Bob Diaco

Ex-ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco fired at UConn

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Bob Diaco is out as the head coach at UConn after three seasons.

The architect of Brian Kelly’s best defenses at Notre Dame lost his job on Monday afternoon after a 3-9 season, finishing at 11-26 in his three years in Storrs. Diaco’s firing is effective January 2nd, likely a negotiated date as his contract buy-out drops significantly after the new year. Diaco had received a contract extension through 2020 that included a pay raise heading into the season.

The news of Diaco’s firing comes just days after Notre Dame announced the hiring of new coordinator Mike Elko. While there’s absolutely no indication that Diaco would be willing to return to South Bend—or Kelly would pursue a reunion—it’s an eye-opening move as Kelly rebuilds his coaching staff before the new year with a mix of new and familiar faces.

Other than Elko, the timing of the announcement of that rebuilt staff will hopefully be revealed after the recruiting dead period ends right after the new year. Kelly has made no public comments other than those released in written statement following the Elko hire, but did discuss the timeline for coaching moves with Jack Nolan in the latest episode of Inside Notre Dame Football, detailing the next few critical months for both the head coach and his program.

“I’d like to get the staff solidified before the holidays, if we can do that. Maybe that might be a stretch in some instances, but for the most part have that solidified, so nobody is going through the holidays not knowing what their situation is,” Kelly told Jack Nolan.

“Then we get the staff back in here right when recruiting opens back up. Attack the recruiting, finish up—we only have a few spots left in the recruiting. And then get to work on this football team.

“When they get back on campus, it’s going to be pretty exciting, but it’s going to be a great challenge as well. Our football team is going to learn the grind necessary to win games in the fourth quarter and that will be the emphasis.”

Brian Polian has already been reported to have accepted a coaching position, likely special teams coordinator. Former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, who served as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and has served in a variety of off-field roles the past two seasons in South Bend, is rumored to be moving to a coaching role, likely tight ends.

While Elko’s hiring announced, Kelly is still looking for a quarterback coach and potentially an offensive coordinator, though it helps to be reminded that he’s chosen different ways to fill that vacancy—hiring Matt LaFleur to be just the position coach while Mike Sanford was both coordinator and quarterbacks coach. (Chuck Martin held both positions after coaching safeties and coordinating recruiting.)

Whoever is hired, Kelly talked about the task of replacing the offensive, defensive and special teams coordinator in one offseason.

“It’s absolutely critical that you find the right people that recognize the vision that you have and embrace the vision that you have for your program and understand Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We have a uniqueness here at Notre Dame that you need to embrace. And then, they have to be compatible to the things that we want to do on the field.

“I think in all three of those positions, they’re going to make a huge impact. I think we’re going to be able to improve our football team with these three hires and we’re right in the middle of that process, but one that I’m very excited about.”

High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts

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Heading into the season, questions surrounded Notre Dame’s defense. With key starters gone at every position, the strength of Brian Kelly’s previous four teams would need to replace a cast of characters that played a lot of really good football.

Add to that the departure of Bob Diaco, and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not only taking over a depth chart with really limited experience, he’d be teaching that group an entirely new system, a complex scheme that developed over the past 10 years, mostly in the NFL.

Through nine games, the results have been a mixed bag. There have been high-water marks: The first-ever shutout of Michigan.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

There have been struggles: North Carolina’s up-tempo attack and Navy’s triple option. But for the most part, the play of the defense — a group that lost key starters Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell in training camp — has been impressive.

That Notre Dame’s rush defense would rank 38th in the country after losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from the front four (from a defense that finished 71st in the same category in 2013) should have just about every Irish fan jumping for joy. Especially when you look at the youth up front — only Sheldon Day and Justin Utupo are the only upperclassmen (from an eligibility perspective) in the regular rotation.

Even the Irish secondary is holding its own. Playing a man-heavy coverage scheme that’s put in high-leverage situations as VanGorder utilizes multiple blitz looks to get pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has held up. The loss of Russell, expected to be an All-American-caliber player, crushed the depth at cornerback.

