He was supposed to be the next Tim Brown.
“Yeah, me and about six or seven other guys,” smiled Todd Lyght from Notre Dame’s Haggar Fitness Center Monday after being introduced as the program’s new secondary coach.
Instead, Irish head coach Lou Holtz moved Lyght to cornerback, and the rest is pass-coverage history.
“Coach Holtz was looking at the big picture for me,” said Lyght, a two-time Notre Dame All-American, the No. 5 overall pick in the 1991 NFL draft, a Pro-Bowler and a Super Bowl champ.
“He said, ‘You can be the next Tim Brown or the first Todd Lyght.’ I chose to be the first Todd Lyght.”
Lyght, 46, is reinventing himself again, diving into his first full-time assistant coaching job after working with head coach Chip Kelly at Oregon as a secondary intern, and then with Kelly as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Lyght took a position as secondary coach for Derek Mason’s Vanderbilt program following the 2014 season, but the lure of his alma mater was too great.
“Telling Coach Mason I was leaving was really tough,” Lyght said. “But he’s such a class act. He made it extremely easy for me, and I thank him for that. This is a great opportunity. I couldn’t pass it up.”
Passing on Lyght was never easy either. He arrived in ’87 out of Flint, Mich., and entered the starting lineup as a sophomore, playing an integral role in Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship. He then led the Irish in interceptions with eight as a junior in ’89. It was the most picks by an Irish player in 16 seasons and a total that hasn’t been achieved at Notre Dame in the last 25 seasons.
Twelve NFL seasons and 37 interceptions later, Lyght retired from professional football and pursued a business career before the lure of the game brought him back to Bishop Gorman High School in 2009. It’s taken just six years in coaching to return to his alma mater.
“We can do something special here because we can go after the best athletes across the country, and I think there are a lot of young men who want to challenge themselves,” Lyght said.
“The great thing about Notre Dame is one, you get a first-class education, two, you’re going to get a chance to compete on national TV every weekend, and three, you get to play for a national championship every year. There aren’t a lot of programs that can match up.”
For Lyght, technique is king, and he intends to provide a full understanding of the way the game needs to be played to KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Max Redfield, Elijah Shumate and the rest of the Irish secondary.
“I want to turn this place into DB U.,” Lyght said. “(The term) DB U.’s already been taken, so I want to turn this into DB U. Tech – Defensive Back University of Technique. We’re looking for the best and brightest.”
Lyght lists his strengths as, No. 1, the ability to share his knowledge of defensive back technique, and No. 2, recruiting.
“Recruiting is going to be a fun process for me,” Lyght said. “I’m looking forward to getting after it.”
Lyght will be responsible for recruiting parts of Texas (with Mike Sanford), specifically Houston, Louisiana, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and the other northwest states as prospects emerge. Lyght also will cross-recruit in the state of California when it involves a defensive back.
Lyght knows he hasn’t arrived as a coach and looks forward to working with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who hit it off with Lyght during an X’s and O’s meeting that extended twice as long as it was originally planned.
“I wanted to be put in position where someone would bring me along and teach me how to be a defensive coordinator for the future,” Lyght said. “Coach VanGorder and his extensive knowledge can be a great teacher for me.”
But first things first for Lyght, who knows how he wants to apply the lessons he learned as a player to his new corps of defensive backs.
“As far as the learning progression, what I want to teach to the guys is first, you have to learn how to defend the field. Second, you have to learn how to defend the formation. Third, you have to learn how to defend the play, and it’s in that order. If you mix that order up, that’s when players get confused.
“I want to simplify the game for them. Try to teach them how offenses want to attack with base sets, spread sets, different formations, wide sets, condensed sets, and trying to identify who’s the most dangerous guy on the field. Guys will learn the game and their football IQ will grow.”
Lyght credits Kelly – Chip, that is – for giving him great football insight and a much-needed perspective as he delved further into his coaching career.
“He’s been instrumental in my success,” Lyght said. “He’s such an innovator when it comes to football. His approach to football is outside (the box) thinking.
“The thing I love about him is he’s always trying to evolve and get better and learn. He studies rugby, soccer, the military and he tries to pull the best ideas out of all these different avenues and incorporate them into his football team.”
After two stops with Kelly, the still-inexperienced defensive backs coach needed to see the game from another perspective.
“He told me, ‘Todd, the next step of your coaching career is you have to venture outside. You’ve been with me for four years. You need to learn from other people and other coaches in order for you to progress,’” Lyght recalled.
“At the time, I didn’t want to hear that. I thought I should be promoted from within, but he was right. It reminded me of the time Coach Holtz told me I needed to go to the defensive side of the ball to really succeed.
“It was one of those moments where you’re getting this information from one of your teachers and you don’t necessarily want to hear this information, but it’s the right information. So you listen, you internalize it, you conceptualize it, and then you move forward. It’s been very instrumental to me getting back to Notre Dame.”
Lyght’s reflections on his days at Notre Dame are joyful. During his four years with the Irish, they won a national championship, won 23 straight games and had a 41-8 overall record.
“The national championship team was a special group,” Lyght said. “We were very talented, we worked extremely hard, and our competitive nature was unparalleled. Not only did we compete against the team we were playing, but we were competing against each other to make plays.
“I remember being in the huddle joking with Chris Zorich and Mike Stonebreaker about how many times we were going to get our name called on the loudspeaker.
“We were better than most teams. There were probably three or four teams that could compete with us at that level.”
Times have changed. Going on 27 years later, it’s much more difficult for the Irish to compete for national titles, and yet they played for one in 2012.
“Absolutely, I think this team can compete right away,” Lyght said.
“For us, the key factor is going to be attitude and effort. We have to go out on a day-to-day basis and enjoy the process, the hard work, the day-to-day progression of trying to get better and evolve as a team.”
The different angle that Lyght can offer to Notre Dame is that for him, it’s personal, and the memories are of an environment that shaped him into the man he is today.
“Obviously, I love Notre Dame,” Lyght said. “This place has been crucial in my development as a young man. I learned so much here on and off the field – work ethic, character, teamwork…
“Everything that I learned (at Notre Dame), all the tough times, getting up early in the morning and walking in three feet of snow to work out helped me to endure,” Lyght said.
Lyght acknowledges there’s much to learn. He also knows what he brings to the table.
“As a player, I was always one that was trying to learn and trying to master fundamentals and techniques,” Lyght said. “Just because you were a good player doesn’t necessarily make you a good coach.
“I can teach these fundamentals and techniques. I’ve learned from Hall of Fame coaches and bad coaches. There’s a difference between teaching football and teaching championship football. I teach championship football.”
It’s the only kind of football Todd Lyght knows.