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The Zen of Diaco

Aug 10, 2011, 3:31 PM EDT


Bob Diaco is a tough man to define. He is what a lot of young, former players are: a high energy, whirling dervish of a coach that brings an intensity to the field and a youthful nature that’s makes him someone easy to relate to for players.

He is also the type of coach you’d never expect from someone that looks like Don Draper’s doppelganger. Diaco is a passionate coach, he runs a meeting room like a reverend from his pulpit, and the messages he relays aren’t just about the Xs and Os of football, but on lessons that his players will take with them throughout life.

For a coach that turned a unit that was one of the worst in Notre Dame’s history into a group that played some of the best November football in the country, Diaco hardly received a heroes’ welcome from some members of ND Nation. Most of the ill will stems from the defense’s performance against Navy, when the Irish were undressed by Ricky Dobbs and company, and Kelly and Diaco’s solution for stopping the option was worst than anything Jon Tenuta engineered.

After an overly candid interview with media after Notre Dame’s dispiriting loss to Navy, Diaco came off sounding like a coach that lacked answers — a very bad thing to sound like, especially at Notre Dame. From that point forward, Brian Kelly kept his coordinators off limits to the media, under the auspices that it’d help the do their job.It apparently worked.

To his credit, Diaco let his players do the talking. The Irish defense stiffened, putting together a string of performances that were among the most dominant in the country. While messageboard mongers took to conspiracy theories — Diaco spoke to Lou Holtz, Chuck Martin had taken over, the young defensive coordinator was on his way out the door — Diaco continued to stress the same message to his players, a consistency that helped instill belief in a unit that had suffered a crisis in confidence year after year in November.

Diaco has resumed speaking to the media, but his responses, while always thoughtful, rarely give you much insight into what the Irish are doing on the field to stop an offense. Rather, Diaco has taken to discussing defense in a way that’s philosophical. While you’d expect it out of Phil Jackson, you wouldn’t from a coach that flies around the practice field like the All-Big Ten linebacker he was. While he’s certainly more careful in his word choices, this isn’t just coachspeak from Diaco, but rather the thoughts of a pretty unique guy that’s evolved the Irish’s way of playing defense.

For those looking for a taste of what a Diaco press session looks like, has a great exchange during Diaco’s kickoff with the media for the 2011 season.  Here’s a classic bit between reporter and defensive coordinator:

Reporter: Talk about the confidence among that group of starters especially. They seem to feel like they can be an elite group this year.

Diaco: Well, you’ve got multiple things going on in that question right there. Personal confidence is just a frame of mind. We want our players to have self belief, and really ultimate self belief that’ll create a real persistence to their goals. That’s something that’s a part of our day that we’re working towards, that the players have self belief.

Reporter: Are you confident in them at this point? Let me ask you that?

Diaco: I’m confident that they’re going to come to work every day and really, really want to get better. They’re focused on the things we’ve as a whole unit, players and coaches, because we’re growing together, we’re focused on the things that we believe create great defense and we’re working towards those things.”

Diaco caught grief from his players last season, encapsulated by Darius Fleming, who described some of the obscure ways his defensive coordinator related to his players.

“We’ll just be going to 11 on 11,” Fleming said before the Sun Bowl, “and then he’ll just bring up some kind of story that he feels relates to the topic. But we don’t. So we’ll just go along with it. Just like ‘yeah, yeah, that’s really good coach.’

“I mean, he’ll talk about turtles. He’ll talk about scorpions. I think he might have read a lot of books when he was younger or something like that. But he’s always got a story for something.”

The story Diaco was referencing was a fable about the scorpion and the turtle, an allegory that tells of a scorpion that asks a turtle for a ride across a river. While the turtle is afraid to give the dangerous scorpion a ride, in fear that he may sting him and die, the scorpion convinces him otherwise, only to sting him halfway across the river, dooming them both. Dating back centuries, the fable illustrates that some behavior is irrepressible, and you can’t fight the character of who you are. (Wikipedia also mentions that the fable sometimes ends with “it is better that we should both perish than that my enemy should live.” So Diaco’s got that angle going for him as well.)

It’s teaching points like that one that make Diaco a different kind of defensive coordinator. Earlier in the week, Diaco looked to Gandhi when he talked about what he took away from last season as he looks to his second with the Irish.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort, to paraphrase. So we’re interested in focusing on full effort, and that becomes tough, cause there’s a lot of questions, and everybody’s asking a lot of questions. So there needs to be installation. There needs to be a refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow. So I’d say that focus intensified is something that we need to move forward with.”

For some skeptics, regardless of what Gandhi said, true victory will only come when Diaco’s troops stop a Navy option attack that marked one of the worst Saturday’s in Diaco’s career. While that Saturday certainly matters to Diaco as well, it’s clear that he and his defense have looked to much deeper places for the answers.


  1. ndtod - Aug 10, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    This guy indeed remains a mystery. ND can recruit offensive stars and Kelly is more than capable of putting together a unit that can score points. We know this. I think this season’s success is riding on Diaco and his D. Can he teach Manti when to stay home? Can he develop Darius into the player we all know he can be? Can we eliminate the 3rd and 9 embarassing total coverage breakdowns? The Zenmaster has his work cut out for him but something tells me he will do it. And look out if he does. This team could be special.