Injuries to captain Austin Collinsworth, safety Nicky Baratti, and most recently cornerback Cody Riggs, haven’t helped either. (Also add in the suspension of Eilar Hardy until last week and the likely redshirts of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, two seniors who’ll probably finish their football careers elsewhere in 2015.) Ranked a respectable 61st in the nation, the Irish are giving up 226 yards a game through the air, with their 13 interceptions nearly matching the 14 touchdown catches they’ve allowed.

So what’s been the problem exactly? Why did a team that gave up just 12 points a game through the first five Saturdays of the season turn into a group that’s given up 42 points a game in the next four?

Two critical areas: Sudden Change Defense and Red Zone Defense.

To be clear, this isn’t just a defensive problem. And all the focus on Everett Golson and his turnover struggles have made that abundantly clear. Those turnovers have forced a young group into some high-leverage situations, and when the stakes have been at their highest, VanGorder’s defense just hasn’t been able to get the stops.

Let’s take a closer look at two reasons why the Irish have been giving up more points. After being stout in these two critical areas the past two seasons, Notre Dame’s opponents are cashing in at a far better rate.

 

SUDDEN CHANGE DEFENSE

Our measurement of sudden change defense looks at the drives coming right after a turnover. For simplicity of statistics, we’re counting interception and fumble returns for touchdowns as sudden change scores, another indicator of the shared blame between the offense and defense.

A quick look at the last three seasons shows just how far the Irish are lagging behind in this critical measurement. Through nine games, the Irish have already turned the ball over 19 times, that’s more than last season’s total of 17 and more than the 15 turnovers the Irish had during their 2012 run to the BCS title game.

Just as critically, the Irish’s response to those turnovers has been far worse than the previous two seasons. Notre Dame has given up scores on 12 of those turnovers, with 11 of those coming as touchdowns. In no game has this stat played more prominently than against Arizona State. The 28 points the Irish gave up off of turnovers is the main reason Notre Dame won’t be competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Reaching a conclusion on why this change has occurred would be a lot of guess work. Young personnel could be playing tighter in critical situations. An abundance of scheme might make it difficult to play-call in the immediate aftermath of a turnover.

Practice priorities for VanGorder, who is still likely installing and coaching up the basics, might limit the time this group has for these moments during the week. Or it could just be rotten luck and good execution by the opponent. (That, and there is no defense for a pick six.)

In the moments following the loss to Arizona State, I asked Kelly what the change has been in Sudden Change situations.

“Couldn’t tell you,” the coach replied.

 

Sudden Change Opportunities

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RED ZONE DEFENSE

Where the struggles have been the most obvious are in the red zone. Put simply, once an opponent gets inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line, they’ve scored far more often than in years past. After being among the best defenses in the country the past two seasons in the scoring areas, the exact opposite has taken place this season.

Notre Dame is an awful 97th in traditional red zone defense. That number gets even worse when you look at touchdowns, where the Irish rank 114th in the country.

Again, the reasons for these difficulties are puzzling. Notre Dame’s rush defense is better on whole than it was in 2013, yet that certainly turns inside the 20. And while Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base scheme often gave opponents a little to prevent giving them a lot, once the field shrunk, Diaco’s defense stiffened considerably.

In the red zone, the margin for error drastically drops. Perhaps this is where the learning curve is most distinct. With young players along the defensive front, attacking linebackers still understanding the fundamentals of their responsibilities, and a secondary playing new starters across the board, it doesn’t take long for a mistake to turn into a touchdown.

