – but … we had a talented roster even though things didn’t work out.”
Rocco admits the challenge of rebuilding Delaware’s program was one thing that drew him here.
“The biggest challenge was changing the culture and the expectations of the program,” he says. “Delaware lacked a unifying, confident culture among its student-athletes. They didn’t believe they could win.”
Rawak and Rocco are out to change that, and both understand they are “in this thing together.”
“Rebuilding this program,” says Rocco, “is truly a team effort. No one coach can change a culture alone.”
The Hens lost just three starters to graduation, so he sees a solid foundation on which to build.
“We have the right people at the right time,” he says. “I have confidence we can win.”
Rocco enjoyed immediate success at both Liberty University and at Richmond, where he turned a 3-8 team into one with an 8-3 record and a share of the CAA title in a single season.
That turnaround is partly why expectations are high that UD will return to its winning ways this season. It’s also a major reason why Chrissi Rawak hired Rocco.
Rawak was executive senior associate athletic director for the University of Michigan when she was hired as the new AD by first-year Delaware President Denis Assanis last May. She wasted no time in making her presence felt.
A month after firing Brock, Rawak announced that, starting this year, the university would reverse the unpopular policy of requiring a donation to the UD Athletic Fund with most season ticket purchases. The policy, begun in 2011, helped boost UDAF coffers but alienated fans and contributed to a drastic reduction in both season ticket sales and attendance.
Then, in December, Rawak made what may be her most important move as AD to date: hiring Huntingdon, Pa., native Rocco as the new head coach.
Rocco was identified as a candidate early on and has an impressive résumé: in compiling a 90-42 record that includes six conference titles, he garnered four conference Coach of the Year honors and was a national FCS Coach of the Year finalist five times.
Rocco understands and appreciates Delaware football’s tradition, and he hopes to return the program to national prominence. He has his eyes set first on a conference championship.
“If you’re competing for a conference championship at the CAA level, then you are nationally relevant,” he says. Eight wins would likely get the Hens into the postseason.
The new season begins in Newark on Aug. 31, against Delaware State. While recognizing there are several storylines that will have people talking in the fall—playing defending national FCS champs James Madison (Sept. 30) and Richmond (Oct. 21), both at home—the most important game for Rocco is DSU, “because it’s the next one up on the schedule.”
First Recruiting Class
“Success,” says Rocco, “also comes from identifying, recruiting and developing talent.” He has accomplished that at his other posts, and as a result his teams have won consistently.
At UD, after getting his staff in place, he focused on his first recruitment class, ensuring that the right student-athletes were being brought into the program.
His approach is, first, “to recruit character.” He and his staff look for young people with ambition, who want to succeed both as student-athletes and at life. “We care about our student-athletes as people—about their success on and off the field,” the head coach says.
“They need to be goal-oriented and highly-motivated,” he adds.
He is excited about his inaugural class, announced in late January.
“We recruited extraordinarily well despite a late start and new staff,” he says, noting the process was facilitated by the fact that the coaches themselves were willing to take a big risk on the program. “The families appreciated that,” says Rocco.
Delaware offered scholarships to 15 players; 14 accepted, marking Rocco’s highest success rate to date. Two players who had previously committed to Richmond changed their minds when Rocco left, and followed him to UD.
Rocco’s first group of incoming freshmen includes four wide receivers, a running back, a tight end, a defensive end, a defensive lineman, a defensive back, a linebacker, three offensive linemen and a quarterback.
That group includes offensive lineman Mickey Henry, a Wilmington native out of St. Elizabeth’s, and standout quarterback Nolan Henderson, of two-time Division I state champion Smyrna. The MVP of the annual Blue-Gold Game in June, Henderson holds many state records, including touchdown passes in a career—105.
He adds additional depth at quarterback, following the off-season transfer of J.P. Caruso from Appalachian State. Caruso was expected to compete for the top job with Joe Walker, Delaware’s starting quarterback the past two seasons. Rocco hadn’t decided going into camp in July who his starter would be.
“It’s all about who gives us the best chance to win,” Rocco told The Wilmington News Journal.
