In coming to coach football at Kansas University, Rob Ianello is returning to what he’s used to and doing it with a different eye.
From 1987 through 2009, Ianello, 46, served as an assistant coach at five schools, including Notre Dame from 2005-09, when he worked under current KU coach Charlie Weis in South Bend, Ind.
During his 20-plus years as an assistant, Ianello was an assistant recruiting coordinator at Alabama, a recruiting coordinator and tight-ends coach at Wisconsin and a wide-receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Arizona and Notre Dame.
He has inherited similar roles at KU, serving as Weis’ recruiting coordinator and wide-receivers coach, but he will approach them with a new mind-set — the return to his roots comes on the heels of a two-year run as the head coach at Akron.
“I think the experiences I had as a head coach allow me to understand the chair the coach sits in and the decisions he has to make every day — better than I ever understood it before,” Ianello said.
Asked if assistant coaches like him spend much of their career thinking they understand what goes into being a head coach, Ianello was honest.
“You do,” he said. “But as an assistant coach, you are inches from that chair but still miles away.”
Ianello was fired at Akron after going 2-22 in two seasons, including a 1-15 mark in conference play. Despite the rough couple of years — Ianello said he believed he was making progress, it just was not showing up in wins — Ianello emerged from the low-profile school in Ohio more prepared than ever to battle with the big boys again. But that feeling did not surface immediately.
“There was a part of me that thought I wasn’t gonna coach next year,” he said. “I was gonna take a year off.”
Enter Weis, an old friend and former colleague who reached out at just the right time. Less than two weeks after being fired by Akron, Ianello received a call from Weis about the opportunity at Kansas. The two talked. Ianello offered his thoughts and functioned as a sounding board for Weis as he kicked around the idea of taking over at Kansas. Right away, Ianello noticed the similarities to his situation at Akron.
“I went into a very tough situation from a discipline and accountability and academic standpoint,” Ianello said of taking over at Akron. “And it took me quite a bit of time to get that under control before I could address the roster and all those things.”
With academics, accountability and discipline serving as the primary obstacles facing Weis’ rebuilding project at Kansas, Ianello jumped off the page as the perfect fit. Similarly, a chance to rejoin Weis and take another stab at what many considered to be a failed attempt at Notre Dame excited Ianello.
“Coming back to work on a staff where I had familiarity with the head coach and I knew him and trusted him, it was too good to pass up,” Ianello said.
With the spark reignited and the perfect opportunity to get back to coaching at his feet, Ianello started his research. He always had heard great things about living in Lawrence and knew a handful of people who had worked at Kansas throughout the years. One of them, former KU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, just happened to be a good friend.
“I had a chance to talk to Eddie over the years, and I knew what they’d done out here,” Ianello said. “When I got involved with this opportunity, I called him and said, ‘Tell me about this, tell me about that.’”
Although Warinner’s role in Lawrence was different than the one Ianello will have, Ianello seems to be following in Warinner’s footsteps in at least one major way — both came to Kansas as part of a coaching staff that faced a giant rebuilding process. Under former KU boss Mark Mangino, Warinner helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl championship and some of the most prolific offensive seasons in school history. Whether the same fate awaits Ianello remains to be seen, but the bounce has already returned to the longtime assistant coach’s step.
“I love coaching,” Ianello said. “I love the interaction with the players. That’s the thing, as the head coach, that you don’t get as much. You don’t get into your (meeting) room with your players, and you don’t get the opportunity to kind of bond with them. So I’m really looking forward to getting back to that. That was always fun for me, and it’s gonna be fun for me again.”