In the parlance of his profession, Dave Brock admits that he outkicked his coverage when he married the former Karen Crockett in 1996. The University of Delaware’s new head football coach calls his wife “an absolute saint,” adding, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
His work history provides some proof for both those claims. In 17 years, Brock and his family have moved seven times as he climbed the assistant coaching ladder. And as his experience grew, so too did the Brock brood. In six years at Hofstra, Henry, Kate and William were born. Next came Maggie, born during a two-year stay at Temple. Richard came along in the two years at North Carolina. Subsequent stops at Kansas State, Boston College and Rutgers were uneventful, family-size-wise. (Brock left for a better job in every instance except North Carolina, where a new coach let him go.)
Now he’s at UD, and Brock, his family, and every Blue Hen fan are hoping this job—his first as a head coach—will be the longest-lasting and most successful move of his rather peripatetic career.
If history is an indicator, he should be here for quite a while. Since 1940, Delaware has had just four head coaches: Bill Murray, Dave Nelson, Harold “Tubby” Raymond and K.C. Keeler. Murray, Nelson and Raymond are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. (Georgia Tech is the only other school to place three consecutive coaches into the Hall.) Keeler met a different fate. After 11 seasons, he was fired on Jan. 7, becoming what is believed to be the only head football coach in UD history to be let go.
The announcement by new Athletic Director Eric Ziady shocked most fans. Which is not to say all were unhappy with the decision. Keeler amassed a record of 86-52 and took the team to three FCS (Football Championship Series) title games—winning one —but the former Blue Hen linebacker ran what more than one fan saw as a vanilla and predictable offense and a bend-but-don’t-break defense. And last year’s team went 5-6, ending with another loss to archrival Villanova by a lopsided 41-10 score.
Fan support had fallen off. Home attendance dropped from 20,684 in 2010 to 19,018 in 2011 and 18,542 last season, the lowest figure since 1997.
Ziady, who was senior associate director of athletics for business operations at Boston College before coming to UD, said that soon after his arrival on Nov. 1, he “sensed” issues with the program’s direction, and his concerns grew as he conducted an evaluation. He emphasized that no improprieties or NCAA violations contributed to the firing.
While praising Keeler’s achievements and saying he was “part of some of the greatest moments in the program’s history as a player and as a coach,” the AD added: “But sometimes, you just need a new direction.” In an interview in May, he said there were “a number of issues” that influenced his decision, and “the direction of our program was not a direction I wanted to continue going in.”
In a statement immediately after he was fired, Keeler took the high road. After saying he was “tremendously disappointed and obviously disagree with the decision,” he thanked the university for giving him his “dream job,” adding: “Delaware was truly like family to me. I wish the university the best going forward. I am a proud Blue Hen and always will be.”
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Delaware’s reputation is among the best in I-AA football, and it has been enhanced by UD alumnus and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s success in this year’s Super Bowl, not to mention Vice President Joe Biden’s high-profile support for his alma mater. So there were plenty of applicants to succeed Keeler. But Brock stood out, according to Ziady, who knew the coach from their days at Boston College.
In announcing the hiring, Ziady spoke in AD boilerplate: “In the end, it was clear that Dave Brock has the character, the experience, the passion, the recruiting skills, and the leadership qualities that will enable him to lead our program to championships on the field and success off the field.”
The man he chose is a 47-year-old New Jersey native who vaguely resembles Kyle Chandler, the actor who played Coach Eric Taylor on the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” Brock even speaks with a hint of Chandler/Taylor’s southwest twang, despite his Jersey roots.
Recently, he sat in his modest office, its walls still bare, and talked about his new responsibilities. “I think of Delaware as the elite job in the country at the FCS level. Very few programs at any level of football can match the history and the tradition here.”
He cited that tradition, combined with a great academic reputation, a beautiful campus and a strong fan base as “the pieces you need to compete for a national championship.”
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said.
Hired just 11 days after Keeler was fired, Brock moved quickly, bringing in an all-new staff except for two of Keeler’s coaches, and preparing for spring practice.
Although he played linebacker at Ferrum (Va.) College, Brock’s coaching experience has been almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball. He was the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, Kansas State, Temple and Hofstra, and he coached tight ends at Boston College. At North Carolina, he served a year as assistant head coach.
He describes the offense he has installed as “multiple,” but the key word seems to be “aggressive.”
“We’re going to be really, really aggressive; fast, violent,” he says. “We are going to attack people. And that’s the kind of people we’re going to recruit—aggressive people.”
Special teams will be a key. “We’re going to try to block kicks; we’re going to fake kicks; we’re going to try to return kicks [for touchdowns].”
Brock subscribes to the old coaching truism, “It’s not the Xs and Os; it’s the Jimmies and Joes.”
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“We’re going to be much more about the players than the plays,” he says. “We’re going to feature the right players. I don’t think we have a player problem. I think we have enough [good] players.”
Brock and his coaches know that continuing to recruit good players is the key to their success. “I’ve been in some very, very competitive recruiting situations,” he says, “and I’m hoping one of the benefits of that experience is that we’ll have a very good plan on how we can differentiate Delaware from who we’re going to recruit against.”