Brothers in Arms
Another position where the Hens enjoy some depth is linebacker, thanks in part to brothers Troy and Colby Reeder, former standouts at Salesianum School. Both are former Delaware Defensive Players of the Year—Troy in 2013, Colby in 2015—and were heavily recruited.
Troy Reeder, 22, went to Penn State, where he started at linebacker as a red-shirt freshman, racking up 67 tackles, an interception and a pass breakup.
Colby, 20, followed in the footsteps of their father, former Wing-T fullback Dan Reeder, and enrolled at Delaware. (Dan Reeder is 12th on UD’s career rushing list, with 2,067 yards gained between 1982 and 1984; he later played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
The Reeder brothers were reunited last year when Troy transferred to UD to be with his younger brother. Troy doesn’t regret the decision. He says he and Colby have always been very close and bring out the best in each other. Playing college ball together was something the pair had dreamed of from the time they were little.
Rocco, who himself played linebacker for the Nittany Lions (1979-80) before finishing up at Wake Forest, has high praise for the Reeders.
“They’re doing really exciting work, they’re good role models,” Rocco says. “Troy is exactly what you’re looking for in a football player.”
Troy, a captain of this year’s squad, is excited to be home and starting a new season
“There’s no pressure on the players at all,” he says. “Everyone knows what this team is capable of and that we underachieved last year.”
Colby, who was redshirted his freshman year due to injury, is now healthy and ready to compete for a starting job. “I expect to see significant playing time this year,” he says.
Colby admits to some friendly competition between the brothers in the weight room, but that’s where any sibling rivalry ends. On the field, the more experienced Troy “helps me out a lot, and we work together well,” says Colby.
The Old Guard
For long-time fans, the Reeders may evoke memories of two other well-known Blue Hen brothers—Michael and Joseph Purzycki.
Mike Purzycki (Class of ’67), a standout wide receiver who set multiple records at Delaware, including becoming UD’s first-ever 1,000-career yard receiver, was elected Mayor of Wilmington last November.
Younger brother Joe (Class of ’70), recruited by Tubby Raymond, was an All-America defensive back who recorded a then-record nine interceptions in 1969, his senior year. He returned to UD as a defensive backfield coach under Raymond in 1978, a year before the Hens took the Division II title.
Joe Purzycki was on the search committee that hired Rawak. She, in turn, asked Purzycki, as well as former NFL quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Scott Brunner, for their input when seeking Brock’s replacement.
Rocco says he’s received strong support from Gannon, Brunner, both Purzyckis and others. “They’ve all been great,” he says. “They genuinely care and want what’s best for Delaware.”
Joe Purzycki, whose deep love for UD football is palpable, says of the new head coach, “Rocco is a good fit for UD. He’s cut from the same mold as earlier Delaware coaches. A football coach is who he is.”
Purzycki is impressed with Rocco’s winning record and the turnaround he effected at Richmond. A former college head coach himself (DSU, JMU), Purzycki knows the effort that requires.
Just as impressive, says Purzycki, was that during the search, “everyone who had coached either for or against Rocco over the years had nothing but the highest praise for him.”
“He’s worked for some of the best coaches in the business,” he adds, including former Jets Head Coach Al Groh, and Tom Coughlin, who led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles.
“You can’t be surrounded by such talent and not have some of it rub off on you,” says Purzycki.
If Rocco is feeling any pressure to produce results immediately, he doesn’t let on.
“It’s hard to put a time line on the rebuilding project, but I expect this year’s team to be competitive,” he reaffirms, sounding cautiously optimistic yet enthusiastic about the year ahead.
“You can’t just jam a program into a model and be successful—things need massaging,” he says.
When announcing the hiring in December, Rawak said Rocco’s impact would be felt immediately, but she also recognizes it takes time to build programs. She insists she hasn’t given Rocco a timetable for markedly improved on-the-field performance. But, she says, “When we step on the field, we play to win.”
While acknowledging that the record at the end of the 2107 season will be important, she says she also deeply values the process needed to get to where UD wants to be.
“There is always lots to learn, and the focus is on always getting better,” she says.
For their part, the players—the most important part of the process—are optimistic.
“Something really special is happening,” says Troy Reeder. “The players are buying into [Rocco’s] philosophy of winning each day, one day at a time.”
Blue Hen fans hope the captain is right.