Upon being introduced as URI’s 18th head football coach, Darren Rizzi ’92 recalled his days wearing Keaney blue and white. Twenty years ago Rizzi was a walk-on who became an All-American tight end. “I remember talking to my teammates about getting into coaching, and I remember how passionate we were about it,” said Rizzi, who left his position as associate head coach at D-I powerhouse Rutgers to return to Kingston. “I’ve always dreamt about coming back to URI and building the football program into a championship program.”
The story is pure Hollywood—a player comes home to fulfill a lifelong dream of turning his former team around. While some might say that Rizzi is in over his head, he promises to change those perceptions. “Starting today, people’s assumptions about this football program are going to change,” said Rizzi. “There is no such thing as a quick fix; we’re going to lay a foundation for this program to be built on for the future, and when it is built, it will be indestructible.”
Rizzi knows what he’s talking about. He leaves behind a Rutgers football program that ranked amongst the worst in Division I prior to his arrival. He joined former University of Miami defensive coordinator Greg Schiano in the task of rebuilding the Scarlet Knights; the Rutgers team played its third consecutive bowl game on January 6. The Rams, meanwhile, stumbled to a 3-8 season while five of their conference foes advanced to the Football Championship Series playoffs
“I think Rutgers and Rhode Island are a great parallel because of where Rutgers was seven years ago and where Rhode Island is today,” said Rizzi. “It will take a lot of hard work for the staff and I to get guys on campus, but I know I speak for all of the guys I played with when I say that this is a great place to play, a great place to go to school, and a great place to be socially and academically.”
The Rams have had just three winning seasons in 22 years, but Rizzi is confident that the enthusiasm and energy that carried him from a graduate assistantship at Rhode Island in 1993 all the way to Rutgers will make Rhode Island the powerhouse program Athletic Director Thorr Bjorn believes it can be.
“I remember coming in from the snowstorm after my interview, and my wife [the former Tracey A. Murphy ’92] asked me how it went,” Rizzi explained. “I told her that URI had finally made a step in the right direction. Thorr Bjorn’s energy, his enthusiasm, his vision, his goals, and his passion for the University are probably the No. 1 reason why I’m standing here today. I’ve entered into a partnership with him to turn this football program into a championship level football program.”
And then, Rizzi proclaimed to a crowd of URI faculty, staff, players, alumni, boosters, friends and family, “This program will win, will win consistently, and will win championships. I wouldn’t be standing at the podium if I didn’t feel that way.”