Danny Rocco had spent the previous 16 college football seasons as an FCS head coach when he assumed a much different role in 2022, serving as a defensive analyst at Penn State.
Although former head coaches often recede from the public eye as analysts on large Power 5 staffs, Rocco, who was fired by Delaware after the fall 2021 season despite a national semifinal run and CAA Coach of the Year nod that spring, found his time with the Nittany Lions to be invaluable–and a reminder of what he feels called to do.
“I wasn’t doing kinds of projects that were senseless; they had me doing things that had value, they had me doing things that actually helped me continue to grow and get better,” Rocco told HERO Sports of his work for PSU head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
“And it allowed me to continue to think about what I wanted to do, and who I want to be. And it just kept coming up and up over and over and over again that I want to be a head coach.”
Franklin placed Rocco on multiple committees that led his staff in the tasks and concerns associated with the head coach chair, such as groups for game management and officials relations.
“It just kept resonating over and over and over to me that I kind of needed a team [to head coach],” Rocco said while praising the manner in which PSU used him.
He found that team in VMI last December. The Keydets announced their hiring of Rocco to replace Scott Wachenheim, who resigned in November after 2022’s 1-10 finish.
Rocco and Wachenheim trace their own connection back to 2006, when Rocco had his first season as head coach at Liberty, then an FCS member, and Wachenheim was on staff as offensive coordinator. Rocco went on to name Wachenheim as assistant head coach.
The two have stayed in touch and were especially in contact at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, exchanging thoughts about how each conference might proceed and how each coach might organize his team to comply with health mandates. Rocco was installed at Delaware and Wachenheim was at the helm at VMI.
Those conversations provided background information about VMI’s program, Rocco said.
He may find it handy as he guides VMI through summer into preseason camp. The coaching veteran is clear about the factors differentiating VMI from other jobs but is bullish about the appeal that comes from those challenges.
“First and foremost, VMI attracts a certain kind of individual,” Rocco said, “and it’s an individual that is willing to choose difficult.”
“This is choosing hard. It’s harder here in terms of the demands and expectations.”
Rocco won’t be able to lean on (or into) the transfer portal with nearly as much frequency as many of his rivals due to his squad’s status as a military school with stringent entry requirements and limited precedent for grad school options.
“You got to try to find ways to make things positives that appear to be negative,” Rocco said. “And I think it’s real that we don’t have the access to the portal. That’s challenging, but in the same context, the guys that we have here, are here with purpose. You know, there’s a little more of that pride, that sense of pride.”
Rocco, true to his longtime familiarity with VMI, sees the upside in the Keydets’ circumstances.
“In some ways, VMI is the purest sense of traditionalism, right?” Rocco said, contrasting his program with the year-to-year roster turnover that has escalated throughout Division I with the portal era, NIL’s emergence, and immediate eligibility.
“It’s all based on the history and the shared experience,” he continued. “And you know, does that help you win games? Probably not, you know what I mean? But it does offer a real sense of belonging.”
The winning, Rocco said, starts with evaluation of a roster.
“That’s always been something that we’ve done well. We’ve always prided ourselves in our ability to identify good football players, and then develop them and find ways to retain them,” Rocco said about the need at VMI to evaluate talent while being sure to assess developmental potential and positional versatility.
The charge is a welcome one for Rocco as he reassumes a role as head coach that he’d grown accustomed to and gratified by.
“You gotta practice what you preach, and I’ve always preached and communicated the importance of being resilient,” Rocco said in recalling his time away from the top headset. “The importance of sticking to your principles.”
Many of Rocco’s coaching principles he credits to his father, Frank Rocco Sr. Danny played running back and defensive back for Rocco Sr. during the latter’s time as head coach at Fox Chapel Area High School in a Pittsburgh suburb.
“I got in this profession to make an impact on the lives of the people that I come in contact with, the players I coach,” Danny Rocco said.
Rocco drew that inspiration from his father.
“As I got older, and as I’d meet and talk to guys I went to high school with, they would talk about my dad like he was their mentor, the most influential person in their life … My dad, categorically, was in it for the right reasons.”
Rocco, as he embarks on his head-coaching comeback at VMI in a Southern Conference on the upswing, carries that purpose with him.
“I like to say that I got into it for the right reasons [too], and the right reasons was to make a positive influence and impact, create opportunities for people.”