He says recruiting may proceed at a slower pace than in the past. “I’m going to be very deliberate. I’m going to know something about their families, their circumstances. I’m going to talk to their coaches, to some of the coaches in their league. There’s a lot more to it than watching tape and whether the player is fast or big.
“And we’re going to focus on the guy who wants to be at Delaware. I don’t want the guy who wants to be somewhere other than here.”
While he seems satisfied with his squad’s athletic talent, he has some concern about their academic performance. When he became the head man, the team’s cumulative GPA was 2.35, a number that displeased university officials, including Ziady and President Patrick Harker, and may have figured in Keeler’s exit. Brock made raising the average to 2.67 an immediate goal for the spring term. He chose that number by having a staff member check team GPAs over the past 10 semesters and finding the highest number. Then, at each team meeting, his Power Point presentation included this graphic: “Team Academic Challenge, Spring 2013: 2.67.”
“I wanted to challenge them in the offseason, force them to compete,” he says. “When you’re a competitor and you’re challenged, you respond. It will give me something to judge every player by. That will work for some of them, and it will work against some of them.”
Every year, he says, the team will have “some type of academic goal. Next year we’re going to try for the highest team GPA during the season that we’ve ever had.”
Brock will place a priority on the well-rounded student-athlete. That means achievement not only on the field and in the classroom, but in the community as well. Community service is something the team has done in the past but, he says, it hasn’t received sufficient credit.
“I think the players deserve recognition when they do the right thing. They’re going to get recognition if they don’t do the right thing. That’s not why you do it, but there’s nothing wrong with publicizing it. We should do these activities because we’re very, very fortunate, all of us, and we should be helping people who are less fortunate, whether it’s reading books to school kids or serving at the Sunday Breakfast Mission. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people knowing about it.”
He’s been doing his own community outreach, speaking to various groups, including the Blue Hen Touchdown Club, representatives of fraternities and sororities, and to alumni and fans at Applebee’s locations in Wilmington, Middletown and Rehoboth.
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The new coach has received generally good reviews. Tom Crescenzo, a UD grad, season ticket holder and member of the Touchdown Club, says he was impressed by Brock when he spoke to the club.
“He’s got a lot of football experience, and I like his philosophy, the way he’s talking about handling the kids,” Crescenzo says. “I think he’ll hold them to high standards and a commitment to being a better student, a better athlete, a better citizen. His limitation is he’s never been a head coach, so whether or not he’s going to be able to pull it all together is a question, but I suspect he will. And I think he’ll be more accessible than K.C. was.”
Joe Conaway, a longtime season ticket holder, is hoping to see a more exciting product than the one he and his buddies have watched in recent years. He attributes the drop-off in fan support in part to ticket licensing fees and mediocre performance. The Blue Hens’ record is 31-25 since 2007, when Flacco took them to the national championship game—a 49-21 loss to Appalachian State, but Conaway believes a primary factor was Keeler’s lackluster game plans. “Everybody knew pretty much what they were going to run. I think they would be a pretty easy team to prepare for because they did the same stuff every week.”
Conaway is encouraged by Brock’s aggressive game plan. He likes what he’s heard about the coaching staff’s focus on player grades. “They’re there to get degrees and it appears that may not have been at the top of the list in the last several years.”
A Philadelphia Eagles fan, Conaway sums up his expectations: “I’m hoping Brock has the same effect on Delaware that I’m hoping [new Head Coach Chip] Kelly has on the Eagles. I’m looking for a little excitement.”
Not surprisingly, his coaches are among Brock’s biggest supporters. Sean Devine, the offensive coordinator, worked with his new boss at Boston College. “He’s a tremendous motivator,” says Devine, “and very consistent in what he brings to the table. And he’s a good person. When you have good people, you attract good people.”
Brian Ginn, the wide receivers coach, is one of the two holdovers from Keeler’s staff. He’s been impressed with Brock’s efficient practices. “We hit the field and we’re running. The practice provides the conditioning. Then we wrap it up.”
The players got a taste of Brock’s coaching style this spring. Travis Hawkins, for one, seemed to like it. “He always emphasizes the word ‘attack,’” the senior defensive back said after the spring intrasquad game. “And he’s got all of us on the same page and focused on our goals. I think the future here is very bright with Coach Brock.”
Brock moved to a Newark hotel soon after he was hired, and began putting in his customary 70- to 80-hour work weeks. His wife stayed in Westfield, N.J., awaiting the end of the school year, when she and the children, ranging in age from 6 to 15, would move to Delaware.
Karen Brock understands both the positives and negatives of a nomadic coaching life. “Moving middle school kids away from their friends can be a bummer,” she says. “On the other hand, they have friends all over the country now, and with Facebook and texting, it makes it easier to stay in touch.”
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The Blue Hen faithful are ready to fall in love with her husband, but they want to see results on the field, beginning this month—Aug. 29—in the home opener against Jacksonville.
Brock will do his best to deliver those results, but he knows success is a process, not a one-day event.
“Everyone who comes to the game, they see winning and losing as a three-hour segment on a Saturday afternoon or Thursday night,” says the fifth Delaware head coach in the last 73 years. “I believe winning and losing is the six days and 21 hours you’re not out there [on game day]. Prepare and perform and give great effort and energy—that’s the belief system I have. And that’s what we’re committed to.”
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