Matt Balis quickly returned to a more comfortable wardrobe.
Notre Dame’s new Director of Football Performance had just finished a round of interviews during his unveiling, a moment that required a sport coat that confined his shoulders and a tie that constricted his neck. It forced Balis to use his hoarse voice on reporters instead of players, explaining why he was the right man to replace Brian Kelly confidante Paul Longo and how he’ll rediscover Notre Dame’s lost edge in the fourth quarter.
And when Balis was done, wrapping up before the other six new Irish assistants, he slipped out of the Loftus Center. The sport coat got ditched. The tie came off. On went a Notre Dame green pullover and track pants. In went Balis to the weight room, back to quietly work as arguably Kelly’s biggest off-season hire.
“Dream come true for him to come here to Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “And you can see the passion that he has on a day-to-day basis for being here at Notre Dame is felt every single morning with our football team.”
The Chicago native and Lane Tech graduate grew up on the Notre Dame football of Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz, young enough to remember when the Irish took Chris Zorich out of his hometown and grew him into an All-American. Balis is also modern enough to embrace nutrition, sleep monitoring, velocity training and injury prevention as cornerstones in his program.
Notre Dame needs all that, from the Chicago roots to the updated perspective on holistic training. Balis leads a strength staff that will round out at five, with one open position remaining. David Grimes, Jake Flint and Dave Ballou are already on staff.
But what Notre Dame needs most from Balis is his throwback approach to competition honed under Urban Meyer at Utah and Florida, where he later linked with Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti, who once held Balis’ position here.
“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. I got that from those guys,” Balis said. “You can do the most basic things, it doesn’t have to be super complicated. If you do them as hard as humanly possible with detail and precision, you have a better chance as the team that goes the hardest, that loves each other the most.”
Notre Dame doesn’t accommodate players’ schedules as much for lifting sessions now, with the first groups now going at 6 a.m. There’s a focus on finishing before classes start.
Within those schedules Balis wanted competition, creating it by breaking the squad into eight teams mixed with players from different positions. They’ll train in agility, speed and strength drills that way, trying to both improve their numbers and score points for their teams.
“To compete in the weight room, to compete in life, to compete on the field in agility work and speed work so that we’re not just training, but we’re training to win,” Balis said. “The other thing was accountability. Accountability in the detail of what we’re doing. Accountability to your teammates, to your coaches, to the strength staff, to each other.”
Kelly said Longo was forced to take a leave of absence due to long-term disability but did not go into detail. A source told Irish Illustrated the initial plan had been to move Longo into a Special Assistant to the Head Coach role, but it’s not clear if that will ultimately be the case.
Regardless, Kelly admitted feedback from players helped change the philosophy in training, with little doubt Balis offers a shot in the arm for a strength program that’s failed to produce in the fourth quarter or November lately. Balis is a change in messenger and message. He’s also a shock to the system.
Kelly primed that pump during a team meeting to introduce Balis earlier this month, backing his new strength coach to take over the weight room.
“Then it’s a matter of day-in and day-out seeing our strength staff with energy, with excitement,” Balis said. “Not just a check off (a box), but you either get better or you get worse. There’s no middle. If you don’t come in excited, jacked, ready to go, you’re not gonna get today back. That’s part of what we do is really stress that with the preparation with the guys.”
“We give them very ounce of energy that we have.”