The CAA Coaching Tree Is A Web Spun With Success And Enduring Legacies

Colonial Athletic Association football kicked off in 2007, but the collective history of its member programs dates back considerably further. The assorted, rich lineages of the Association intersect, as one might expect. But the ways in which the backgrounds of the CAA’s head coaches cross are like a football version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. 

The following explains some of the ties current CAA head coaches have to other programs in the conference—with emphasis on some

There’s even more history one can unfurl, like longtime New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell spending three years at Boston University, a now-defunct program in the CAA forerunner the Yankee Conference. 

Delaware 

Danny Rocco took over at Richmond before the 2012 season and immediately kicked off an impressive, five-year stint with the Spiders that yielded a share of two CAA championships and three FCS Playoffs appearances. Richmond won 10 games in each of Rocco’s final two seasons before he accepted the coaching vacancy at Delaware. 

Last season, Rocco coached the Blue Hens to their first NCAA Playoffs since reaching the national title game at the conclusion of the 2010 season. 

Before flourishing as head coach of two different CAA programs, Rocco spent nearly three decades in roles at FBS power-conference programs like Colorado, Boston College and Texas, as well as a one-year stint in the NFL. 

Though 2012 marked his first time involved with a current CAA program, his travels did pair him, at one time, with an Association rival: In his first head-coaching job at Liberty, the Flames’ chief rival to the Big South Conference crown was current CAA member Stony Brook. 

Elon

Offenses in the CAA feature some of the most explosive talent anywhere in the FCS. Fortunately for Elon, first-year head coach Tony Trisciani came to the program as defensive coordinator in 2017 familiar with the conference’s members’ ability to innovate. 

Trisciani coached at New Hampshire during the Wildcats’ Atlantic 10 Conference days, under the tutelage of UNH’s legendary Sean McDonnell. Trisciani spent two seasons working with running back, one of which was Chip Kelly’s first season as Wildcats offensive coordinator. Trisciani returned to UNH in 2001 after a one-year stint as offensive coordinator at Div. III Alfred State, coaching a defensive back unit that had to face Kelly’s offenses every day in practice. 

No wonder, then, that Trisciani’s defenses as coordinator for Elon were stingy. The coach knows about facing potent offenses. He will work to continue that insight as head coach in 2019. 

Though it’s his first collegiate head-coaching role, Trisciani has had no shortage of mentors from the CAA. In addition to McDonnell, Trisciani spent five seasons on the staff of the great Andy Talley, 2009 national championship-winner at Villanova. He transitioned over to Elon, helping new James Madison coach Curt Cignetti to the Phoenix’s only back-to-back FCS Playoffs appearances in program history. 

James Madison

He’s the son of College Football Hall of Famer Frank Cignetti, a former assistant coach to Nick Saban, and for each of the past four seasons, the head coach of playoff-participating teams in both Div. II and FCS. Now, in 2019, Curt Cignetti takes over at powerhouse James Madison. 

Cignetti replaces new East Carolina coach Mike Houston with some lofty expectations to meet. The Dukes won the 2016 national championship under Houston, and have been to the FCS Playoffs in each of the past five seasons. 

Not many coaches know much about beating James Madison—Cignetti’s an exception. Elon won a 27-24 contest last season that effectively denied the Dukes a share of the CAA crown, and helped propel the Phoenix to their second straight postseason. 

Rhode Island

Longtime former Villanova head coach Andy Talley is a two-time national Coach of the Year, an FCS national champion, and has an impressive coaching tree that accounts for a quarter of the CAA in 2019. 

His well-tenured Villanova assistant, Mark Ferrante, took over there upon Talley’s retirement in 2017. Elon’s Tony Trisciani was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at Elon in the offseason. And at Rhode Island, Jim Fleming begins readies for his sixth season with the Rams coming off one of the most important campaigns in program history. 

The well-traveled Fleming took over at Rhode Island before the 2014 season, at a time when the program’s performance bordered on moribund. The Rams enjoyed some glory days in the early 1980s, but limped to just three winning campaigns from 1986 through 2013 – with the last coming in 2001. 

Fleming’s experience from tenures as an assistant at Boise State (in its Div. I-AA days), North Carolina, Akron, UCF and under Talley at Villanova, as well as a 21-1 spell at Sacred Heart, provided the fuel Rhode Island needed to jump-start its performance. The Rams have seen season-to-season improvement under Fleming, culminating in last year’s 6-5 finish (and 4-4 mark in the CAA). 

Richmond

After an outstanding tenure at Chattanooga, which included FCS Playoffs appearances in each of his final three seasons, Russ Huesman returned to Richmond in 2017. Huesman helped the Spiders to the 2008 national championship as defensive coordinator. 

Before his first run at Richmond, Huesman was familiar with the Spiders from the other end of a historic rivalry. He worked from 1984 through 1997 on the staff of one of the most prominent and influential head coaches in FCS history, Jimmye Laycock. 

Laycock left his post as head coach at William & Mary following last season, his 39th as his alma mater’s coach. For the time in which his illustrious career included Huesman on staff, the Tribe reached their first-ever Div. I-AA Playoffs (1986); reached 10 wins for the first time (1990); and twice reached the Div. I-AA quarterfinals. 

Huesman has a dominating record in the Capital Cup rivalry, whether as a member of the William & Mary or Richmond coaching staff.  The Tribe went 12-2 from 1984 through 1997, including winning nine straight from 1989 through 1997. Flipside, the Spiders went 4-1 in the Capital Cup during Huesman’s time as defensive coordinator. Since his return as head coach, he’s 2-0 against the Tribe—including a 10-6 last year in last year’s edition, which was Laycock’s swan song. 

The Cup highlighted Huesman’s connection between the two programs. 

“He did so much for me and my career. I’m where I am today because of him. I consider him my mentor. He taught me so much as a young football coach,” Huesman said on the CAA conference call in November 2018. “He gave me opportunities every time ... He took care of me for 13 years. I rode his coattails.” 

Stony Brook

Chuck Priore became just the second coach in Stony Brook football history in 2006. In the 13 years following, he’s established a lofty benchmark for the program with appearances in four FCS Playoffs (including each of the last two). 

Stony Brook is Priore’s second head-coaching destination in his football career – he came there from Div. III Trinity in Connecticut, where his teams went undefeated for three consecutive seasons—but it’s his third head-coaching position in total. 

The Albany grad became the running backs coach for his alma mater in 1983, under the tutelage of Great Danes legend Bob Ford. Ford oversaw Albany football for more than four decades, from club status, to Div. III competition, all the way into its first season of CAA membership. 

His finale came against Priore and Stony Brook in 2013, ending a career that included double-duty as lacrosse head coach. Priore took on the same responsibility of leading the Great Danes lacrosse team in 1986, while continuing his role as Albany’s running backs coach. 

William & Mary 

Richmond alum Mike London became head coach at his alma mater in 2008, and immediately won a national championship. His two years overseeing the Spiders helped solidify the national reputation of CAA football in its early days, and he’s back in 2019. 

London replaces legendary Jimmye Laycock at William & Mary this season after tenures as head coach of Virginia and Howard, and a season as an assistant at Maryland. 

“There’s a sense of being in a place that fits all the criteria that you have personally and professionally,” London said via the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Just being in that right place at the right time. This is a perfect fit for me.”

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