No stranger to changes on his coaching staffs, ex-Irish head coach Lou Holtz explains what he looked for in a defensive coordinator and game plan.
Eleven seasons, one national championship, contention for at least three others, and 101 victories highlighted Lou Holtz's tenure as head coach at Notre Dame
. Included therein were eight different seasons in which Holtz changed either his offensive coordinator, his defensive coordinator, or both.
Five coaches headed the defensive side of scrimmage during Holtz's tenure, only the final hire, Bob Davie, stayed more than two seasons.
In other words, Holtz was well-equipped to answer the question posed to him last week at the Irish Legends Golf Classic (Olympia Gardens, Illinois) regarding the inherent challenges of changing coordinators.
"I became a head coach because I coached with (Ohio State head coach) Woody Hayes and we had great success," Holtz offered of the evolution of assistants to head jobs. "I think if you have great success with a coach you should give them the opportunity to move on. Is hiring a new coach easy? No. Is it disruptive? Yes."
That disruption occurs largely on one side of scrimmage for Brian Kelly's 2014 Irish where new DC Brian VanGorder joins the program with a new scheme, new approach, new ideals, and ample new personnel to work with.
"Whenever I hired a defensive coordinator I wanted to know the same things after a game," said Holtz, famously more involved with the Irish O than its D. "How many missed tackles were there? How many missed assignments?, How many times did we run around the block?, How many times did we not have our shoulders squared?, How many times did we hit with something other than our shoulder? and How many times were we on the ground?"
Holtz's Defensive Changes
A look at Holtz's oft-changing position of leadership on the defensive side of scrimmage during his 11 seasons in South Bend.
Foge Fazio: Hired in 1986 after his head coaching stint at Pittsburgh, Fazio headed the Irish D for two seasons. His units finished 26th and 19th nationally in scoring defense. He left South Bend following the 1987 season for a special teams coordinator/tight end coaching role with the Atlanta Falcons and remained in the NFL with five different franchises through the 2002 season.
Barry Alvarez: Promoted from his position as Irish outside linebackers coach prior to the 1988 season, Alvarez then directed Irish defenses that helped Notre Dame finish 24-1 with a national championship over his two seasons in charge. Alvarez was hired as the head coach of the University Wisconsin for the 1990 season where he remains as the program's athletic director today. Only two teams managed more than three touchdowns vs. Notre Dame during his tenure, the 1988 Miami Hurricanes and the 1989 Air Force Falcons.
Gary Darnell: The former Florida defensive coordinator succeeded Alvarez and brought an "SEC speed" approach to South Bend. The new scheme faltered as the Irish fell to 50th (1990) and 53rd (1991) in scoring defense. Darnell's first defensive contingent included standout seniors Chris Zorich, George Williams, Bob Dahl, Andre Jones, Michael Stonebreaker, and Todd Lyght, plus promising youngster Demetrius Dubose.
It was the team's pass defense that proved its Achilles heel, finishing 90th nationally with three new starters in the defensive backfield. Darnell's sophomore-heavy 1991 defense yielded the most points per game (21.8) of the Holtz era, but benefited from an offense that scored 64 touchdowns in 13 contests, a program record.
Darnell parlayed his perceived failure (Notre Dame finished 19-6 and played for a split national title in his initial season) for a five-season stint as the assistant head coach at the University of Texas.
Rick Minter: Previously the head coach at Ball State, Minter's rock-solid units aided the Irish to a 21-2-1 record during his tenure. He left South Bend thereafter for a head coaching job at the University of Cincinnati where he remained for 11 seasons. Minter's Notre Dame units were stained just twice, both resulting in stunning upsets: 33-16 to Stanford in 1992 and ultimately 41-39 to Boston College in 1993, the latter costing the Irish a shot at a national title in the season's final week.
Bob Davie: The only Holtz coordinator (on either side of scrimmage) to hold the role for more than two seasons, Davie's first defense was his worst -- 21.7 points per game, the second-highest number of the Holtz era -- but his 1995 and 1996 units rebounded to finish 33rd and 16th in national scoring defense.
Davie earned the Irish defensive coordinator role after a hugely successful stint at Texas A&M where his famed "Wrecking Crew" defenses were nonetheless hammered by Notre Dame's powerful option offense, losing consecutive Cotton Bowl matchups to Holtz's Irish, 28-3 following the 1992 season and a 24-21 thriller following Notre Dame's 11-1, 1993 campaign.
Davie was promoted to the head coaching position at Notre Dame for the 1997 football season.
Holtz likewise offered his keys for a successful defense in the modern era of football, one that features a preponderance of spread offenses.
"You cannot run an over-shifted defense against the spread because when the offense puts someone in motion, you will be unbalanced. So you have to start with a balanced defense," he noted when asked about running a 4-3 rather than a 3-4 in today's game. "With the spread offense you have to do three things on defense that most teams cannot do today: You have to be able to get pressure with a four-man rush. You can't allow the quarterback to scramble -- you must keep him contained in what I call the 'handball court,' not in Yellowstone Park where they can run all over.
"Secondly, you have to be able to play reasonable man coverage and be able to match up. You can talk about zone coverage, but at the same time with all the hitch (passes), you better be able to play good man coverage. Lastly, you must be able to tackle in space. The people who play good defense against the spread offense can do all of those things. Whether it is a 3-4 or a 4-3 if you do those things against a spread offense you have a chance."
Editor's Note: Holtz's views of Notre Dame's offensive approach with head coach Brian Kelly calling plays is forthcoming.