We’ve heard Kelly continually talk about the need for communication. There’s no doubt that this is one of those places where communication is key. It’s also worth looking at the personnel construct of this unit. After playing large, big-bodied defenders all across the front seven, the 2014 defense is the opposite. Joe Schmidt (and now Nyles Morgan) and Jaylon Smith give up quite a bit of heft to Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace. The freshmen playing along the defensive line won’t be mistaken for Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

Drawing too many conclusions about scheme change or coaching mistakes without taking into full consideration just how different the personnel is between this year and last isn’t necessarily fair. But regardless of the reason, the drop off in the red zone has been startling.

 

Red Zone Defense

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Reaching Conclusions

If anything, looking at the numbers from the past few years should give you greater appreciation of the units the Irish have featured. When put into difficult situations, the defense carried this team — and no time more obvious than in 2012.

Notre Dame’s sudden change defense was as outstanding as their success in the red zone. While limiting their turnovers to just 15 with a first-year quarterback behind center, what the defense did once the offense turned the ball over was nothing short of astounding.

Against Navy, Everett Golson’s first interception was immediately followed by Stephon Tuitt’s fumble-return for a touchdown. Against Michigan, the Irish pushed the Wolverines back 15 yards in three plays before Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal. Golson’s second interception was negated when Manti Te’o picked off Denard Robinson.

You can go on and on.Somehow, Notre Dame’s defense continuously took an opponent’s opportunity at a momentum swing and turned it into one for the Irish. Bennett Jackson picked off a pass after Golson fumbled against Stanford. The Irish forced a punt on another Golson fumble against the Cardinal, only allowing a score because Stanford’s defense put up the seven points after sacking and stripping Golson in the end zone.

That special season continued in the red zone. It was a product of great personnel playing a scheme that demanded — and received — assignment correct football.

Even with Alabama going five-for-five in red zone touchdowns, the Irish finished third in the country in touchdowns allowed in the red zone. Their final regular season numbers were incredible, just eight touchdown in 33 red zone appearances. Numbers like those are a large reason why that defense will go down among the best in school history.

***

There are still four more games in 2014, giving the depleted Irish defense plenty of opportunities to improve in the season’s final quarter. That gives VanGorder and Kelly not just the next three weeks to get better, but the month of bowl preparations, a huge developmental time for a team looking to do even bigger things in 2015.

Next season can wait. For this young group to make progress, they’ll need to do a better job of coming up big in the critical moments.

 

 

Tax returns show Charlie Weis still earning big cash from Notre Dame

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Former athletic director Kevin White‘s 10-year contract extension is the gift that keeps on giving to former Irish head coach Charlie Weis. New federal tax documents show that Weis is still cashing seven-figure checks, with Notre Dame shelling out $2,054,774 over the last fiscal year.

The university is expected to pay Weis three more installments from his apparently guaranteed contract, bringing the grand total of this payout to roughly  $19 million, proof positive that while Dr. White may be one of the most admired administrators in college athletics, the current Duke AD certainly isn’t among the most shrewd.

Also raising eyebrows is the money Brian Kelly received during the same period, in a season where the Irish went to the BCS title game. Kelly’s earnings through Notre Dame came to $1,457,284. That number is likely just a portion of his total income, as head coaches are routinely paid through other entities, like apparel partners, media outlets and other external sources.

Of note, Kelly’s “bonus and incentive compensation” totaled $607,200. That makes sense considering he brought the Irish to the national championship and also managed to have the team ranked as the No. 1 school from certain academic measurements.

Other newsworthy numbers listed in the documents include athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s roughly $1.1 million paycheck. Mens basketball coach Mike Brey earned just over $1.5 million while Muffet McGraw earned just over $1.3 million as the head of the women’s basketball program.

As a private university, Notre Dame isn’t required to file the same paperwork as other public entities, keeping complete compensation structures rather difficult to uncover. But as a non-profit organization, the school files a tax return that includes information about the school’s highest paid employees, and former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was on that list, earning $672,824 before taking the head coaching job at UConn.

Diaco talks UConn, philosophy and leaving Notre Dame

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In case you missed it, former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a guest on Jim Rome’s radio show this afternoon. It was a terrific opportunity for the new head coach of the UConn football team to get a national platform, and Diaco dazzled Rome with some of the things that made him such a favorite of Irish fans.

