It’s a perspective that dates back to the early ‘80s when Gerry Faust took over for Dan Devine as head coach of the Notre Dame football program.
By unofficial count, 102 assistant football coaches have served Notre Dame since Faust arrived in ‘81, which coincided with the commencement of a journalistic career covering Fighting Irish football. The arrival of Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght pushed the figure over the century mark.
As you might imagine, every phrase associated with the many skills of all the assistants who have come and gone have been trotted out by Faust, Lou Holtz, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis and now Brian Kelly.
We’ve yet to hear of a coaching move that was anything other than an upgrade over his predecessor. Dozens of “perfect fits” have come through the doors of, first, the Joyce Center, and then the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, which opened upon the start of Weis’ regime.
So when Kelly signaled the arrival of his four new assistants Monday by saying the following – “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” – a silent ho-hum was uttered underneath breaths that had heard it all before.
Assistants have come and gone with great frequency the last three-and-a-half decades, and with the exception of the 100 victories in 11 years under Holtz, the rest of that time has been hit and miss.
All those great assistant coaching moves didn’t prevent an average of five losses per season under Faust, Davie, Willingham and Weis. Collectively, they lost 94 games in 18 seasons for an average of 5.2 losses per campaign.
Of course, Kelly is about to add additional reinforcements that make his statement regarding experience accurate based upon sheer numbers. Bob Elliott’s move from the “active staff” into an “advisory” role – plus the three more advisors Kelly plans to add – makes it an indisputable mathematical equation.
“Those analysts will be full-time positions,” Kelly said. “They’ll be here full-time and have a full-time responsibility. It’s going to allow us to be even more detailed, fine-tuning some of the things that we’re doing.”
Kelly threw in a dig at some or all of the three departed coaches – Tony Alford to Ohio State, Kerry Cooks to Oklahoma and Matt LaFleur to the Atlanta Falcons.
“We didn’t lose them because of any reasons that have to do with finances or not providing them with the opportunities necessary for them to be successful,” Kelly said.
“Call it what you want but it allowed us to bring in two all-time greats from Notre Dame, and then kind of a domino effect that really put together an incredible staff, one that I’m so excited about.”
More coaching hyperbole? Sure. The loss of Alford and Cooks was a significant blow to the staff on the recruiting trail. They worked the fertile areas of Florida, Texas and Louisiana, parts of the country where Notre Dame seeks difference-makers.
Their background in those geographical locations was extensive. They made inroads that took time, but proved fruitful in – all things considered – relatively small doses. But it was important that a pipeline was established/continued from those areas, regardless how many players arrived from those states, and both succeeded.
Cooks in particular grew as a recruiter, and with Alford coordinating the entire effort, Notre Dame’s loss on the recruiting trail was the most significant, although both had proven themselves to be capable, quality assistant coaches as well.
The loss of LaFleur, because of his short time at Notre Dame and ineffective recruiting efforts, was a mere blip on the radar. Elliott’s wealth of knowledge on the field was/is vast, but a younger and more dynamic recruiter on the road was in order as well.
Provided Elliott stays with Notre Dame and resists the urge to continue coaching on the field, the Irish retain that knowledge while also maintaining a behind-the-scenes asset in recruiting.
And so as Kelly’s assistant-coach hyperbole came to a close, the media was ushered into the Haggar Fitness Center, where Sanford, Denson, Gilmore and Lyght were situated at their own tables.
Thirty minutes later, more than the coaching staff had changed. So, too, had many of the doubts.
Everything Kelly had said about Sanford – the 33-year-old son of former Irish quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford the elder – proved true.
“We were looking at bringing in the best and the brightest,” Kelly said. “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.”
Sanford presented himself with a casual, comfortable, understated charisma. He sold his passion for Notre Dame with aplomb while unafraid to speak his mind about offensive football and the path to success.
“I love that part of being at Notre Dame, that you can legitimately and honestly look a kid in the eye and say, ‘You will get a football experience that will change your life,’” Sanford said.
“On the flip side, I can say we’re going to give you an opportunity to get a degree that is life-changing and will create an unbelievable network, whatever endeavor you choose. The power of that monogram is strong, not just in the football environment but in the real-world environment after football.”
Sanford’s first foray into singing the Notre Dame company line came off with ease. More importantly, he brings to the equation a cutting-edge offensive approach, which, quite frankly, Kelly needs at this stage of his career. The 2014 season was an improvement offensively, but there’s more work to be done, and Sanford’s “next generation” stance gives the Irish offense some spice.
While Sanford, Denson and Lyght all have previous Notre Dame connections, Gilmore’s roots with Kelly wind well beneath the surface. Gilmore has the unique characteristics of serving under Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame. In other words, every stop along Kelly’s head-coaching run.
Gilmore truly arrives with a “getting the band back together again” feel to it, right on down to his familiarity with strength coach Paul Longo and Kelly’s right-hand person – Beth Rex, the director of football administration. Gilmore actually played on the same Wayne State football team as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
More importantly, the proof in Gilmore’s value is in the books, from his productivity at Illinois in recent years to the first-round draft choices he’s churned out.
“My first responsibility is to create a positive relationship so they know I have their best interests at heart,” Gilmore said. “Then they take to coaching a little better when you’re correcting them, disciplining them. They know you’re truly trying to help them accomplish their goals.”
Topping off the notion that Kelly had indeed found the right combination to alter his staff were two former Irish stars talking about their glory days at Notre Dame and professing their undying love to being back at their alma mater. Yet both are relatively inexperienced as coaches and recruiters, and questions will remain until proven otherwise.
The expression is overdone sometimes, but Denson’s willingness to “crawl back to Notre Dame” was apparent once the goal of returning with the Irish became tangible.
“It’s simple. Notre Dame is a lifetime decision,” Denson said. “If you want to know, ask me. I’m living it.”
“Obviously, I love Notre Dame,” Lyght said. “This place has been crucial in my development as a young man. I learned so much here – 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 endure.”
There is seldom a perfect transition in recruiting when long-time connections are lost. Some of what was lost won’t be regained. Some of what was gained won’t be sufficient.
But what seemed so catastrophic just a couple of weeks ago appears to have turned out quite nicely. There’s a feeling of continuity because of the Kelly/Notre Dame connections, not to mention a forward-thinking approach offensively. There’s a comfort zone provided for the second-year defensive coordinator, and yet there’s a freshness to Kelly’s hires that was sometimes absent in the past.
Factor in the arrival of former linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. as a graduate assistant and former quarterback Ron Powlus as director of player development, and Kelly has now done more than pay lip service to the Notre Dame connection.
There have been too many coaching changes over the last 35 years to get overly excited about names and potential, particularly after a mere interview session. But there’s no denying that Kelly did a thorough and creative job of filling holes while also pushing for support staff help to keep up with the nation’s elite programs.
The amount of money and manpower spent on college football is outrageous. It’s amazing that very well-paying positions – full-time positions – are now open for individuals to study third-and-long tendencies of the opponents all day long. God bless America.
But rather than take these losses lying down, Kelly and Notre Dame faced the situation head-on and dealt with it in an inspired, forward-thinking manner.
Fair warning from many years of experience: don’t get too wrapped up in the hype. But don’t discount it, either.