LINCOLN — One of the busiest weeks in coach Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska appears to have culminated in the hiring of a new defensive coordinator, a man who in 2012 was named the nation’s top assistant coach.
Multiple sources confirmed to News Channel Nebraska’s partners at the World-Herald that Riley intends to hire Bob Diaco, former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and former Connecticut head coach. Diaco’s tenure at UConn ended in his firing — after an 11-26 record in three years — but his four-year stint at Notre Dame marked him as one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators.
Though the hiring hasn’t been made official by Nebraska, Husker players were already reacting to the news on Twitter.
“Welcome Coach Diaco,” cornerback Chris Jones wrote. “Let’s get to work then.”
“All change ain’t bad,” cornerback Eric Lee wrote.
Diaco replaces longtime Riley confidant and assistant Mark Banker, whose contract will not be renewed. Banker said he found out his contract was ending when Riley called him Wednesday as Banker sat in a Denver airport. He was headed to Tulsa to recruit, as Thursday was the end of the noncontact period.
In an interview with the World-Herald Friday, Banker said he had no idea he wasn’t coming back. Banker said Riley told him “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” and then informed Banker his contract — which expires at the end of January — wouldn’t be renewed. Riley didn’t tell Banker why, and Banker didn’t ask.
“That’s just disappointing, that it’d be a phone call and not face-to-face,” Banker said. “That’s a weird way to approach things. And you can say that it’s hard, but if it’s hard on him then it’s hard on my end. But that’s what you got to do, do it (face-to-face). Be grown men about it. It’s a communication thing. Let’s just be good communicators.”
A call to Riley’s cellphone and a text message were not immediately answered. His voicemail has been full for several days.
Diaco, 43, was a college linebacker at Iowa from 1992 to 1995. He served as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013.
The Fighting Irish ranked in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense all four of those years, peaking in 2012, when the Irish, featuring Heisman finalist and linebacker Manti Te’o, gave up just 12.8 points per game on their way to the BCS national championship game. Diaco’s defenses were particularly stingy inside their own 20-yard line, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on just 47.3 percent of their possessions over his four seasons as coordinator.
The erudite and passionate New Jersey native spent six years with coach Brian Kelly at three stops — Central Michigan, Cincinnati and ND.
At Notre Dame, Kelly and Diaco recruited and developed a defense that blended stars like Te’o and lunchpail guys who embraced a motto Diaco explained to reporters just before the 2013 BCS national title game: “Whole heart, whole body, whole mind.”
For his work in 2012, Diaco won the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant. At the BCS press conference, Diaco called it a “staff award.”
In the same press conference, Te’o praised Diaco’s ability to tell players “how to get from point A to point B.”
Diaco was a linebacker himself, starting the last 23 games of his career at Iowa and winning co-MVP honors. He was a graduate assistant at Iowa in 1996 and 1997 before moving to Western Illinois, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan. Kelly hired Diaco at Central Michigan in 2005. Diaco also served a three-year stint at Virginia under coach Al Groh, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants as an assistant under Bill Parcells.
Diaco had a rough tenure as UConn head coach. The Huskies ranked 65th in scoring defense this season — a 3-9 campaign — and 86th in 2014, when they finished 2-10. But in 2015, when Connecticut made a bowl game and finished 6-7, the defense was the best in the American Athletic Conference, finishing 15th nationally in points allowed. UConn handed Houston its only loss that season.
His Huskies had problems on offense. They finished dead last in the nation in scoring this season, 121st in 2015 and 125th in 2014. The lack of offensive output was ultimately Diaco’s undoing as a head coach. UConn replaced him by bringing back Randy Edsall, its coach from 1999 to 2010.
After Diaco left Notre Dame for the Connecticut job, Notre Dame plummeted to 84th in scoring defense in 2014.
Nebraska’s defense had its difficulties under Banker, too. Players struggled at times to pick up his scheme and move with the kind of fluidity needed to be one of the Big Ten’s best defenses.
Banker said he took “full responsibility” for any struggles by the defense, which finished 33rd nationally in points allowed.
“It’s easy — 62 points against Ohio State, 40 points against Iowa, and 38 in the bowl game,” Banker said. “Big plays. All those things. That’s what people don’t like.”
Banker said he wished he’d adapted to personnel better in 2015. As for 2016, his biggest regret wasn’t the loss to Ohio State or the one at Iowa, a game Banker said he’d already watched “a million times.” The biggest was not being able to finish the game at Wisconsin, which the Huskers lost 23-17.
“I truly do believe it would have been different if we had beaten that team,” Banker said. “I thought we were a different team after that Wisconsin game — all around.”
Banker said he attended a staff meeting Jan. 6 in Lincoln. Either Riley hadn’t made a decision not to bring back Banker, or he decided not to tell Banker then. Banker did not attend the American Football Coaches’ Association convention in Nashville, Tennessee. He went back to Oregon to visit family, including a daughter who’d just had a child.
He plans to continue coaching.
“I want to get on with my life,” he said. “I’ve got a house to sell, a wife to take care of. Contract’s up. We’ve got to take care of business and move forward.”