ND Assistants Under Willingham (Part 3)

Kent Baer’s defense bailed out Bill Diedrick’s struggling offense in 2002, limiting opponents to 16.7 points and 300 yards total offense en route to a 10-victory season.

When Tyrone Willingham arrived at Notre Dame following the completion of the Bob Davie era (1997-2001), he hired a coaching staff with which he was very familiar.

2002 (10-3)

Offense
• OC/QB-Bill Diedrick
• RB-Buzz Preston
• WR-Trent Miles
• OT/TE-Mike Denbrock
• C/OG-John McDonell

Defense

• DC-Kent Baer
• DL-Greg Mattison
• LB-Bob Simmons
• DB-Trent Walters

Fresh from a 9-3 record at Stanford in 2001 and three years removed from a trip to the Rose Bowl – the Cardinal’s first in 29 seasons – Willingham took his entire offensive staff from Palo Alto, Calif. to South Bend, Ind.: offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, running backs coach Buzz Preston, wide receivers coach Trent Miles, offensive tackles/tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, and interior offensive line coach John McDonell.

Only one coach from Bob Davie’s fifth and final staff was retained – defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Mattison was relieved of coordinating duties and instructed the defensive line as Kent Baer -- Willingham’s defensive coordinator with the Cardinal from 1999-2001 – took over.

Willingham dipped into the NFL to land defensive backs coach Trent Walters, who after stints at Indiana, Louisville, Washington, Pittsburgh, Louisville again and Texas A&M (under Davie) spent eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings before returning to the college game. (Note: Willingham coached the Vikings’ running backs coach in ’94 when Walters directed Minnesota’s outside linebackers.)

Former Oklahoma State head coach Bob Simmons – 30-38 in five seasons (1995-2000) as head coach of the Cowboys – was tabbed to instruct Notre Dame’s linebackers.

Six of Willingham’s nine assistants came directly from Stanford.

Eight games into Willingham’s first season with the Irish, Notre Dame had yet to lose, including victories over No. 7 Michigan (25-23) and at No. 11 Florida State (34-24). Five or those eight wins were by one score.


2003 (5-7)

Offense
• OC/QB-Bill Diedrick
• RB-Buzz Preston
• WR-Trent Miles
• OT/TE-Mike Denbrock
• C/OG-John McDonell

Defense
• DC-Kent Baer
• DL-Greg Mattison
• LB-Bob Simmons
• DB-Trent Walters

Diedrick arrived at Notre Dame with a long, varied football coaching career west of Montana. After graduating from Eastern Washington, Diedrick went to Hawaii as a graduate assistant, and then coached more than a decade of high school football in Spokane.

Stops at Whitworth College, Montana State and Idaho raised his profile, particularly his work with Idaho quarterback John Friesz, who spent 10 years in the NFL and eventually landed in the College Football Hall of Fame.

In 1989-90, Diedrick coached at Washington State, where he helped develop quarterback Drew Bledsoe -- the No. 1 pick in the 1993 NFL draft.

After two seasons in the Canadian Football League, Diedrick spent four seasons at Washington and four at Stanford. His 2001 Cardinal offense ranked ninth nationally in scoring (37.1 ppg.) and 10th in total offense (451.5 ypg.).

Armed with the West Coast offense, Diedrick seemed to be just what the Irish needed to spark an offense under Davie in 2001 that managed just 290 yards total offense per game (110th nationally) and 19.4 points per game (99th).

A native of Logan, Utah, defensive coordinator Kent Baer – like Diedrick – had spent his entire career out west. Utah State, Idaho, Cal and Arizona State were his stops before joining Willingham’s first Stanford staff in 1995. Willingham elevated Baer from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in 1999.


2004 (6-6)

Offense
• OC/QB-Bill Diedrick
• RB-Buzz Preston
• WR-Trent Miles
• OT/TE-Mike Denbrock
• C/OG-John McDonell

Defense
• DC-Kent Baer
• DL-Greg Mattison
• LB-Bob Simmons
• DB-Steven Wilks

By the start of Willingham’s third season at Notre Dame, he was forced to make his one and only assistant coaching change with the Irish. Walters, the father of 2001 Pac 10 Offensive Player of the Year Troy Walters, returned to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Willingham hired Steve Wilks, a small college defensive coordinator who arrived from Notre Dame after instructing defensive backs at Bowling Green in ’03.

The offense never took off under Diedrick. It “peaked” in the third and final year of the Willingham regime at No. 81 in total offense and No. 72 in scoring offense (24.1 ppg.).

Baer’s 2002 defense compensated for the offensive woes, which allowed Notre Dame to get off to an 8-0 start while the offense reached 30 points just twice in those first eight games.

Baer’s first Irish defense allowed a mere 16.9 points per game while holding eight of 13 opponents to 17 points or less. Only USC, in a 44-13 loss, scored more than 24 points against the Baer-coached defense during the 2002 regular season.

Baer coached the Irish in their 38-21 Insight Bowl loss to Oregon State following Willingham’s dismissal.

WILLINGHAM GOES TO WASHINGTON

Five of the nine assistants on Willingham’s final Notre Dame staff followed him to Washington, which had fired head coach Keith Gilbertson following 6-6 and 1-10 seasons in 2003-04.

Baer coordinated the Huskies’ defense while Denbrock coached the offensive line. Miles instructed the running backs, Simmons taught the tight ends and special teams, and Wilks coached the defensive backs.

Willingham picked former Notre Dame punter Joey Hildbold as a graduate assistant and retained Huskies defensive line coach Randy Hart, who coached Charlie Weis’ defensive line at Notre Dame in Weis’ final season (2009).

Only Denbrock and Hart remained with Willingham’s fourth and final team at Washington in 2008 when the Huskies finished 0-12. Willingham’s four-year record at Washington was 11-37.

THE COORDINATORS

After leaving Washington following the 2007 season, Baer landed at San Jose State under head coach Mike MacIntyre, where he served as defensive coordinator from 2010-12. Baer followed MacIntyre to Colorado for two seasons (2013-14).

Now 66, Baer is entering his third season as defensive coordinator at UNLV under head coach Tony Sanchez.

After leaving Notre Dame, Diedrick returned to the CFL for three seasons before retiring. Shortly thereafter, he went to Indiana State as offensive coordinator under head coach Trent Miles.

Diedrick was at Indiana State for 10 months before returning to his high school coaching roots in Spokane to coach University High. He led the Titans to three straight post-season appearances before calling it quits in 2011 at age 65.


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