The Zen of Diaco

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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, UND.com 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.