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- American football player and coach
In six months, Danny Rocco has gone from Coach of the Year to former coach.
Rocco was fired as University of Delaware football coach Monday morning, sources close to the program told Delaware Online/The News Journal.
Rocco had been scheduled to meet with UD athletic director Chrissi Rawak. He's the first head coach she hired and has now dismissed since her May 2016, arrival at Delaware.
A 1 p.m. UD press release confirmed the move.
“Coach Rocco has been a great leader of the young men in our football program and created a strong team culture in his time at Delaware," Rawak said in that announcement. "He was committed to our student-athletes' holistic experience and developed a solid foundation.
"The decision to make a coaching change came down to the expectations we have for winning championships year in and year out at Delaware. I believe this is the right time for us to bring in new leadership that will deliver these championship experiences on and off the field.”
Rocco was 31-23 overall and 20-16 in Colonial Athletic Association games in five seasons as Delaware coach. His 2018 and 2021 (spring) teams reached the NCAA playoffs, with the latter going to the FCS semifinals in a 7-1 season.
Rocco was 2021 spring CAA Coach of the Year and third in the voting for the Eddie Robinson Award as FCS national Coach of the Year.
But Delaware slumped to 5-6 this fall, losing five of its last seven after spring first-team All-CAA quarterback Nolan Henderson suffered a season-ending abdominal/pelvic injury that required surgery.
Rawak reiterated her themes in an afternoon press conference where she praised Rocco. But she added that "the expectation that we have here at Delaware for winning championships year in and year out, at the conference level and at the national level, is real."
Added Rawak: "Those were things that we fell short on in the five years that Danny was here."
She later specifically mentioned the Blue Hens' 1-7 record against rivals Villanova and James Madison.
"That's just not OK," she said.
Rocco signed a five-year contract when he was hired at Delaware after the 2016 season. He was extended one year, through the 2022 season, due to COVID-19.
According to the university’s latest tax filings, Rocco had $588,198 in annual earnings, including nontaxable benefits and deferred compensation, in 2019. Rawak said Rocco accepted a final financial severance package paid from UD's operating budget.
"I would hire Danny again," she said.
Attempts to reach Rocco were unsuccessful. Rawak called his reaction "incredibly disappointed . . . and sad." Players also took the news hard, she said, adding "they loved playing for coach Rocco."
“The news really caught me off guard,” said Blue Hens linebacker Johnny Buchanan. “Coach Rocco is a great coach and an even better man. He lived and breathed Delaware football. Whoever lands coach Rocco will be very lucky and win a lot of football games. I will miss playing for him very much.”
Assistant coaches remain on staff until a new coach is hired and can decide whom he may want to retain. Delaware has also contacted the nine Class of 2022 high school prospects who have verbally committed to Delaware to say those commitments will be honored by the incoming coach.
Recent Delaware football coaches
William D. Murray (1940-50) 49-16-2 (.747)
David M. Nelson (1951-65) 84-42-2 (.664)
Harold R. “Tubby” Raymond (1966-01) 300-119-3 (.714)
K.C. Keeler (2002-12) 86-52 (.623)
Dave Brock (2013-16) 19-22 (.463)
Dennis Dottin-Carter (2016) 2-3 (.400)
Danny Rocco (2017-2021) 31-23 (.574)
Rawak said the move wasn't to stem possible player departures, as linebacker Colby Reeder, the Salesianum graduate, entered the transfer portal prior to Rocco's dismissal and some others were expected to follow. Rawak met with the team Monday as well.
Rocco, 61, is 121-65 in 16 seasons as a head coach. His only two losing records have come the last two falls – 2019 (5-7) and 2021 (5-6) – as Delaware coach.
He was 47-20 in six seasons as Liberty coach from 2006-11. He then moved to Delaware’s CAA rival Richmond, guiding the Spiders to a 43-22 record and three FCS playoff appearances, including a 2015 semifinal berth, from 2012-16.
Rocco was hired as Delaware coach Dec. 14, 2016. Dave Brock had been fired midway through the 2016 season and replaced on an interim basis by Dennis Dottin-Carter.
The 2017 Blue Hens were in position to earn an NCAA Tournament berth but suffered late-season losses at Towson 18-17 and Villanova 28-7 to finish 7-4. They were nosed out of the final at-large berth by league rival New Hampshire.
In 2018, Delaware lost its last two games, to Stony Brook 17-13 and Villanova 42-21, to finish 7-4 but this time did make the FCS tourney field for the first time since 2010. Delaware was sent to CAA rival James Madison and lost a 20-6 first-round game to finish 7-5.
Having to replace a veteran defense, Delaware played a young team and also switched quarterbacks – going from 2018 starter Pat Kehoe to Henderson – during 2019 and went 5-7, getting blown out 55-33 in the finale at Villanova.
After COVID-19 forced the 2020 season to be repositioned to the spring of 2021, Delaware returned to old form.
The Blue Hens ended their 8-game losing streak against Villanova, won the CAA title and made their deepest NCAA playoff run since 2010, going to the semifinals before losing at South Dakota State. It seemed a sign Delaware had returned to national prominence.
However, the Blue Hens were not able to maintain that momentum in the fall, with back-to-back mistake-plagued losses at Rhode Island and Stony Brook in October undermining their hopes. Delaware also went six straight games scoring 20 or fewer points, which hadn’t happened since the first six games of the 2-6-1 1960 season.
Losses at Richmond and to Villanova in the last two games saddled Delaware with its eighth losing season since 2001.
The head coaching job will be quite appealing. Delaware is among the top-three annual spenders nationally in FCS football, with $7.7 million in expenses for 2019-20, according to U.S. Department of Education Equity in Athletics data. Annual leader James Madison is moving to the FBS Sun Belt Conference.
The recently opened Whitney Athletic Center and Delaware Field House indoor practice setting provide facilities few can match at the FCS level.
A new coach will also have to help reinvigorate UD fans. Home attendance averaged 12,844 in 2021, Delaware’s lowest since 1968 (10,810) and nearly 10,000 below the record 22,280 in 2004.
"Delaware is an incredibly special place," Rawak said when asked what kind of coach she is looking for, "so somebody that really understands the traditions of football and understands what we have here, the talent we have here and is able to really maximize that talent. Somebody that thrives under very high expectations and really applies the pressure versus feels the pressure."
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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Danny Rocco fired as University of Delaware football coach