SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When a very young defensive coordinator by the name of Brian Kelly left his alma mater, Assumption College, to coach the defensive backs as a graduate assistant at Division II Grand Valley State in 1987, he met another young graduate assistant – Mike Denbrock – who would leave for Michigan State shortly thereafter.
A year after Kelly had ascended to the head-coaching position at Grand Valley in 1991, Denbrock joined forces with Kelly again, first as quarterbacks/wide receivers coach for four years, and then, in a unique twist generally reserved for non-FBS programs, jumped over to the other side of the football to serve as Kelly’s defensive coordinator for three seasons.
Following the 1998 season, after spending the previous seven seasons with Kelly, Denbrock’s coaching path took a divergent turn, first with Buffalo of the Arena Football League, then to Stanford with Tyrone Willingham, on to Notre Dame for three seasons with Willingham, to Washington for another four years and then, of all places, Indiana State as associate head coach.
Meanwhile, Kelly began a meteoric rise to Notre Dame after leaving Grand Valley in 2003 following a Division II runner-up and two national titles. Three years at Central Michigan and three more at Cincinnati was all Notre Dame vice president-athletics director Jack Swarbrick needed to see to tap Kelly as the successor to Charlie Weis in 2010.
One of the first phone calls Kelly made was to Denbrock.
Now in his sixth season back at Notre Dame and ninth overall, Denbrock was faced with a coaching challenge following the 2014 campaign.
Young Mike Sanford – the 33-year-old son of Mike Sanford the elder who served as Notre Dame’s quarterbacks coach from 1996-98 – might be available to come to Notre Dame, where he ran around as a ball boy as a youngster and, in the process, got to know a young receivers coach by the name of Urban Meyer.
The coaching tentacles had wrapped themselves in and around all of the individuals mentioned above.
Denbrock, who had spent the better part of 15 seasons with Kelly, had been elevated to offensive coordinator at Notre Dame in 2014. Now, the possibility of this young, innovative offensive mind coming back to South Bend was a real possibility, provided Sanford the younger did not accept an offer to become Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State.
What would Sanford do? How would Denbrock react?
Those around the program said Denbrock would play the role of good solider (while accepting the title of associate head coach and undoubtedly a pay raise, of course).
Still, Denbrock would have to once again put his ego aside and at least theoretically reduce his offensive input from 50 percent with Kelly to 33 percent with Kelly and Sanford, who bypassed an opportunity with Meyer at Ohio State and accepted Kelly’s offer to become Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.
“Yeah, it’s probably human nature to do that,” said Denbrock of the natural inclination to wonder why the heck, after 15 years with Kelly, Notre Dame needed another offensive voice after the Irish averaged 32.8 points per game in his first year as Irish coordinator – the highest figure in nine seasons.
“We had a lot of conversations about where Coach Kelly’s vision was for what he wanted to do offensively, and it wasn’t necessarily a huge change. It was more adding someone who hadn’t been in the same meeting room together with us for 20 years.”
It would take a special addition to make it work as well as an ego-less coaching lifer like Denbrock. Twelve games later with the Irish averaging 34.8 points per game and 25 more yards total offense, the three-way offensive marriage of Kelly-Denbrock-Sanford has been deemed a success, particularly with all the injuries on offense, most notably at the quarterback position.
“I would judge it by the results,” Denbrock said. “I think we’ve had a solid year offensively. I think we could be a lot better at everything we do, but you’ve got three individuals committed to making sure we give our guys the best chance to be successful. That was the goal to begin with and I think that goal was achieved by the results you saw on the field. It worked.”
Some would argue – and rightfully so -- that there remain some kinks to be worked out in the red zone where the Irish rank 90th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage at just 56.0 percent. A young quarterback has something to do with that.
But by and large, the three offensive minds have meshed to the extent that the Irish have won at least 10 games for the second time in four seasons, due largely to an offense that has carried the program the last two years as coordinator Brian VanGorder tries to work out his own kinks on the defensive side of the ball.
Kelly has insisted all along that Sanford was brought in, first and foremost, to make the quarterback position right. After Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the second game of the season, the Irish turned to red-shirt freshman DeShone Kizer, who has been nothing short of very-good-to-outstanding every step of the way.
“The most important thing in any offense is when your quarterback is right, your team is right,” Sanford said. “By far, that’s the position I enjoy coaching the most, and it’s a complex position. There’s so much to that position just beyond the X’s and O’s and the physical development.”
Sanford has taken care of that while also adding a more daring aspect to Denbrock’s play-calling, which was revealed Monday at the Fiesta Bowl by Kizer and Notre Dame’s main pass-catching weapon, Will Fuller.
The great mystery is over. Denbrock has been calling the plays, although Kelly’s insistence that it’s been a collaborative effort is an accurate depiction as well.
“I see the success that (Sanford) had at Boise and every time he calls plays, he’s going to take shots on you,” said Kizer, referring to Sanford’s play-calling in practice situations. “He’s not going to accept a four-yard out-cut. He wants to double move you. He wants to go vertical. That mindset is what changed us into a more explosive offense throughout the season.
“Now, he’s not out there calling the plays (in games). But he is game planning and he’s putting together things that allow us to go down the field with guys as talented as Will Fuller.”
Behind the scenes, Kelly, Denbrock and Sanford have made the trio of offensive minds function as one.
“It’s a lot smoother flowing now than it was at the beginning of the season, just out of the sheer fact we’ve been around each other for a longer period of time,” Denbrock explained.
“Brian and I have spent a lot of time together in meeting rooms questioning whether we’re doing things the right way and trying to figure it out. To have the fresh perspective that Mike has and with the attitude that he has about being part of it has been incredibly positive.”
There was a lot of spit-balling and throwing ideas up against the whiteboard to see what would stick long before the Irish opened the 2015 season against Texas.
“It gave us an opportunity to really assess, ‘Is this working or is this not working, and if it’s not working, give us an idea what you’ve seen or done that you think can make this better,’” said Denbrock of Sanford’s input. “Basically, we would give him first right of refusal to analyze what we were doing, and then his idea would get torn to pieces by Brian and I.
“In other words, Mike Denbrock has a good idea for a play we want to run. Mike Sanford and Coach Kelly’s job is to tear that to pieces until it’s either on the board as a play we’re going to run or we can’t live with it. That’s kind of the dynamic that we have and it’s really a very positive thing. It’s a great situation.”
It never would have happened, however, if Denbrock were the kind to make a power play during the off-season or allowed his ego to get in the way. But when the potential for push coming to shove arose, Denbrock made the decision like a coach would make in the heat of battle.
“You ask your players to be unselfish and to buy in and do things the right way,” Denbrock smiled. “Coaches have to do the same thing. It’s not that difficult if your heart and mind is in the right place.”
With Denbrock, they always have been, particularly as it relates to his coaching relationship with Kelly.