(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before this season, Bennett Jackson had to do a report. Every Notre Dame defensive player had to. Bob Diaco, the defensive coordinator, assigned them, and the idea was to prod college kids to absorb and appreciate the struggles of someone they never met.
For Jackson, a junior cornerback, the subject was wrestling great Dan Gable. Gable’s sister was murdered in his family’s home in 1964. Jackson found that Gable moved into his sister’s room after the tragedy, a statement that the evil wouldn’t derail his life. He lost one match in his entire career at Iowa State and won a 1972 Olympic gold medal without surrendering a point.
“It just shows throughout your life you’re going to have hard times,” Jackson said, “but you can’t let those hard times break you as a person.”
What Diaco teaches his constituents burrows deep. The message may be delivered with quirks and sidewinding fables, but it is delivered, and Notre Dame has delivered as a result: The Irish have the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense entering the BCS title game against Alabama, shutting down everyone while opening doors for the 39-year-old orchestrator.
Diaco’s defense ranks in the top 10 nationally in 12 categories. He won the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach. He spoke to Boston College, California and Temple about head coaching vacancies, and how he fared depends on whom you talk to. Regardless, his ascendance seems a matter of when, not if.
So it’s a question of how much of a hurry Diaco is in.
“One, I really believe I have the best assistant coaching job in America,” Diaco said. “I don’t want to change who I work for, and I don’t want to change where I work.
“Number two, the commitment to the players and the daily process and the focus on that now shifts to Alabama. ... It’s an honor to be in the conversation. I’m very proud of that. So I don’t hide or run from that either. But it hasn’t been a problem to manage any of that.”
This would not shock any Notre Dame player who has seen the intensely task-oriented, narrow-focused Diaco toil. The approach doesn’t waver. Hence the first answer any of them gives when asked what about Diaco screams head coach.
“After you come in from a win, you’ll be like, ‘All right, maybe Coach will be loose, practice won’t be as tough,’ “ former Irish linebacker Darius Fleming said. “But, no, every week is the same with him.”
Or as former Irish safety Harrison Smith put it: “He might be the most consistent person I’ve ever met.”
When Brian Kelly needed a defensive coordinator at Central Michigan in 2005, and his strength coach/consigliere Paul Longo mulled over suggestions, it was this work ethic and rapt focus that brought Longo’s mind back to a linebacker he worked with at Iowa.
Diaco helped Central Michigan lead the Mid-American Conference in run defense two years after it was the conference’s worst team in that department.
“Just point him in the right direction, and he’s going to come up with results,” Longo said. “That’s Bob. Bob is going to get it done, one way or another.”
When Notre Dame practices were open for viewing, Diaco was no free-spirited softy in the face of mistakes. But players also appreciated his tact in film sessions: Diaco framed corrections as a teaching moment for the group, not a rebuke of the individual.
That adhered the unit. So the unit bought in.
“I hear people, even on the offense, talking about beliefs on the defensive side,” safety Zeke Motta said.
How long Diaco makes the Irish believe is the issue. He said more opportunities might pop up but he hasn’t “personally heard” from Wisconsin about its head coaching vacancy. So Notre Dame has him for at least one more game, the most important one of all.
Diaco will get to work on that. Whatever happens next, he’ll deal with it next.
“We carry forward the performance from the day before, which each coach and each player has something they need to work on the next day,” Diaco said. “And they go out and do it. And they do it every day. We’ve been doing it every day without fail for the last three years.”