MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Danny Rocco is in love with West Virginia University's football program.
"Absolutely, positively love it, love the traditions and the people, everything about it and have felt that way for a long, long time," said the 49-year-old who went to Fox Chapel High School and is the head coach at Division I-AA Liberty in Lynchburg, Va., West Virginia's opening week opponent Saturday.
"They have the type of following and passion other programs would love to have. One of the neat things, and I want to say this the right way, is it doesn't matter who they play, the fans are not elitists like at some other places. It could be the biggest rivals, or an opponent they don't know anything about and every single fan will be interested in the Mountaineers that week. To me, that is the sign of a program having true fans, when they are there, in those stands, for no matter who it is you play. Morgantown is a special place and that is a special program."
So much of a special program -- and not many people know this -- that Rocco was close to playing football at West Virginia.
All that transpired in the early 1980s.
After two years at Penn State (some as a roommate with quarterback Jeff Hostetler, before he packed up and left State College for Morgantown) Rocco, a linebacker, decided he wanted a change.
"And I was about on Jeff's heels down there to Morgantown, it was close," Rocco said. "I went on a visit, they were on my short list and I loved everything about it, loved what West Virginia had to offer. At the time, though, I just saw Wake Forest as the better fit for me, so I ended up there."
Rocco finished up his playing career at Wake Forest, then immediately went into coaching, securing a graduate assistant position for the Demon Deacons.
Coaching, it seems, was destiny for Rocco. There simply wouldn't be much else he'd get into.
The patriarch of the family, Frank, Sr., is a former head coach at Fox Chapel and assistant under Joe Paterno at Penn State while a brother, Frank, Jr. is a former college assistant and current high school head coach in Virginia. Another brother, Dave, is a high school defensive coordinator in Virginia.
West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart understands how football runs through the Roccos and has known the family for decades.
"Great family," Stewart said. "The Roccos are tremendous people. They are Pittsburgh proud and I'm sure Pittsburgh is very proud of them. Danny and I have been friends a long time and I've admired his dad being a tremendous high school coach and administrator and then he went into the Penn State family. They are all just really good guys."
Twenty-eight years later, and after assistant coaching stops at Wake Forest, Colorado, Tulsa, Boston College, Texas, the New York Jets, Maryland and Virginia, Danny Rocco returns to Morgantown.
The trip Saturday will be much different than the recruiting look-see he took to Morgantown when he was just barely 20 and pondering his future before he settled on Wake Forest. Rocco, in his fourth season leading Liberty -- and in the midst of constructing a magnificent turnaround with the Flames' program -- understands precisely what stands in his team's way at noon Saturday.
"We have to play a mistake-free game, a clean game and every possession needs to be a positive possession, we know that, we know that it is fair to say that we have to probably be near perfect to win," said Rocco, who took a program that was 1-10 in the year prior to his arrival to a team that has won nine consecutive Big South Conference games and two conference titles in a row.
"What happens in games like this is that you have to hope to put yourself in a position to win and, ultimately, be able to make a play or two when it really matters, that decides the game. In a game like this, will your player make the play on the ball thrown up in the air, or will the player from the other team? Will your player make the open field tackle, or will the running back from the other team run around him? Those are the kind of moments, if you put yourself in a position to have a chance, that will decide a game such as this."
Indeed, all games are full of those moments.
Some players have a knack for finding themselves in those moments far more often than others and Rocco understand whom West Virginia will rely on when that play needs made --- 5-foot-8, 175-pound junior mighty mite running back Noel Devine.
While there is a distance in the expanse of skill, speed or some other measureable from a Division I player to a Division I-AA player -- after all, isn't that why a player is at a place like Liberty and not West Virginia? -- when the West Virginia offensive game film flashed on, Rocco was taken aback by Devine.
"Frightening," he said. "He takes the strategy out of the game a little. You only have 11 guys to come up with different concepts and schemes and I have seen where defenses had their 11 guys exactly where they should have been, positioned perfectly, and he cuts back and goes 82 yards for a touchdown and you are just left to say, 'My goodness.'
"He is dynamic, he is fun to watch."
But even with all the admitted admiration Rocco has for West Virginia's program, he doesn't want to get caught up too much in watching. After all, he's coming to Morgantown Saturday with a job to do.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1459. First Published August 30, 2009 4:00 AM