Going into the 2017 football season, optimism surrounded Nebraska’s football program.
Not only had Mike Riley bounced back from a 6-7 debut season in 2015 with a 9-4 finish the following year, but he also had finally gathered the players — namely new quarterback Tanner Lee — he needed to fit his pro-style scheme.
More importantly, he made an addition to his coaching staff that, at the time, appeared to be one of the biggest hires in the country.
Thanks to encouragement from his bosses, Riley fired his longtime defensive coordinator Mark Banker and brought in former Connecticut head coach Bob Diaco. By all accounts, this appeared to be a smart hire. While DIaco struggled during his tenure at UCONN from 2014-16, he had an impressive track record as a defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
At South Bend, Diaco’s defense helped lead the Fighting Irish all the way to the national championship game, and his star linebacker Manti Te’o finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2012.
On paper, Diaco appeared to be everything Nebraska needed to take its next step as a program.
Despite his impressive resume, Nebraska’s defense turned out to be the root of their 2017 downfall. The Blackshirts allowed 36 points in their 2017 season opener against Arkansas State before giving up 42 in the first half at Oregon the next week. By the end of the season, the defense was run over by every opponent it faced, allowing 55 points per game in the final quarter of the season.
Riley’s new hire ended up being a reason why Riley and the rest of his staff was fired.
It once again showed the importance of hiring a good coaching staff.
Nebraska’s defense, and program as a whole, was clearly trending downward last season. Had Riley hired a defensive coordinator he was familiar with, he probably would have seen better results. And had Diaco taken a job at a school where he had worked with some of the staff previously, perhaps he might have lasted more than a season.
The importance of hiring the right coaching staff doesn’t just apply to Nebraska, either. At Big Ten Media Days, numerous head coaches spoke of the importance of having the right guys around them.
“For me, if I’m going to be successful, I have to make sure I surround myself with really good people,” Rutgers head coach Chris Ash said. “That’s not easy to do. It’s more than just experience as a coach or what position they coach. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
New Nebraska head coach Scott Frost took an old-school approach when it came to building his staff. While most coaches tend to only retain a few coaches from their previous regimes, Frost brought every assistant from his staff at Central Florida to Nebraska.
Some of them had previous ties to Nebraska, like former Husker linebacker Barrett Ruud, but most were just coaches Frost had worked with before.
In many ways, Frost is modeling his staff after his former coach, Tom Osborne, who kept the same staff together for nearly his entire tenure. Three coaches stayed with him for over 20 years in Lincoln.
Based on the loyalty of his entire staff following him to Lincoln, it appears Frost wants a similar situation.
Not every first-time head coach has been as lucky as Frost. Rutgers’ Ash had to make several changes to his staff since he became a head coach in 2018, adding eight new assistants this past offseason alone.
At Nebraska, Riley wasn’t the only coach to have controversy surrounding his assistants either. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, was notorious for hardly making changes to his coaching staff. By the end of his seven-year tenure, all but one of his assistants had been with the program less than four years, despite lack of improvement on the field.
Frost has preached “unity of purpose” since he returned to Nebraska. While that was mainly directed at re-engaging the alumni and having everyone involved in the program pulling in the same direction, it could also be interpreted from a coaching standpoint.
“Really, it has been less me than the group of guys that are working in the football office,” Frost said about his staff back in March. “And I can’t wait to watch what they can accomplish here.”
“I’ve been at it for 20 years on this level,” Nebraska tight ends coach Sean Beckton said. “This staff is something special.”
By bringing his entire staff with from his previous job, Frost has brought with him a chemistry that usually takes several years to develop. While Frost and his assistants have said that has been helpful in the offseason, it remains to be seen whether it will show in Nebraska’s on-field performance this year.
This article was originally published in the September 2018 edition of The DN.