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Football: Reunion in South Bend

Bill Brink | Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Without knowing it yet, Bob Diaco might have already endeared himself to those who follow his new football team.

When discussing the practice philosophy of addressing fundamentals, he listed those that were important.

“Blocking, tackling, block destruction,” he listed. He paused, then continued, “Tackling …”
He’ll fit right in.

Diaco takes over the position of defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach. He coached with Irish coach Brian Kelly at Cincinnati in 2009 and at Central Michigan in 2005.

“We have along-standing relationship in this business, and I think we all know how important playing good defense is to winning football games,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t be more excited, more confident in our ability to play championship defense here at Notre Dame.”

It’s no surprise that Diaco, a Butkus Award finalist at Iowa in 1995, would know a thing or two about tackling. Diaco oozes passion for the game as he talks, expounding at length on defensive philosophies and teaching styles. He uses the words “passion” and “love” to describe the manner in which he coaches and, using St. Augustine, explains that he knows no other way.

“‘With love and diligence anything is possible,'” he quoted. “And that’s present in coaching and teaching every single day.

“My development includes being treated appropriately. I loved my coaches because they treated me wonderfully. … The language isn’t even in my head not to do this.”

The language that is in his head comes largely from Kelly, whom Diaco said he would follow anywhere.

“There’s not a better guy in America to work for, for me, than Brian Kelly,” he said.
Diaco started his coaching career at Iowa after graduation as a graduate assistant. He moved to Western Illinois, where he coached the running backs and special teams, before going to Eastern Michigan from 2001 to 2004. In 2005 he joined Kelly at Central Michigan for a year before going to Virginia, where he learned what he called the “true” 3-4 defense under Al Groh.

But he wanted the freedom to teach that Kelly provided, so he rejoined Kelly in Cincinnati in 2009.

“To be able to work with coach Kelly and be allowed to implement and work and teach, that’s what it’s about,” he said.

His defense had success last season, finishing in the top 10 in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. It also had its share of challenges: in the final five games, the defense gave up an average of 39.4 points per game, including 45 to Connecticut, 44 to Pittsburgh and 51 in a Sugar Bowl loss to Florida.

He also has to deal with Kelly’s quick-strike offense, which ranked dead last in time of possession last season and put his defense on the field for a large chunk of the game.
He’s fine with it.

“At the end of the game, we have one more point than them, awesome,” Diaco said. “It’s really how the game is put together and conducted to win the game.”

Diaco said he hasn’t gotten much of a chance to look at his personnel because he has focused on locking up the recruiting class and the players are going through strength and conditioning. But once he does start working with them, his style will stay the same as it has.

“The core principles for playing great defense don’t change wherever you are, wherever you’re at and whatever the previous defensive circumstances were,” he said.

That includes tackling, Notre Dame’s Achilles’ heel this season. Diaco said he and Kelly will work on tackling every day, because it needs to be worked every day. First, it takes players with the ability to make open-field tackles, he said. The up-tempo practice style, he said, helps defenders swarm to the ball and cut off angles. Finally, Kelly and Diaco have a variety of drills ranging from T-shirts and shorts to full pads.

“Coach Kelly will tee it up and we’ll go live,” he said.

The challenges facing Diaco and Notre Dame’s defense fall right into Diaco’s comfort zone, if you are to believe his body language. Whenever he speaks about football, he leans forward, his slate-blue eyes wide and excited as he explains his motivation.

“I love, love, love, always have, teaching young men, helping them become productive men through football,” he said. “That’s really it for me. What has me hit my two feet on the floor running every morning and go as long and hard as I possibly can is to try to help a young man become a man through football.”