Change has been smooth for UAlbany football team

Transition from Ford to Gattuso at UAlbany smooth

Promises, promises.

Bob Ford was getting the business all day on Saturday, from former players who were told 20, 25 years ago that if they came to UAlbany to play football, eventually they’d be rewarded with a big new stadium to replace University Field.

Most of them never did; they don’t hold it against their former mentor, as beloved a sports figure the Capital Region has ever known.

Greg Gattuso made a promise, too, that he would do whatever he could to carry on Ford’s mountainous legacy to the best of his ability.

Eventually, he did, with a 27-17 win over Stony Brook that polished off a 7-5 season in his debut here that represented a six-victory turnaround from Ford’s last of 44 seasons in 2013.

It also bodes well for the future of the program, especially in light of the fact that what could’ve been a tricky coaching transition went as smoothly as anyone could’ve hoped.

The Great Danes will lose an important senior class, led by players at two crucial positions, quarterback Will Fiacchi and running back Omar Osbourne.

Gattuso also said there are some holes in a few of the classes, talent-wise, and the rugged Colonial Athletic Association won’t be getting any less so anytime soon.

But UAlbany has a dynamite stadium, Bob Ford Field, with plans for more additions and renovations. They’ll be fully funded for the Football Championship Subdivision maximum of 63 scholarships next year, and Gattuso and his staff have proven to be adept at squeezing what they could out of what they inherited.

“A six-game turnaround is tremendous,” Gattuso said. “I’m excited about the foundation that’s been laid here and to build on top of it.”

“They’re in great hands with coach Gattuso,” Osbourne said. “You can see how he turned around the program, and he has high expectations for these guys.”

One of the first steps was winning over not only a team that had been recruited by Ford, but a program that had thrived under him for over four decades.

That’s the kind of institutional identity that doesn’t always react favorably — or at least not quickly — to new faces and new ways of doing things.

Gattuso circumvented that problem by pretty much not being hellbent on flipping everything upside down just to put his immediate stamp on the team.

“The hardest thing is when a coach comes in and wants to change everything, they want to change uniforms, change how they do routines, everything. And I guess that’s tempting,” Gattuso said. “But we’ve tried to limit that as much as possible.

“You have different people, but it’s still the same fundamental core concepts of football. I’m old-school. I’m sure Bob believes in the same kind of things. We’re different people, but the things we want from the kids and what we’re trying to accomplish here with the players is very similar. There’s been changes, but they haven’t been change for change sake.”

That said, there’s always going to be uncertainty about winning over the outgoing senior class, which is in a position where they want to go out in a blaze of glory, but may not fit in with what the new coach’s goals are.

“We’ve been with coach Ford for four years and have such a tight bond with him,” Fiacchi said. “Transition is always tough, but coach Gattuso did a great job. The coaches he brought in are good people, not just great coaches. And the senior class, we were able to get people on board and make sure we were moving in the right direction as a group.”

Because Gattuso relied so heavily on the seniors to win games, it’ll be interesting to see who fills some of the holes left behind.

And the CAA ain’t getting any easier.

The Great Danes won the games they were supposed to, then came back to reality when the schedule toughened up in the second half of the season.

They finished just below the middle of the pack.

Getting from the bottom half to the top half will take a few years.

“There are three things you can do, outrecruit, outcoach and outdevelop players once you get them in there,” Ford said. “We can’t outrecruit Villanova. Or Delaware, or Richmond. You just can’t do it. There might be some teams that we outcoach, but there may be some that we can outdevelop, just through great coaches and a strength program.”

One thing that could help the program and also sell it to the general community a little more is to bolster the non-conference schedule, something Gattuso hinted at after the Stony Brook win.

In the meantime, things look promising on Western Avenue, where the Great Danes have a terrific 8,500-seat stadium with Bob Ford’s name on it and Greg Gattuso’s promise, in more subtle ways, inside it.

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