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STORRS, Conn. – UConn's Bob Diaco insists he didn't hire Don Patterson to be his mentor.
The 40-year-old Diaco, who is taking on his first head coaching job after being defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, says he asked his 63-year-old former boss to be his associate head coach because he believes the entire Huskies program can benefit from Patterson's decades of experience. That includes being Hayden Fry's offensive coordinator at Iowa, serving as head coach for a decade at Western Illinois and surviving a battle with cancer.
"I think he's got an incredible perspective, in terms of living life, and forming relationships and the value of different things," Diaco said. "I think he sees things a bit more vividly."
Patterson is happy to share his story, which also includes interviewing in 1998 to become head coach at Connecticut, a job that eventually went to Randy Edsall.
Patterson instead landed at Division I-AA Western Illinois, where he took a chance on Diaco, a former Iowa player he first met as a 16-year-old recruit. He still calls Diaco "Bobby."
"He's just got a passion for a game to begin with, but really a passion for life. I knew when I hired him at Western Illinois, we probably wouldn't get to keep him very long," Patterson said. "The second year we won the conference title and went in the playoffs and at that point he had the opportunity to go (Division) I-A."
Patterson went on to a 63-47 record at Western Illinois, and become the only coach to lead the Leathernecks to a No. 1 ranking. But his life changed in 2008, when he went to the doctor with what he says felt like a piece of popcorn stuck in his throat. It turned out to be cancer of his tonsils.
"I left for 11 months, and about nine of those months you can't do anything. You are literally sustaining your life through a feeding tube," he said. "The doctors told me, 'We are not going to let you die. But the bad news is the treatment is almost going to kill you. But we are not going to let you die.'"
Thirty-five radiation treatments later, he received the news that there was no longer any cancer in his body. He went back to work for a time, but his athletic director told him in 2009 that he would not be allowed to keep his job.
That made him angry.
"I never dreamed of not going back to work," he said. "It's kind of like a football player not getting to play his last game. I wanted to go out on my terms — not on someone else's terms."
He filed a discrimination suit. The sides settled.
Patterson thought his coaching career was over, until Diaco made a phone call to Buffalo's Jeff Quinn. Quinn hired Patterson to be Buffalo's quarterbacks coach, where he was credited with helping develop the star standout, Joe Licata. He figured that's where his story would end.
"Honestly I wasn't looking for another job," he said. "But (Diaco) called up and as I told Jeff Quinn, I said 'Jeff, Bobby needs me more than you do.'"
At UConn, a big part of Patterson's job will be to evaluate three quarterbacks who all have starting experience — Casey Cochran, Chandler Whitmer and Tim Boyle. Diaco said he doesn't believe there is a better man for the job.
"Coach Patterson is the best quarterbacks coach in the country, without a doubt," he said. "He's an expert in quarterback play, and he's been doing it at the highest level since I've been alive."
Patterson said he expects the UConn job will be his last. He told his family this will be the final team they will have to root for. It doesn't bother him. He said he's lived a blessed life — one that has put football in perspective.
He said he plans to pass along the lessons learned from cancer to his UConn players. The important thing, he said, is not to wait to capitalize on the opportunities they are being given.
"You realize every day truly is a gift," he said. "There are no guarantees in life."