“If there were some semblance of progress, it would be different. But Notre Dame is going to take some lumps if Brian Kelly does not make a bold move. Does this involve a Jack Swarbrick intervention? It calls for that.”
-- Irish Illustrated following 2016 opening-game loss at Texas
Brian Kelly’s Sunday announcement that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had been relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame was a surprise but not a shock.
Mid-season coaching changes are rare and unsettling. Coaching changes under Kelly at Notre Dame -- during or after the season -- now total one.
Charley Molnar, Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin left for head-coaching jobs; others departed for greater opportunities, better titles and/or more money.
The defensive numbers under VanGorder was the shocking part of a decision that had to be made.
Kelly’s coaching roots were planted at the same time (1989) and same place (Division II Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich.) as VanGorder’s when Kelly was named defensive coordinator of the Lakers and VanGorder coached the linebackers.
Notre Dame’s firing of VanGorder after two seasons and four games of predominately defensive failure finally put Kelly at the crossroads. Kelly’s head coaching career at Notre Dame was now at stake as repeated defensive failures made scoring enough points – and winning – a burden to all.
That didn’t make it any easier for Kelly to pull the trigger.
“Nobody wants to see anybody lose (his) job,” said Kelly Tuesday. “I mean, this is real.
“He bought a home, he’s got a family and this isn’t a fairytale. This isn’t reality TV. Somebody lost (his) job and he’s a friend of mine and this is real. It’s not pretend.”
Multiple sources have told Irish Illustrated that it wasn’t Kelly’s decision alone and that it was Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick who ultimately “made the call.”
If he did, it would be neither surprising nor inappropriate. As the head of the organization, it should be Swarbrick’s decision, particularly as the most astute and impactful athletic director in Notre Dame history.
Asked to characterize his discussion with Swarbrick regarding VanGorder’s dismissal, Kelly talked about his responsibility to make the right call for the organization.
“My job is to lead this program and evaluate where our team is,” Kelly said. “I felt like the change was necessary for us to move in a positive direction. I didn’t think we were going to move in the right direction unless the change was made.
“That was the decision that I made. I called Jack and asked him for his approval. He gave it to me and the rest is where we are today.”
Asked for clarification that he (Kelly) was the one who initiated the discussion with Swarbrick regarding the firing of VanGorder, Kelly responded: “Oh yeah.”
Kelly addressed the reaction of his players upon hearing the news.
“It was a very personal and private family meeting, and what went on in here was emotional,” Kelly said. “So to divulge what was a very personal and private meeting – other than a meeting had to take place for us to move forward – is really all I can divulge.”
Sunday, in his day-after-the-game teleconference, Kelly addressed breaking the news to VanGorder’s son, Montgomery, a junior quarterback for the Irish.
“I talked to Montgomery and we did that right away,” Kelly said. “We deal with it professionally. We deal with it like any family would. Anytime there are difficult times, you deal with them man-to-man, and you do it up front within the family and you move on.”
Kelly was asked how his players would respond on the field this weekend against Syracuse with Notre Dame analyst and 11-year defensive coordinator Greg Hudson running the show.
“I didn’t poll them individually, but players are a resilient group,” Kelly said. “I’m sure there were some who were more disappointed than others.”
Kelly listed several operational issues that will change under Hudson. He bemoaned the over-use of some players and the under-use of others.
Three defensive players who barely played or didn’t play at all versus Duke that are expected to add to the equation against Syracuse include linebackers Greer Martini and Asmar Bilal, and defensive end Jay Hayes.
Martini played just 10 snaps behind Te’von Coney’s 56 against Duke. Neither Hayes nor Bilal played a down against the Blue Devils, who had 74 snaps from scrimmage.
Safety Devin Studstill’s fourth-quarter pass-coverage bust, according to Kelly, came on his 67th play, which is a lot for a true freshman still trying to get his bearings.
“We have some guys who are overexposed in those positions of tackling, and that will change,” Kelly said. “(Studstill is) a true freshman and fatigue was part of that. We’ve got to do a better job.
“I’m not laying it all on fatigue, but we have to be smarter. We’ve got other players who can be in the game at that time.”
On the other hand, safety Drue Tranquill played one of his best games despite allowing a touchdown pass. Yet he played just 39 of 74 snaps.
“Drue Tranquill had a great game, one of his best games, and he had 39 snaps,” Kelly said. “Yeah, he missed one tackle, but he’s a safety. He had a great game and we’ve got to manage our players better. We’ll do a better job there.
“Yeah, we’ve got to coach better tackling. But we’ve got to manage our players better. We have some young guys out there and we can’t overexpose them.”
Kelly also cited an inordinate number of defensive packages under VanGorder.
“There again, we’ve got to eliminate all that,” Kelly said. “I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personnel packages. That’s it, and there can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages.
“We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday where they fit in each group.”
Kelly said it’s important for team morale that players who are ready to make a positive contribution get on the field.
“The mix here is morale and attitude that comes from me, and I have to create that,” Kelly said. “It’s my job to create that attitude within the ranks. I have obviously not done a good enough job, and that’s why we’re 1-3.
“Now they’ve got to play better and execute better. But the pieces that we’re missing, yeah, we’re inexperienced in some key areas, but what we’re missing are ingredients that we can fix quickly. That’s why we made the change that we did.”