Mike Riley, Nebraska moved swiftly to bring in new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, then keep him in Lincoln
LINCOLN — Don’t let him leave the building.
As Nebraska coach Mike Riley had an instant, perfect click with Bob Diaco late last week, the prevailing mood among Husker staffers was that Riley, in a whirlwind, had found the man to take over NU’s defense. Their philosophies melded neatly. Riley was impressed by Diaco’s attention to detail. And both have near-encyclopedic memories for names, experiences and schemes in college football.
Diaco, it seemed, was the guy. So, as the Huskers’ brain trust tried to hammer out a deal, the word went out: Keep Diaco at North Stadium. Keep him in Lincoln.
If NU couldn’t?
“All bets are off,” Nebraska executive director of player personnel Billy Devaney said Thursday. “I’ve seen that movie before, whether you’re talking about a free agent. Or a coach. I’ve seen that way too many times.”
A former NFL general manager, Devaney had plenty of experience in those negotiations. He knew how they could go. And if Diaco had not left Lincoln with a deal already in place, he may have done all sorts of things. He may have signed a deal with Arkansas, which wanted him. He may have waited for another job. He may have even looked at rival Wisconsin, which lost its defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox, when he became California’s head coach.
Diaco was supposed to return to Connecticut — he’d just been fired as Connecticut’s head coach in December — the following morning. In fact, Diaco was headed to Connecticut — after his interview with Arkansas — when, in a Chicago airport, he got a call from Riley, who wanted an immediate interview.
With just one suit and one pair of clothes on him, Diaco agreed to board a plane for Lincoln. Then he and Riley clicked so quickly — and so easily — that NU’s brass moved in to finish the deal.
So Riley asked Diaco, point blank: Stay a little longer. Let’s talk some more football.
Don’t let him leave the building.
Fortunately for Nebraska, Diaco — though in the same pair of socks a little longer than he wanted to be — agreed.
“We were talking football,” Diaco told The World-Herald Friday. “I didn’t want to leave. If that’s how they felt, then the feeling was mutual.”
The two-year, $1.7 million deal capped off a whirlwind week for Riley, his key advisors and Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst. The decision to pursue Diaco — the 2012 Frank Broyles Award winner as the nation’s best assistant — and then land him could be the turning point in Riley’s tenure. His 15-11 record thus far is decent, but below NU’s standards of competing for conference titles and a College Football Playoff berth. The Huskers’ defense — coordinated for two years by Mark Banker — had a similar, and arguably weaker, track record. In a matter of a few weeks, Riley went from retaining his coordinator for a 14th straight season to quickly dismissing him and getting the top name on the market.
“I wasn’t surprised by how quickly Coach Riley did it, but I was impressed,” said Riley’s right-hand man, director of football operations Dan Van De Riet.
Riley had been mulling how the Huskers might fit into a 3-4 defensive scheme well before he started looking for a defensive coordinator who had seasoning with it. He started thinking about it last season. He eyeballed a guy like defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun and wondered how he might fit as a base outside linebacker. Small things like that.
Banker had long been a 4-3 defensive coordinator. His scheme and defense held up well enough during the first half of the 2016 season but suffered a major swoon toward the end of the year.
“It’s easy — 62 points against Ohio State, 40 points against Iowa, and 38 in the bowl game,” Banker said last week. “Big plays. All those things. That’s what people don’t like.”
Riley watched film of NU’s 38-24 loss to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl. The Huskers had a whole month to prepare for the Volunteers’ offense. Even Banker conceded in an interview that it didn’t look like Nebraska had practiced much at all. His exotic blitzes didn’t get home. Two of his top young talents in the secondary — Antonio Reed and Lamar Jackson — got starts, but Reed left after 25 or so plays, while Jackson played out of sorts after serving as a reserve for most of the year.
“Some of the things we had earmarked that needed to be changed from a year ago were the same things I saw that we had issues with in the game,” Riley said. “That isn’t all of it. But it put a little bit of exclamation point on it.”
The decision not to renew Banker’s contract wasn’t made the day he was told Jan. 11, though. It was made days before.
“It wasn’t a brand-new thought as of (last) Wednesday,” Riley said. “There was a ton going on fast.”
That’s because Devaney said he spent time doing background work on potential replacements.
“It was an extremely tough decision but, once it was made, it was, OK, let’s move on this,” Devaney said. “Let’s get a list.”
Diaco, who had a sterling résumé as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator — and did well with Connecticut’s despite being fired as the Huskies’ head coach — jumped out almost immediately, Devaney said.
“I started making calls, talking to people who had touched Diaco during his career,” Devaney said. “And it was constant — the same picture kept coming back again and again. People I really trust in the business — that are in the NFL, that knew him at Notre Dame or while he was at Connecticut — it kept coming back: This guy’s really, really good.”
At that point, Nebraska’s brain trust had to ask itself: How many more references did Diaco really need? He was in demand by other schools — Arkansas was closing in.
“We kicked around a couple of other candidates, but it quickly became apparent — this is the guy,” Devaney said. “Let’s move on and not risk losing him to someone else.”
So the Huskers did move — quickly. Diaco interviewed at Arkansas — he said it went well — and was on his way home to Connecticut. Riley called Diaco and asked him to get off the plane.
“It was kind of like a recruiting trip,” Van De Riet said.
“He was ready to go,” Riley said. “He was ready to go.”
“I had one set of clothes,” Diaco said. “They said, ‘We don’t care. C’mon out. We want to talk football.’ I said, ‘OK, great,’ but I felt bad, so I actually changed in the bathroom at the Lincoln airport into my suit that I had on the afternoon before.”
Diaco said throughout his press conference Friday that he was impressed with lots of things about Nebraska — the facilities, the support, the commitment, Riley himself.
But there was still a contract to be done. Devaney and Riley said Eichorst worked that end of the process.
“Our leadership stepped up and got it done when he was still in the building,” Devaney said.
Riley echoed that sentiment about Eichorst. It’s a big change for Riley, who wouldn’t have had the kind of money at Oregon State to give a high-demand coordinator like Diaco.
“Shawn stepped up on this one big time when we explained the research we had done on this one and the qualities this guy brings,” Riley said. “And, as you guys know, the landscape out there for these top coordinators is pretty interesting right now. It’s what you’re going to need to do.”
Except that Nebraska has rarely done anything like it. Riley’s predecessor, Bo Pelini, never hired an outside coordinator so much as he promoted people already on his staff or retained Shawn Watson when he took the job. Pelini’s predecessor — Bill Callahan — had only defensive coordinator (Kevin Cosgrove), while his offensive coaches (Watson and Jay Norvell) were longtime friends.
Not since Pelini was hired — as defensive coordinator in 2003 — by Frank Solich has such an outside-the-box approach been taken. And unlike Solich — who plucked Pelini just as he was surfacing as a top defensive mind — Riley went after a known collegiate quality.
“Bob matches exactly our top needs to get better and better,” Riley said.