If you want an idea of the relationship forged between defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and his star linebacker Manti Te’o, your best insight wasn’t gleaned from the 45 minutes they spent answering questions asked by the assembled media. It was in the few minutes leading up to the media session, where the coach and player caught up on the previous evening’s events, gabbing like two students in the back of a lecture hall trying to keep their voices beneath the grasp of the conference room microphones.
The two whispered and smiled, recapping a fun night in South Florida, some rare down time before the biggest football game in the life of both coach and player. For Irish fans that have watched Te’o speak weekly with the press, nothing he said today was a surprise. He is, and continues to be, one of the most incredible interviews you’ll ever hear, and a wisdom and maturity beyond his years comes out when he answers even the most mundane of questions. And for those Irish fans that have watched Diaco over the past few seasons do his best with the press, this was a session similar to many others, the young assistant answered every question respectfully, yet gave nothing away in the process.
But the pairing of Diaco and Te’o made one thing abundantly clear: Both coach and player were made for each other.
For the young coordinator, he has a star pupil that mirrors the rare passion and love for the game that the coach possesses. He has a leader that performs like one of the most talented players in the country, but practices like a walk-on at spring tryouts. That type of effort from a star is a coach’s best friend, it’s a beacon that helped turn one of the nation’s worst defenses into the top unit in the country.
For the star linebacker, he found his leader at the perfect time. After a freshman season spent playing on instinct and talent, the last three years were spent learning the game from a man perfectly suited to teach him; a coach that shares his passion for faith, for football, and for family. When Te’o was hit with the personal tragedy that came his way this fall, he leaned as much on Diaco, and what he’s taught him about being a man, as he did anybody else.
“It’s well documented how I feel about Manti,” Diaco said. “For as talented a player he is, which you guys
have all had an opportunity to see over his career, he’s a better person.
“You know, on a day where maybe as a coach you might be feeling a little down or maybe slightly distracted
with the world’s pulls, Manti is easy to see, look at and see his face and immediately be energized.”
That energy pulls both ways, as Diaco — as relentless of a coach as their is in the country — continually fuels the unit that he leads. He’s a demanding leader, no doubt, but also does so in a way that preaches respect and love, words not often found inside the walls of a college football program. In charge of the bond between players in the defensive meeting room, Diaco has built a group that feels more familial than any at Notre Dame defense in recent memory.
“The connection that we have with our coaches is a bond that’s very different. It’s kind of like a family members,” Te’o explained. “We know all their children, their children know us by name. They don’t know us as, ‘Oh, you’re No. 5 or you’re No. 89…’ They know us as ‘Hi, Kap.’ ‘Hi, Manti.’ That’s the bond that we have with our coaches and their families.”
This Irish defense and those well forged bonds will all be tested Monday night by an Alabama team that draws nothing but admiration from both coach and player.
“Their organization led by Coach Saban is so fun to watch from a football purist standpoint,” Diaco said. “As Manti said, we look at those guys and say, hey, we’d love to have them as teammates. We do that.”
Mutual admiration was all around Thursday, with Notre Dame and Alabama players echoing similar thoughts — all said sincerely enough that you didn’t actually think coaches made them do it.
But that’s where we find ourselves, anxiously awaiting undefeated Notre Dame battling defending champion Alabama. That the Irish find themselves here, trading compliments with one of the best programs of the decade, is another head-shaking moment for a program that’s fought its way to the top.
And that wouldn’t have been possible without the pairing of Bob Diaco and Manti Te’o, a star defensive coach and his dazzling pupil.
“I think all of the growth of our team has to do with this man sitting beside me and the rest of our defensive coaches,” Te’o said.