As Notre Dame’s players gathered at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex the day after a stunning 38-35 loss to Duke dropped the Irish to 1-3, Brian VanGorder was nowhere to be found.
At his home in Granger, Ind., just northeast of the Notre Dame campus, VanGorder tended to a bit of yard work, undoubtedly duties normally neglected once pre-season football camp commences.
Earlier that day, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had met with the University’s Vice President and Director of Athletics, Jack Swarbrick, concurring on the decision that after two seasons and four games, VanGorder had fist-pumped on the Irish sideline for the last time.
“Nobody wants to see anybody lose (his) job,” said Kelly Tuesday as he prepared his staff for the defensive transition. “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.”
Kelly’s football path intersected with VanGorder’s back in 1989 when a 28-year old Kelly was named defensive coordinator at Division II Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., and a 30-year-old VanGorder instructed the Lakers’ linebackers.
Both would embark upon careers that ultimately branched off in divergent directions. Both were named head coaches at an early age – Kelly, 30, at Grand Valley, and VanGorder at Wayne State, his alma mater, at 34.
Whereas Kelly’s first foray into head coaching led to a 26-year run as the man in charge of four programs, VanGorder’s was short-lived at Wayne State (three seasons) and Georgia Southern (one) 12 years later.
VanGorder has had an array of college coordinator jobs, beginning first at Grand Valley State, followed by Central Florida, Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Georgia, Auburn and eventually Notre Dame with interspersed stints in the NFL totaling seven seasons.
When Kelly informed the team Sunday morning that VanGorder had been let go, the news prompted a wide array of responses from the Irish players on both sides of the football.
“It was disappointing,” said junior Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan, who was called into duty as a true freshman to replace injured starter Joe Schmidt, but remained predominately a backup under VanGorder during his first two years in the system.
“That was the coach that I came in with. Me and him have been together for three years. It was a bit surprising. I knew him personally, obviously. But it’s a business. It is what it is, so he’s got to move forward.”
Outside of son/backup quarterback Montgomery, no 2016 Irish player garnered more respect from VanGorder than Sam linebacker James Onwualu, who earned a captainship this season and was always valued by VanGorder for his football acumen.
“He was a guy that had high expectations for everybody and expected people to do their job every single snap,” Onwualu said. “That’s one thing he respected about me, that I took this game and team very seriously.”
From the moment Onwualu moved from receiver following his freshman year, to safety and then outside linebacker as a sophomore in 2014, he tried to soak up all the knowledge he could absorb from VanGorder.
“I really tried to dedicate a lot of my time sitting down with the head man and learning straight from him,” Onwualu said. “We got to know each other along the way. That helps with that off-the-field relationship, so yeah, I’d say I was one of the guys that was closest to him.”
Junior safety Drue Tranquill was a key sub-package participant in VanGorder’s first two seasons with the Irish, only to suffer torn ACLs – a matching set – that cut short his 2014-15 seasons.
This year, Tranquill has been a prominent member of the Irish safety corps who has had his moments of standout play (first half of Duke) while also losing snaps against Texas and Duke due to mistakes.
“I have sympathy for the man,” Tranquill said. “I played for him since my freshman year. It wasn’t just Coach VanGorder’s fault. The entire defense was struggling as a whole, and he happened to be the leader of that.
“I personally feel sort of a responsibility on my end. I can’t just watch the leader of the defense walk out and lose his job. It’s a really hard situation. It’s real life. It’s just this industry and it’s really cutthroat. So part of me really felt for him.”
Offensive players responded to VanGorder’s dismissal as well. Quarterback DeShone Kizer and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey regretted the way things ended. They also recognized the business realities of college football.
“We lost a great coach, but things needed to happen for us to move forward,” Kizer said. “Coach Kelly makes the decision. We trust in whatever he has to say, and moving forward, we’ll have to make adjustments on the offensive side of the ball to pick up our defense and to start getting W’s.”
“Coach Kelly thought there needed to be a change, so we made it,” McGlinchey said. “Obviously, it’s tough when it’s a mid-season change and guys are connected to Coach VanGorder. We have a guy on our team that is his son.
“But at the same time everybody understands that changes needed to be made. It’s football. There’s a business aspect to this. We all need to get our jobs done, and if not, Coach Kelly is going to find a way to make somebody else do it.”
Onwualu read the writing on the wall – or rather, heard the unrest -- during the Duke game when the student body started a “Fire VanGorder” chant in Notre Dame Stadium.
“Everybody was talking about it,” Onwualu said. “Even our student section seemed to have a strong stance on that…
“It’s still shocking to me. Obviously, this is the only defensive experience I’ve ever had. He’s really all I know defensively. So it’s difficult for some older guys, me included, to put that aside and just take the next step into something new.”
To a large extent, Onwualu and his defensive cohorts controlled VanGorder’s destiny at Notre Dame.
“The whole defense knows that we need to play better ball,” Onwualu said. “Obviously, if we were playing better ball, maybe that would not have happened.”
As the defense turns the page to former Irish linebacker, defensive analyst and 11-year coordinator Greg Hudson, the VanGorder era has ended with a thud.
“For me, it was thanks for the opportunity,” said Onwualu of his message to VanGorder. “He was the one that gave me the opportunity, spent the time, invested in me to play defense and (put me) where I am today.
“I don’t think it’s a (permanent) goodbye. It’s like anybody you work with, right? It’s a business. Stay in contact and I hope your next step is a good one.”
Tranquill feels a responsibility to follow through with VanGorder’s decree.
“He probably wants me to rally around the guys in the locker room,” Tranquill said.
“He probably wants me out there giving it my all and not worrying about him because it’s about Notre Dame. It’s about Notre Dame winning football games.”