Matt Cashore /

Why VanGorder Was Never The Right Fit

VanGorder’s approach left most defensive players flailing for at least half of their ND years. Kelly’s offenses could never quite score enough to offset the defensive deficiencies.

They say it about recruits. It applies to football coaches at Notre Dame as well.

“Notre Dame is not for everyone,” say Irish coaches when a high school player chooses another school over Notre Dame.

Brian VanGorder was never the right fit for Notre Dame on several levels.

Such a statement inevitably leads back to Brian Kelly’s decision to hire VanGorder after 2010-13 Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco left to take over as head coach at Connecticut.

Kelly’s decision to hire VanGorder in the first place, obviously and certainly in retrospect, was the wrong decision. But it was and should have been apparent from the outset.

The forced fit of a professional-level scheme with too much nuance, adjustment and on-the-fly decision-making was onerous from the outset. After spending seven seasons in the NFL – one at Jacksonville (2005), five in Atlanta (2007-11) and one with the New York Jets (2013) – VanGorder had taken on a pro mentality as it related to scheme and volume of scheme.

VanGorder’s attitude toward forcing a scheme on college-aged football players was steadfast: this is Notre Dame; they’re smart enough to handle it. Yet as big-time as Notre Dame and college football has become, forcing his model on top of the workload that comes with being a Notre Dame student-athlete was overwhelming.

Professional football players are just that. They are pro football players morning, noon and night. It’s their job morning, noon and night. That could never be the case at Notre Dame with the NCAA restricting the time spent on football in addition to the overwhelming responsibilities that apply to academics, particularly for underclassmen.

VanGorder never grasped that. In fact, he already had his mind made up when he arrived. He refused to waver, even in 2016 after losing five NFL-level defensive players.

“The first year, we had the payoff of our system in games,” said VanGorder this August. “We’ve been dented at times since then. The rhythm of it hasn’t been what I was hoping for. But we’ve got our most athletic group overall.

“I wouldn’t compromise them relative to it being too big for them. I asked them the other day, ‘Do you want to stop installing? Is this too much?’ They all said, ‘No way, let’s keep going.’ I think they take pride in it.”

“If we get better and better, we don’t need as much scheme.”

Improvement never materialized following the first five games of a 30-game stint with the Irish.

When cornerback Cole Luke said during the pre-season that preventing the preponderance of big plays in 2015 was the main focus of the 2016 defense, he was asked if the multiplicity of schemes implemented by VanGorder led to or created more big plays.

After hesitating to gather his thoughts, Luke protected his coordinator. “It can…but that’s no excuse.”

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan – who leads the ’16 team in tackles but couldn’t get on the field as a freshman and sophomore – said he had little-to-no clue how to play in VanGorder’s defense or how to decipher it all as a Mike linebacker.

Junior linebacker Greer Martini admitted the difficulty he had adjusting to the defense through the first half of his collegiate career.

“It’s definitely been difficult, and it took two years,” Martini said. “I got yelled at a lot my first couple years here.”

Over the last two seasons, several defensive players expressed similar sentiments. It takes at least a couple of years to understand and implement the nuances of the defense. The time needed – half of a player’s eligibility – was fleeting.

VanGorder spoke as if he had a finger on the pulse of the Notre Dame defensive football player, but conversations with his defensive players generally focused on the degree of difficulty and failures. Communication of the scheme remained unclear to a large cross-section of the defense.

Paralysis through analysis always held Notre Dame’s defense back.

“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” said Kelly upon announcing VanGorder’s firing. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen, and that means we have to tweak some things.”

VanGorder’s defensive approach also was a misfit for what Kelly was doing offensively.

It took four full seasons for Kelly’s high-powered offenses at Cincinnati to take hold at Notre Dame. During his first four years as head coach of the Irish, Kelly’s offense never finished above 49th in the country in scoring with a No. 67 ranking in 2010, a No. 78 spot in 2012 and No. 74 in 2013.

The main reason the Irish were able to make it to the national championship game in 2012 was that Diaco’s defense held opponents to 12.7 points per game. In four seasons at Notre Dame, Diaco’s defense never more than 22.3.

But in 2014, it began to click offensively with Everett Golson throwing for 3,445 yards and 29 touchdowns. When DeShone Kizer took over for Malik Zaire in Game Two of the 2015 season, he went on to throw for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns.

The offense averaged 32.8 points per game in 2014, 34.2 last season, and 37.3 through four games in 2016.

What Kelly needed – and where he made his mistake in tabbing VanGorder to succeed Diaco – was another fundamentally-sound, keep-the-football-in-front-of-you coordinator who could limit the points to take advantage of the improved offense.

Instead, the Irish lost games while scoring 27 at Florida State, 31 at Arizona State, 40 versus Northwestern (overtime), and 28 against Louisville in 2014.

Last season, Notre Dame lost despite scoring 36 against Stanford and 28 versus Ohio State.

Already this season, Notre Dame has lost despite scoring 47 against Texas (double overtime), 28 versus Michigan State and 35 against Duke.

In the last two seasons, Notre Dame won games despite allowing 43 to North Carolina, 39 to Navy, 27 to Virginia, 27 to UMass, 31 to USC, and 30 to Pittsburgh.

Over the last 25 games with VanGorder as the defensive coordinator, the opponent scored at least 30 points 15 times. At the current rate – with 64 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more over that 25-game span – the Irish offense would always be battling to win games in a shootout.

Through four games in ’16, Notre Dame was 101st in points allowed at 33.5. In 16 red-zone trips by opponents, 11 scored touchdowns, which ranked 93rd in the country.

“It’s why we’ve made a change,” said Kelly when asked about the poor red-zone numbers.

As it pertains to VanGorder and his presence as a member of the Irish coaching staff, there’s a common theme that runs through athletics at Notre Dame. If a student-athlete suspects an imperfect fit among the coaching staff of his or her sport, it’s difficult for that coach to earn the trust and respect of the student-athlete.

Imperfect fits become obvious. Student-athletes (particularly in lower-revenue producing sports) tend to look at the opportunity to play for Notre Dame as a privilege, not a right. They apply that to the coaches as much as their teammates.

Notre Dame is not for everyone. The first ones to recognize that are the student-athletes who have earned the unique right to be a part of the University. The imperfect fit both in terms of demeanor and approach will be apparent.

Notre Dame, on several levels, was not the right fit for VanGorder. Had Kelly recognized that from the outset, the Irish would not be in the predicament they’re in four games into the 2016 season. In fact, they might have been a playoff team in 2015.

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