When Frank Broyles and his selection committee set out to rightfully honor the very best in assistant coaches, they had probably never heard of Bob Diaco. At the time, Diaco was a young man just completing a college football career at Iowa, playing for the legendary Hayden Fry.
Yet even as a two-time All-Big Ten linebacker, a team captain, and a co-MVP, Diaco had the heart of a coach. He understood how special football was, from the on-field battles, the strategy, and the communal relationships. He showed up in a shirt and tie his first day as a Hawkeye. He battled through injuries and ups and downs at Iowa, but never lost the determination that still shows through today.
Diaco’s journey to the Broyles Award, given to college football’s best assistant coach, hasn’t been an easy one. At Notre Dame, many doubted Kelly’s choice for defensive coordinator, wondering if he was even the best choice for the job on Kelly’s own staff. Those doubts turned vocal after Diaco’s defense gave up 367 rushing yards to Navy in his first season, the low-water mark for the Irish defense in the Brian Kelly era.
Yet Diaco has stuck to his plan. Just as importantly, he’s continued to build Notre Dame’s defense. With boundless enthusiasm and energy, Diaco had set out unabashedly to build the best defense in America, a goal that seemed laughable at the time. But three seasons later, Diaco achieved his goal, with the Irish leading the nation in scoring defense, the ultimate measure of the unit.
A year after being a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, Diaco was selected its winner this year, just another one of the spoils that have come along with Notre Dame’s 12-0 season. And in earning the achievement, Diaco was awarded not just for his job well done on the sidelines, but for his near perfect fit at Notre Dame.
As Diaco’s name continues to circulate as colleges fill their head coaching vacancies, that factor isn’t lost on Diaco, nor his boss, Brian Kelly.
“It doesn’t surprise me if they wanted to talk to Bob Diaco. I think he’s the finest defensive coordinator in the country,” Kelly said last week.
Yet Kelly also understands Diaco’s role at Notre Dame, and the almost perfect marriage Diaco has with the school, his faith, and the players he continues to passionately recruit to South Bend. So much so, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach referenced the school’s mission statement during his acceptance speech.
“It’s very interesting that the final line of their mission statement at the university, ‘Notre Dame pursues its objectives through the formation of an authentic human community, graced by the spirit of Christ.’ And that’s what they get done,” Diaco said when he accepted the award.
“The players at Notre Dame chose Notre Dame because they expect excellence. They’re achievement oriented. And they go to class. So they go to four or five classes in the day. And those classes are pretty dynamic, you’ve probably got a pretty good picture of what a class at Notre Dame looks like. So then at the end of the day, he’s coming to my class. So you better have your bar set real high. Because I’ve got to put on the best class of the day. Because they’re looking at you and they’re expecting it.”
As Notre Dame fought the noble battle of doing things right in the classroom while trying to battle the best in college football, it was easy for skeptics to scoff at one of the game’s relics, fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle. But now that Notre Dame has all but done the impossible — leading the country in graduation rate, while also ranking atop the sport on the field — it’s forced other schools to take a hard look at how they go about their business.
But that’s all been part of Diaco’s mission. And he’s openly stated that there’s more to his job than just playing great defense and winning football games. And that’s what made him so grateful for Broyles Award.
“Just trying to serve,” Diaco said, telling the assembled group about one of his life tenants. “I’m just trying to be the best servant that I can possibly be. And that’s why this award is so special to me, personally. It’s acknowledging the fact of a job well done to being a servant.”
Special thanks to the Broyles Award and Jason Brown for making Diaco’s acceptance speech available.