In a business where hyperbole creates headlines and sells, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not hold back from gushing about the positive nature of the changes in the Irish coaching staff following the departure of four Irish assistants.
“I’m announcing today what I consider to be collectively the most committed, cohesive, experienced and probably brightest coaching staff that I’ve put together in my career,” said Kelly Monday.
Kelly introduced four new coaches, new support staff, discussed the adjustments within the staff that includes shifts for most of the five remaining staff members, and then promised more help on the way.
Introduced by Kelly were offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, running backs coach Autry Denson, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and secondary coach Todd Lyght, who spent time with the media in the 25,000 square-foot Haggar Fitness Center upon the conclusion of Kelly’s press conference.
Kelly also announced the arrival of former two-time captain and linebacker Maurice Crum. Jr., as a graduate assistant on defense, Donovan Raiola as a graduate assistant on offense, and former Irish quarterback/captain/assistant coach Ron Powlus in the role of Director of Player Development.
“They’re good people. I want to be around good people,” said Kelly of the former players with Notre Dame ties returning to their alma mater.
The additions to the staff prompted some shifts among the five returning coaches and the move of one veteran off the field. Secondary/outside linebackers coach Bill Elliott moves to special assistant to the head coach/special projects assistant, but will remain involved in the football end of things.
“We’ll have another set of eyes relative to game management,” said Kelly, who noted that Elliott could still make recruiting calls.
He also indicated that three more “analysts” will be hired – one for offense, defense and special teams.
Mike Elston moves from defensive line coach to recruiting coordinator/linebackers coach. Mike Denbrock goes from offensive coordinator/receivers coach to associate head coach while still instructing the receivers.
Denbrock will be involved in the installation, implementation and structure of the offense with Sanford coordinating the run/pass game. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will “float” from position-to-position as defensive coordinator, and likely will spend considerable time working with the safeties.
Kelly said it has yet to be decided who would call the plays, which he said is a decision that is not a priority at the present time. A sharing of ideas is of the utmost importance.
“There’s a collaborative approach to it,” Kelly said. “No egos. Best idea wins is really the philosophy that we’ve used as our mantra for the offensive side of the ball.
“When you’re talking about what we want to achieve here, everybody on this staff has made a commitment that the title that they want most is a national title. They are more interested in the title that goes with national champ than the title that goes next to their name.”
If the decision ultimately is that the Irish head coach will not call plays, Kelly said he is fine with that.
“Ultimately, my trust is in them,” Kelly said. “I have no problem not being involved in it. I just want to be part of the solution. I don’t have to be the play-caller. I don’t have to be the quarterback coach. I’ve hired people to do all those jobs.
“If it means at the end of the day I don’t have to be involved in that and it puts us in a better position, I’m 100 percent okay with that.”
Most of Kelly’s time was spent praising his new hires.
• Kelly on Sanford: “We were looking at bringing in the best and the brightest. We looked all over the country for the person who would fit into what we wanted to do offensively, coach the quarterbacks, and coordinate the run and pass game. Mike Sanford was clearly a cut above everybody that we looked at.
“Mike Denbrock and I had a long conversation about this, and we agreed what we were looking for was somebody who could turn the room upside down. We didn’t want somebody to be equal; we wanted somebody that was going to turn that room upside down, that was that good. We weren’t going to settle for somebody on the same plane. We wanted somebody that was going to challenge us on a day-to-day basis, and Mike does that.
“As we got a chance to think about it, we wanted to bring somebody in here that is going to keep us on our toes and is going to bring that room up to a level that is going to create synergy and energy that is going to make everybody better.”
• Kelly on Denson: “We had a number of candidates for the position. We had no shortage of some of the best in the country. Autry came up because of his background here as the all-time leading rusher, and quite frankly, his background as a Notre Dame student-athlete gave him a chance at an interview.
“I didn’t think I was going to hire him…until he interviewed. He blew me away with the interview and his attention to detail at the running back position. His philosophy matched mine in terms of the development of the student-athlete. And then we talked recruiting and how he would go about that challenge.
“We had a long list of guys to interview and we called them up and said we found our running back coach in Autry Denson.”
• Kelly on Gilmore: “He coached with me at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame. He played college football with Brian VanGorder and Paul Longo. He’s developed first-round draft picks. He’s an example of the guy that gives us great cohesiveness.”
• Kelly on Lyght: “He’s won a national championship here, he’s gotten his degree, he’s paid back his scholarship here, he’s won a Super Bowl ring, and you’re recruiting to Notre Dame? Yeah, that’s pretty powerful stuff.
“He goes into a home recruiting. He’s a great person, a great family man. A mom and dad are looking at Todd Lyght and they say, ‘If my son can be like him…’ then we’ve already won.
“Once you have the ability to stand in front of the room and command the respect of the group that you have, that takes away the inexperienced portion of your resume. You gain that comfort level through time. He had that right away, and that goes to his experience in the NFL and the confidence he has in his ability to communicate. You can tell when he walks in the room, he has that.”