Rome’s website will have more details, but the interview was a greatest hits for Bobby D, who talked werewolves, energy vampires, the scorpion and the frog, and a few other gems.

But Diaco also talked about his departure from Notre Dame, giving us a good look at a young coach that Brian Kelly called, “the perfect man to lead (the Connecticut) football program into the future.”

Diaco discussed why he thought it was important to return to South Bend, and addressing the defense that he’s run for the past four seasons.

“I’ve been a part of these things in every chair now,” Diaco told Rome. “And the guy that disappears in the darkness, it really kind of goes against all the messages you’ve been trying to talk about up to that point.

“I packed my office in the middle of the day, so I saw everyone and they watched me pack my office and leave the building. I wanted that. I didn’t want to slink away in the middle of the night.  I wanted to look at that team, and the defense specifically, and to look at them and tell them, that I loved them and that they gave me great pride and energy every day and that the messages about life and defending will be true no matter what. And that whatever person replaces Bob Diaco it’s going to be a better circumstance. Coach Kelly is going to improve this program and defense.”

In vintage Diaco fashion, he ended his interview with Rome by reciting a poem that he had the Irish defense memorize, “The Indispensable Man,” by Saxon White Kessinger.

Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego ‘s in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You’re the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining,
Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you’ll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.

If you’ve got a spare 12 minutes, head over to JimRome.com and give the interview a listen.

Bob Diaco accepts the UConn head coaching job

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has accepted the head coaching position at UConn. NBC Sports has confirmed the news that was first reported by CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman. The 2012 Broyles Award winner leaves another huge hole in Brian Kelly’s staff, with both Diaco and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin taking head coaching jobs in the past week.

The 40-year-old New Jersey native joined Brian Kelly at Central Michigan, before leaving to coach under Al Groh at Virginia. Diaco rejoined Kelly at Cincinnati where he coordinated the defense in 2009, before joining the Notre Dame staff in the same position. Diaco was promoted to assistant head coach before the 2012 season.

Under Diaco, the Irish defense has improved dramatically. In 2009, Notre Dame was rated 63rd in scoring defense. They improved to 23rd in the country his first season, improving by nearly a touchdown. The Irish stayed a Top 25 defense in 2011 before the 2012 team became one of the best defenses in school history, giving up just 12.8 points a game.

Even with injuries, the Irish defense finished the regular season ranked 32nd in scoring average, giving up 22.9 points a game. While some detractors tired off Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break coverage schemes and the struggles to create turnovers, Diaco was a key part of transforming an Irish defense that was soft for the better part of a decade before becoming the equivalent of a heavyweight bruiser.

While Diaco’s reputation as a strategist is impressive, where he truly shines is in the locker room. A quick search on Twitter for Irish player reactions lets you know how deeply loved he was by his team. A fiercely intense leader who led with a passion that he demanded from his players, Diaco quickly got buy-in from a team by committing to positive coaching and rebuilding a group with a heavily damaged psyche.

Diaco very nearly left the program after last year’s undefeated regular season. But the timing of leaving his team before they played for the BCS Championship just didn’t sit well with an assistant who preached loyalty above all else.

Diaco takes the reins of a UConn program after Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi turned the job down. CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman reports that Diaco will make $1.5 million a season on a five-year deal.

Brian Kelly will now need to fill two key positions on his staff. Kerry Cooks was promoted to co-defensive coordinator before the 2012 season. Defensive line coach Mike Elston looks to have coordinator chops as well. Even safeties coach Bobby Elliot has a strong reputation and coordinated some elite defenses.

After miraculously keeping the Irish coaching staff together after the 2012 season, Diaco’s departure marks the end of an era. That’s three coordinators under Brian Kelly that have accepted head coaching positions. We’ll find out soon if the Irish head coach can reload as the elite coaches in college football do.