Coaches come. Coaches go. That’s life at all levels of athletics, and certainly at the NCAA FCS level, where FBS programs are always lurking to scoop up the next big name in college football. That fact is what makes December 6, 2011 interesting. That day almost two years ago, Liberty lost its Head Coach, not to a big time FBS school but to an in-state FCS program. After six seasons at the helm for the Flames, Danny Rocco packed his bags and headed to the University of Richmond.
Danny Rocco never promised he would be at Liberty forever. He is not Ritchie McKay. Most insightful fans expected him to be lured to the FBS level after an ultimately successful season. Perhaps after a deep playoff run or even a National Championship appearance. That of course, is not what transpired. It is this fact that leaves many Liberty fans feeling less than warm and fuzzy about Rocco. After successfully turning Liberty football into a consistent competitor, some feel the Flames plateaued under Rocco. Liberty never made the playoffs with Rocco in charge, and he left after yet another hollow and disappointing share of the Big South Championship. His offense had become stale, and his defenses had consistently underperformed when it mattered most. With many key players graduating the program, it would be necessary to perform a minor rebuild in 2012.
Perhaps the low point of his Liberty career, his final season included the controversial reinstatement of Asa Chapman, an accused felon on serious drug charges. The apparent desperation of the move had many fans wondering if Rocco had lost sight of Liberty’s mission. This left an even worse taste in the mouths of many fans.
Of course, it is not only when he left, and how he left, but where he went. Almost all Liberty fans would be disappointed, but understanding if Rocco had left for the FBS. While the Flames have FBS aspirations, they are not there yet, and a move to the top level of college football would have to be considered a significant move up. Rocco’s tenure was not without this sort of speculation. Rumors swirled over his tenure that he was heading to Army, Marshall, East Carolina, University of Virginia, and more. However, the move to a fellow FCS school seems like a lateral move, and a bit of a slap in the face. University of Richmond is a small, private institution tucked into the west end of the city. The Spiders have had success at the FCS level, including a National Championship in 2008, and the school possesses tremendous financial resources for an institution of its size. However, Richmond also plays in a relatively small stadium (seats 8,500) and has no aspirations for making the jump to FBS. Moving from a potential giant in Liberty University to University of Richmond just seemed odd to many fans at the time. Combine all of this with what could be interpreted as some less than flattering comments on his way out of the door, and you have the recipe for a little bit of bad blood.
Maybe Rocco did everything he could do at Liberty? The Flames were always one win away from a playoff appearance under his command. Maybe he saw that and knew he had to “get while the gettin’ was good”. Maybe he planned to leave after 2011 all along, knowing he would be losing so many key components after that season? Maybe Richmond was just the best offer he had at that point? Maybe he was being chased out after another disappointing season without a playoff appearance? We will probably never have the answers to these questions, and the details of Rocco’s departure will likely remain fuzzy.
Fast forward to the present. It’s Richmond week. Not only do the players have a chance to prove something to their old Head Coach (we will have more on the players’ viewpoint later this week), but the fans have a chance to get something that any relationship that ends needs. Closure. While Liberty football would not be where it is without Danny Rocco, this is a chance to prove that it is on to bigger and better things now. This is a chance for the entire program to show anyone paying attention that Turner Gill is an upgrade. This is a chance to show that the Flames have a bigger brighter future, and that future is right now. This is a chance for Flames Nation to give Danny the send off we never got to. So pile in your cars, make the short drive Saturday afternoon, scream your lungs out, and be a part of something special. We’ll see you in Richmond.