Sept. 18, 2013
By: Todd Burlage
When it comes to measuring player and coach relationships in college football, Bob Diaco sets the standard.
Diaco’s ability to create a special and lasting bond with his students-athletes is seldom seen in today’s here-today, gone-tomorrow world of college coaches.
“(Diaco) has really helped me out a ton. Definitely one of the best coaches I have ever had,” says Fox, who along with Calabrese, has worked with Diaco as his position coach for the last four seasons. “I think it has been a great benefit having him coach me that long. You form a relationship with your coach and it makes you a better person and a better player.”
Recognized after last season with the Frank Broyles Award as the best assistant coach in the country – the first Irish coach ever to win the honor – Diaco had plenty of suitors and chances to chase the money and the prestige of a head coach job, with never a look back. But for Diaco, this Irish football program has come too far to just walk away.
Diaco interviewed for several high-profile head coaching jobs following last season’s success, but his loyalty to Brian Kelly, the Irish players, and the entire University of Notre Dame community pulled him back. “I really believe that I have the best job, best assistant coaching job in America,” says Diaco, when asked after last season about returning to South Bend. “I love who I work for, I love where I work, the commitment to the players, and the daily process.”
In an era when more than 80 percent of the 124 FBS Division I college football programs face some sort of coaching turnover each year, Notre Dame was one of only 18 teams to open fall training camp this season with the same coaching staff it finished with in the 2012 season, marking only the second time in the last 27 years an Irish coaching roster has returned fully intact.
The attrition and turnover rate among college coaches was even greater between the 2011 and 2012 campaigns when just 15 schools kept their entire staff intact. Minnesota and Northwestern are the only two programs in the country this year to have kept the same coaching staff together since the start of the 2011 season. And continuity breeds content.
Notre Dame assistant Tony Alford, Kelly’s lone holdover from Charlie Weis’ staff in 2009, said the comfort level between Irish staff members is unmistakable in the meeting room, on the practice field, and especially during game days.
“Familiarity is great for the staff and for our players,” says Alford, whose recruiting skills and coaching versatility make him also one of the most sought-after assistants in the country. “There’s not the anxiety level (among the players) wondering what the coach wants, and how does he want it done. The players know the expectation levels when they walk into the meeting room or any other time we are together. There’s not a whole lot of guesswork involved.”
Kelly’s staff went through some reconstruction and reinvention after the 2011 season when three new assistants were brought in and five other Irish coaches had roles and responsibilities redefined. But compared to almost every other elite program, Notre Dame has faced minimal staff shakeups since Kelly arrived in 2010 – somewhat remarkable after a run to the national title game last season – which has allowed him to keep the course steady and the communication clear.
“(The coaches) know what to expect from each other. It allows your practice to run so effectively because everyone knows what they are looking for,” says Kelly, when asked about the advantages of coaching continuity. “And then the message … when something is said, it is echoed across the board with all the coaches. “When there’s one voice and there’s one message, and that goes across the board all the way down to the players, that’s pretty powerful.”
Diaco, Alford, offensive play caller Chuck Martin and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks all came with Kelly to Notre Dame four seasons ago. Offensive assistant Mike Denbrock and special teams coordinator Scott Booker are all in their fourth season on Kelly’s staff. And, of course, standout strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo and defensive coach Mike Elstonhave been with Kelly for 10 consecutive seasons – three at Central Michigan, three at Cincinnati and now his fourth at Notre Dame.
“We like to keep it all in the family,” Kelly explains about his secret to hiring assistants and building a staff.
Working in their second seasons at Notre Dame, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and safeties coach Bob Elliott are the new-comers on the staff, but both are 30-plus year coaching veterans and considered two of the best in the business at their positions. Kelly said Elliott was brought in, at least in part, because of a familiarity Elliott developed with Diaco and Cooks as their defensive backfield coach at the University of Iowa in the mid 1990s. “Coaching continuity directly impacts your players. There’s an understanding and a shared mentality on the staff and I think that really goes a long way to help the players,” Elliott says. “If you’re always changing coaches, the players get different messages from year to year and it really stunts the development of young players. That’s often overlooked by the people that make such decisions.”
A steady climate also allows everyone from Kelly down to the team managers to hit the ground running at a faster pace to start each season, rather than slowing the process down while players learn the different style, terminology and personality of a new coach.
As an unfortunate example, the fast track to stardom for former Irish defensive lineman Ethan Johnson, may have stalled out both because of injury, and the challenge of playing for three different defensive coordinators with completely unique systems, and for four different position coaches in his four seasons from 2008-11.
“If they know they’re going to get the same message and the vocabulary of teaching,” Elliott says, “it makes the development a whole lot easier for the players.”
This unified vision allows the 11 Irish coaches (including Kelly and Longo) to handle their own responsibilities, with full confidence that the work being done around them is in lockstep with the mission statement Kelly provides at the top.
“We know what needs to be taught and what the expectations are from Coach Kelly’s vantage point,” says Alford. “So now we know what we are running, cut it loose, coach the guys up, we’ve been to that rodeo before.”
Coaching continuity, of course, is impossible to fully control. Almost every top assistant holds aspirations of becoming the boss somewhere someday. But the sideline grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, and oftentimes a job as a coordinator at a top college program is a far better job than the head coach position at a second-tier school, in terms of both money and security.
And before former Oregon coach Chip Kelly became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, his staff remained intact with the Ducks for four seasons, during which time Chip Kelly’s teams won 46 games and secured enough top recruits to turn an isolated program in the Great Northwest into arguably the best one going outside of the Southeastern Conference.
Brian Kelly believes stability in recruiting is another benefit to keeping a staff together year-to-year because relationships become strong, trust is earned, and the uncertainty is eased during this critical decision process for impressionable teenagers.
“Parents are perceptive. They know if they are getting a sales pitch. They know,” Kelly explains. “They go to other camps and they go to other recruiting stops. They know if they are getting sold a bill of goods. They see my staff – and they see the continuity, and they see the connections and the relationships – they see that across the board and know what they’re getting when they come to Notre Dame.”
Attrition is inevitable, and some coaching turnover will always be a welcome byproduct of sustained success. But at least through Kelly’s first four seasons at Notre Dame, the loyalty of his staff to his program has outweighed most personal pursuits, and keeps the message steady while the program keeps moving.