Rob Ianello was sitting with old friends Charlie Weis and Brady Quinn and he couldn’t stop thinking about his mission with the University of Akron.
On vacation last month, the UA football coach attended the star-studded New York City wedding reception for Tim McDonnell, Notre Dame director of football personnel and grandson of the late New York Giants President Wellington Mara.
Except there really is no vacation after the Zips went 1-11 in Ianello’s first season and he’s charged with rebuilding a program and putting together a team that befits its sparkling home at InfoCision Stadium.
So Ianello made the most of his time at the table with former Giants and Browns General Manager Ernie Accorsi, Weis and his wife, Quinn and his girlfriend and a Giants trainer. Ianello managed to turn a night of dining and dancing into a learning experience.
He couldn’t resist picking the brain of Accorsi, who worked with such a diverse group of coaches as Bill Belichick, Bud Carson, Marty Schottenheimer, Tom Coughlin, Jim Fassel and Frank Kush with the Browns, Giants and Baltimore Colts before retiring at the end of the 2006 season.
“Talking with Accorsi, I should have had a notepad. He’s watched coaches coach, told me how they practice,” Ianello said during the Zips’ lunch break at the stadium earlier this month.
But that wasn’t the heart of the matter; pulling the Zips out of their 1-11 hole was. And Accorsi, a history buff, drove home a simple message: Even the great ones struggled at the start.
Accorsi recommended a book, The First Season, about hall of famer Vince Lombardi’s debut with the Green Bay Packers in 1959. Ianello devoured it. Lombardi started off 3-0, lost five consecutive games, then won the last four.
“Thousands of people weren’t pleased when he went 7-5. That wasn’t what they thought it would be like,” Ianello said of Lombardi. “He stuck to his guns during a tough stretch.”
Accorsi gave Ianello other examples of football and basketball coaches who took time to turn things around.
“The joy of studying the great coaches, leaders in any field for that matter, is the lessons they can teach you,” Accorsi said Friday via e-mail. “Most of the great ones — Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith — all endured major adversity before they won big. In the time I spent with Rob Ianello last month, I saw he had a great passion for those studies.
“Usually, you have to go through these kinds of seasons first. Rob had a grasp for that. Noll went 1-13, Walsh 2-14 during their first seasons.”
Duke basketball coach Krzyzewski compiled a 11-14 record his first year at Army in 1976. Smith went 8-9 when he took over the basketball team at North Carolina in 1961-62. Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers were 2-14 and 6-10 before they won the Super Bowl in 1981. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Noll, the NFL’s youngest coach when he was handed the reins in 1969, went 1-13, 5-9 and 6-8 before he became the only coach in the league to win four Super Bowls.
Ianello drank all of this in like a champagne toast.
And this wasn’t the first time he’s sought help from someone outside his sport. A native of Port Chester, N.Y., and a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, Ianello attended college with New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman. In the past, Ianello said, he’s discussed such topics with Cashman as the merits of a sports psychologist.
“What do they do to get all these guys with big contracts to become a team and work in the locker room together and go for this one common goal?’’ Ianello asked. “Things like that you run by people when you get a chance to visit.
“You’re always doing that. You’re always looking for ways to improve on what you do. You can’t ask players to make improvements if the head coach and assistant coaches aren’t looking to make improvements also.”
Ianello believes he’s done that for the 2011 season, which opens Saturday at Ohio State. To improve communication, he’s instituted a 12-member leadership committee, which was voted on by each class and includes five seniors. He’s already brought up issues for them to settle, including what to do when there was no hot water in the locker room during the first week of training camp. (They voted to shower in the cold.)
“I tell the leadership council they own 49 percent, I still own 51 percent. If they want to wear purple socks, the answer is no,” Ianello said.
He’s also making inroads academically. Ianello said he or one of his assistants will drop in on a player’s class occasionally to see where he’s sitting and whether he’s paying attention. He might even speak to the professor. In the spring semester, he said the Zips’ cumulative grade-point average was more than 2.7, their highest in more than five years and “significantly higher” than when he took over.
But some of Ianello’s rules aren’t made to be bent, no matter what the council decides. No hats can be worn indoors, which he pointed out once during a 30-minute interview over lunch.
“My mother never let me wear a hat in the building,” he said.
Besides that, Ianello has four rules.
“Do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it. Do what’s right. Be early for everything. Communicate,” he said. “I think that covers it all.”
This year the Zips have 78 scholarship players out of a potential 85. He went heavy on linemen and quarterbacks with this incoming class of freshmen, transfers and walk-ons, targeting other positions for the 2012 season. He’s still looking for strong leaders to emerge.
But even as he collects information from some of the sports’ elite, Ianello has not radically changed what he set out to do when he got the job in December 2009.
“We had to change the expectation levels,” he said. “In the classroom, off the field, how they practice, how they prepare for a game and what we expect to do on game day. All those things we started from scratch and those things take time to crystallize. They took quite a bit of time.
“If you’re going to stay true … you’re not going to compromise on the principles. The two main principles here are accountability and discipline. I’m not compromising on one to get one or two wins. If you don’t compromise and you stay true to your plan, I know what the end results will be.”
Ianello thinks he knows how the program’s foundation must be built. The wedding reception encounter with Accorsi, while hugely informative, might have served more as the pep talk he needed.
But the next time Ianello socializes in such circles, he’ll probably tuck a notepad into his coat pocket just in case.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.