  2. jpwills19 - Aug 10, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Deep, very deep. Too deep, in fact, for me to digest in the short time over lunch I have to read these posts. Sounds like an OK strategy to me, though.

  3. smurphdoggy29 - Aug 10, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    Coach Diaco had never in his existence faced the horror that is the Flexbone Option Offense. Now one must admit a team needs the personnel in order to make this offense truly feared. In recent years under Johnson the Midshipmen have been becoming proficient at this scheme, piling up success along the way, which continued recently culminating in the complete dismantling last Fall. Diaco, Kelly. et. al. were walking into a gun fight carrying a butter knife, and no one knew it. Custer had better odds. Never having experienced this phenomenon before the results shouldn’t be surprising, what is heartening for all concerned though is this: Army. When the defense played against Army you could clearly see Diaco and Company had done their homework, you even see a hint of extra adrenalin in the players actions during their play, as though they were working out their frustration from the past humiliation.

    No matter the outcome of that learning experience, one thing is concrete, the game flourish at the end of 2010, and that there are now no types of offense these Coaches haven’t seen, and thus will be prepared for. Leading to a sense that defensively they will always be in the game and ready to do their best.

    Diaco, sly like a Fox.

    • bernhtp - Aug 10, 2011 at 5:49 PM

      I expect anger and retribution for Navy this year. The Irish D will remember the humiliation and come prepared to return it, in spades. While I expect ND to be far better prepared schematically, as they were for Army, I also expect them to emotionally exert their size and athleticism emphatically.

      • kappy32 - Aug 11, 2011 at 12:49 AM

        Do you really talk like that or are you just attempting to sound smart while cOmmenting on a blog?

  4. tlndma - Aug 10, 2011 at 7:01 PM

    We need great intelligence like Ghandi, more speed than the Turtle and the tenacity of the Scorpion.

  5. bgnd91 - Aug 11, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    I bet ol’ Bobby would be one hell of a guy to kick back and have a brew or two with.

  6. 1historian - Aug 11, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    For Diaco, as it was for his boss, last year was a learning year.

    This year will be payback year – some debts will be paid. Especially Stanford – the last game of the year. Last season Stanford gave us a a butt-whipping on OUR turf while their loudmouthed (but good) coach egged them on. Kelly won’t have to motivate the players – NO ONE will need to do that.

    This will also be the year that we regain respect, which we seem to have lost over the last 10 years or so from the college football community.

    Once payback has been extracted, once respect has been regained, then follows fear, as in – oh s..t! Notre Dame is coming to town next week!

    I can’t wait!!

  7. pwt3 - Aug 11, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they shut out Navy and/or Air Force. Army obviously is not at the level of those two teams, but still, once they adjusted (after the initial 90+ possession), Army gained something like 1 first down the rest of the night. It’s just a matter of putting the superior athletes (and they’re now even more superior) in the best position.

    Plus there will be real anger against Navy. I expect a dismantling. Stanford will be tougher, Luck is Luck, but I think by then the teams may be going in opposite directions. A full season without Harbaugh and the coaches he took with them may have taken its toll by then. And we’ll be one season more seasoned under Kelly and Co. – which may be enough. Because that wasn’t the ass-kicking people seem to think it was. It fell apart altogether in a sequence rather late in the game. Going into the 4th we had played them even in most of the statistics and were trailing by 10 I think.

  8. gtizzo - Aug 11, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    Navy without Ricky Dobbs will be much easier to deal with then Air Force. The Falcons have something to prove this season that they almost did last season with a 27-24 loss to Oklahoma. They were 2nd on the ground last season and they play the ND the week before USC comes to town.

  9. papadec - Aug 11, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    ND plays AF on 10/8, then usc on 10/22. They have two weeks to get ready for usc.

  10. ccad05 - Aug 11, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    @1historian……….DAMN I HOPE YOU’RE RIGHT!!! I’ve been in south bend my entire life and ya been a long time since I’ve heard this much talk from people around here. Hotels are booked solid once again and campus Is already buzzing. The bookstore has been packed full of folks from out of town just to get their hands on this years “shirt.” expectations are high. Navy’s gonna get an ass whipping like the holtz days and *#%*^#!* anything Michigan or Michigan st. the good times are back in 23 days!!! GO IRISH!!!!!

  11. sharptux44 - Aug 12, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    I have been a fan since as long as i can remember. And it shouldn’t be a surprise coming from an Irish Catholic from northern indy. i have the pictures of me and my second birthday with chocolate cake on my face and a notre dame sweatshirt on to prove my fanhood. These past few years, the ones with Cheeseburger Charlie at the helm, were appalling! The moment that I knew that good ole front butt wasn’t right for the job is during his final game versus Stanford when he ordered his defense to let Toby Gerhert score so that he could put the game in Jimmy Clausen’s hands. Do you think that Bobby D would have let that fat SOB just saunter into the endzone like Gilbert Grape’s momma to the front of the chow line? I think not! And stop me if I’m talking crazy talk but last season with the game against Utah, I felt something I haven’t felt since the Holtz era. When they got the blocked punt returned for the touchdown, I felt the echos! They didn’t quite wake up, but they chucked the alarm clock against the wall in anger. This is why I’m HIGH on the boys in blue! UP WITH OLD ND and DOWN WITH MICHIGAN AND THERE VERSION OF CHEESEBURGER CHARLIE, BRADY HOKE!!!

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