Notre Dame’s new special teams coordinator has learned an invaluable trick the trade since he last worked in Northern Indiana in the fall of 2009, and it has nothing to do with the kicking game.
Instead, Brian Polian, now in his second stint in South Bend after being let go as a result of Charlie Weis’ dismissal that December, understands the fine line between when it’s time to fish or when it might be more prudent to cut bait.
“I think the one thing experience has taught me is we know who is a fit,” said Polian in reference to his seven football seasons away from Notre Dame. “We know who we’re looking for and I think sometimes we spend too much time spinning our wheels when in our heart of hearts, you know it’s going to be hard to get this guy.”
Polian understands both the draw and drawbacks of Notre Dame for a 17-year-old prospect, especially those asked to venture all the way from, for instance, sunny California to, uh, “partly cloudy” South Bend.
“There have been guys (recruiting targets) in this month-long cycle that I’ve called back (to Notre Dame) and said, ‘Eh, it’s kind of a long shot. I don’t think he’s wired the way we need him wired to come a long, long way,” Polian offered.
“And then there have been others where we started as a long shot and then you spend some time with the young man and the family and you call back and you say, ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna get him, but he’s got what we need – the (mental) makeup to come a long way away. The experience has taught me to be more efficient.”
That doesn’t mean less dogged…so to speak.
“I think what happened when I first got here (2005) was they looked at the 29-year-old kid and kind of looked at me as a golden retriever,” Polian joked of his early recruiting experiences. “Send him to California, he doesn’t know any better. He’s not smart enough to know he isn’t supposed to win some of these battles. I just got thrown out there.
“But I attacked it the same way I attacked recruiting today: with enthusiasm, a desire to connect to families and build relationships.”
THE POWER OF ONE
Unlike Scott Booker, his predecessor with the Irish special teams who also tutored tight ends, Polian won’t be in charge of a position group for the 2017 Fighting Irish.
Instead, with the exception of quarterback, he’ll be asked to identify and develop the best candidates from each of them.
“I’m blessed. It’s a very difficult job to do,” he said. “In my first couple of years here with Charlie I was Bill Lewis’ second set of hands in the defensive backfield. When Corwin (Brown) came in I was coaching the linebackers and coordinating the special teams and it was hard, quite frankly. Hard physically to find enough hours in the day.
“Ultimately, there is a short change going on somewhere,” he said of the myriad assistant coaches nationwide that direct special teams while also coaching a position group – just nine Power 5 programs had a dedicated ST Coordinator last season.
“(Now) There’s no doubt that we’ll have the time to devote to the kicking game and the thought that I can do that, and then be a sounding board for coach (Kelly), and be able to offer that 35,000-foot point of view, I think is going to be good for our program.”
The NCAA is expected to vote for the addition of a 10th assistant coach on staff for the 2017 season. (For Notre Dame, it will be Quarterbacks Coach Tommy Rees, hired this month as a graduate assistant.) Even if that vote weren’t pending, Polian would be tasked with his invaluable solo role.
“If it forced me into a situation where (new offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) had to coach the quarterbacks, then Chip was going to coach the quarterbacks,” said Kelly of his plan for Polian and a dedicated ST coach this season. “It was the first decision that I made coming out of the gates, if you will, that I wanted to get Brian on and I wanted special teams to be addressed immediately.”
THE ART OF LISTENING
Polian’s second stint in South Bend follows stops at Stanford, Texas A&M, and most recently as the head coach of Nevada – one of four foes to lose to Kelly’s Irish in 2016.
“There’s seven years of experience; there’s a year in the SEC,” said Polian of his updated resume. “There’s a year of experience with Jim Harbaugh, with David Shaw in my time at Stanford. There’s no doubt that being a head coach, especially in a place that struggles with resources like we did in Nevada, that offers perspective.”
Perspective both within a program’s walls and inside the homes of potential pledges.
“The other part we’ve probably improved at,” Polian began of his current recruiting approach, “Is that often, especially at Notre Dame, where we have so much to talk about, we talk at them a little too much instead of listening.
“If we listen early on and say, ‘Okay, what’s important to you? What are you looking for?’ If the answer is ‘I want to live near the beach,’ then we’re probably not the right fit.
“If they say, ‘The quality of the academics or my faith, or playing on a national stage is really important to me’ then we can connect the dots and say we’re going to have a chance. Experience has taught me to ask the right questions and listen to the answers to find out if we’re going to have a chance to get a (pledge).”
Notre Dame is expected to get another pledge or three over the next 24 hours. Polian and his cohorts are tasked with securing another 20-plus by this time next winter. By then, the new special teams coordinator will have made another 80-plus acquaintances wearing helmets and pads.
“The biggest thing for me is getting to know this team,” said Polian. “Clark (Lea) has to get to know the linebackers. Del (Alexander) has to get to know the wide receivers. I really have to get to know the entire football team.
“That’s one of the joys; that you get to know so many different guys.”
Both already on campus and those that might join them in the future.