MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- No matter how well his defense has performed. No matter how many high-profile goal-line stops have been made. No matter how close the BCS National Championship Game is.
One nightmare continues to haunt Bob Diaco.
Navy, Oct. 23, 2010. The Meadowlands, in Diaco's native New Jersey.
It would be kind to say the Notre Dame football team's defense was caught with its compression shorts down in that game. Navy's 35-17 spanking of the Irish didn't truly reflect how badly the Notre Dame defense was manhandled and outcoached.
There may have been a moment in that bad dream when it was iffy whether or not Diaco would have been on the plane back to South Bend.
It really was that bad. The Irish got buried alongside Jimmy Hoffa.
Thursday, while basking in the glow of the national center stage and the afterglow of being selected as the Frank Broyles Award winner for college football's top assistant coach, it took 22 minutes into the interview session for the Irish defensive coordinator to be reminded of that dubious day.
"That was like the longest media spell we've ever had to not get the three-year Navy question," Diaco said, lightening up the mood. "That's awesome."
Now, as the principal architect of the most effective defense in the land, Diaco can look back at those humble beginnings and chuckle. That Navy game, and throw in Tulsa the next week for good measure, was ground zero.
From hence, the Phoenix rose.
"The fact that we're here in South Beach and we're about to play (for) the national championship (against Alabama Jan. 7) speaks for itself," said Irish linebacker Manti Te'o. "We played a hard game in The Meadowlands against a real good team and we experienced some growing pains. All the growth of our team has to do with (Diaco) and the rest of our defensive coaches.
"A lot of people ask, 'what's different?' The players haven't changed (for the most part). It's the coaches. I'm the same person (then) that I am here. What makes us different is understanding what our coaches' expectations are. Our coaches don't just tell us to go from Point A to Point B. They tell us how to get from Point A to Point B in whatever it is: Whether it's a play; whether it's a blitz; whether it's life."
A big part of it is attitude. The Irish defense came up with two monumental goal-line stands this season -- against Stanford and Southern Cal. Either Pac-12 teams have trouble running up the middle, or Notre Dame has developed the ability to rise to an occasion.
Whatever, both were critical in winning games and getting to South Beach.
"The goal-line stands are a function of players knowing clearly exactly what to do; playing with whole heart; whole body; whole mind; (and) being physically talented enough to get their job done and win their individual matchup at that particular moment," Diaco said. "This isn't a negative, this is a great challenge. You have the opportunity to do something special here and your game rises."
By that very explanation, it's obvious Diaco, who will be 40 in February, isn't the ordinary "we go after 'em hard" type of football coach. He's the new, savvy, breed. Outfitted in a dapper power suit and tie, Diaco's hair was precisely coifed and the smile was bright with his perfect teeth. Other than a limp from a bum foot injury that happened while shoveling snow on a steep driveway (yes, Notre Dame assistants really shovel their own snow, though there are doubts whether Brian Kelly does his) he showed all the signs of being "front man" timber.
If Diaco's going to be a head coach any time soon, that's the test he'll have to pass.
His ol' coach at Iowa, Hayden Fry, is a big fan. Kelly is probably more sold on him now than he was on Oct. 23, 2010, and the Broyles Award provides tangible proof of his pedigree.
"Representing assistant coaches all across the country, I speak probably for most when I say that that's an award that we really point to to identify a job well done of service -- to serve the university and its students; to serve the head football coach and the vision he has for his program; to serve the other assistant coaches," Diaco said. "I see it as a staff award, an assistant coaches staff award. The selection committee is all coaches, basically Hall of Fame coaches, guys that we really point toward to say, 'Hey, some day I'd love to be like that guy.'"
Getting to that point starts with a great game on a national stage.
This opportunity is rare. The special ones make the most of it.
Forget the nightmare. Embrace the dream.
Notre Dame football: Time to forget nightmare and embrace dream
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