- Following last season's disastrous 4–8 campaign, Notre Dame's new assistants must overhaul as much as they can in one off-season to try to save coach Brian Kelly's job.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Chip Long was a Brian Kelly disciple years before a job description, office address and paycheck notarized that relationship. The connection unofficially dates to the Grand Valley State football team’s visits to Florence, Ala., home to the Division II championship game for almost three decades. There, Kelly’s powerhouse Lakers squads punctuated consecutive national title runs in 2002 and 2003. Also there, a young and resourceful player for North Alabama named Chip Long played spy and sponge, sneaking into the Grand Valley State practices, watching the offense work—“It was just a machine,” Long recalled—and marveling at the interactions between Kelly and his players, especially the quarterbacks. It felt like the sort of thing he wanted to be around some day.
By early January, Long was not around it as much as in it, intensely. The 33-year-old had been brought aboard as Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator, part of a thorough staff overhaul brought about by a dreary four-win season and the apoplexy it inspired.
As much as any of the seven new staff imports, Long embodied the dynamic that will save or sink the tenure of the man he’d long admired from afar. Either he’ll have freedom to be invigorating, to be a font of fresh philosophies, or he’ll be smothered by the head coach’s refusal to let go. He’ll either be buoyed by the unspoken (but plainly obvious) mandate to win now, or he’ll scuffle and this will be another all-too-brief peek into Brian Kelly’s world. “Whether you won 12 or you won four, there’s always a sense of urgency,” Long said, as he and the other hires met with reporters last week. “Every year, you’re coaching for your life.”
Though Kelly previously has reached outside his comfort zone to hire assistants at Notre Dame, he’s never done it so comprehensively. This is a good sign. It also creates a massive but unavoidable challenge, if Kelly’s eighth year coaching the Fighting Irish is to result in the opportunity to coach a ninth.
The new coaches aren’t exactly undertaking a total gut rehab, based on the school’s resources and the talent on hand, but they nonetheless must install offensive, defensive and special teams systems more or less from the ground-up. And they will do so with absolutely none of the patience or leeway typically afforded to coaches in that position.
In South Bend, no one worries about the balance between building something and winning right away. Because there’s simply no balance to worry about. “If Notre Dame had gone 10–2 last year and hired me as the defensive coordinator because the old one had so much success that he got a head job, then I would have to come in and win,” said Mike Elko, who arrived as defensive coordinator after three years at Wake Forest. “In this situation, you have to come in and win. That’s college football today. And that played into taking the job, too: You can’t live in the fear of what will happen if it doesn’t go well. You bet on yourself and have confidence in what you can get done.”
First, Kelly must push his chips in with his new aides and see what comes of it.
A head coach, of course, retains the right to be a head coach and shape his team’s systems and gameplans accordingly. But the Notre Dame staff changes also gave the place a distinct New Idea scent. And that necessitates a loosening of the grip.
Consider the arrival of Tom Rees to coach quarterbacks three years after the 24-year-old finished a career as a Fighting Irish quarterback himself. Rees won 23 games as a signal-caller for Kelly and fully understands Kelly’s passion for the position. He also likely guessed Kelly would be involved with the development of first-year starter Brandon Wimbush. Which is why Rees’s biggest question for Kelly was whether he, in fact, would get to run the room he was hired to run. “He told me, point blank, you’re coaching the quarterbacks,” Rees said. “That was refreshing to hear.”
It’s one thing to say it and another to actually operate with that clarity. Paul Longo, Kelly’s longtime strength coach and unofficial consigliere, is now on long-term disability and could not continue running the conditioning program. But will Longo indeed be reassigned within the Notre Dame hierarchy, and if he is, will a confidante with Kelly’s ear allow new strength coach Matt Balis to execute his duties without the feeling that someone is looking over his shoulder?
Then there is everyone’s favorite parlor game at Notre Dame: Who Calls The Plays? The mystery seemed to end before it started, as the announcement of Long’s arrival from Memphis coincided with the announcement that he’d call the shots. “That’s what [Kelly] said from the get-go,” Long noted. It was, for sure, no small concession. Then Kelly added last week that he sought a coordinator who “called plays through my eyes.” He said Notre Dame would not “change the entire offense and teach a new system” but rather add “elements” of Long’s offense to what’s in place already. Maybe that’s normal and prudent. Maybe that’s an indication that matters are a bit muddier than they should be.
Suffice it to say that, after a 4–8 season, it would behoove Notre Dame to permit its new coaches and their new concepts ample room to breathe. Otherwise what’s the point of bringing them on at all, except to ensure a new batch of coaches by January 2018?
Besides, standing in the way would make a formidable job even tougher.
Notre Dame’s new coaches have started teaching basics in winter film work. They will continue to teach basics on the field in spring. And they will do it all with an eye on winning double-digit games this fall, an expectation as ridiculous as it is real.
Long and Rees, for example, arrive with the mandate to make Wimbush an expert in a somewhat new offense with new verbiage, to swiftly turn a 6’1”, 225-pound redshirt sophomore with five career pass attempts into a performer capable of keeping the Fighting Irish on at least the fringes of the College Football Playoff discussion. “If you can develop a confidence of, hey I’m confident with what my role is, with what I’m doing, I think that results in wins,” Rees said.
And when asked what he’d teach when he finally got his defense on a field in spring, Elko talked about installing base alignments and principles of how to adjust to shifts and motions. The 39-year-old also noted the coaches would have to teach players the balance, contact points and finish that constitute this staff’s preferred way of taking down ballcarriers. This is the rudimentary stuff that Notre Dame’s new coaches will address in the coming weeks: They literally will drill the roster on how to tackle. Somehow this has to translate to performances worthy of national rankings, and more, in mere months.
“You look at the close games that were lost in the fourth quarter, you look at the amount of times they had leads in the second half, and you’re probably not looking at a talent disparity,” Elko said. “You’re probably just looking at a few small things that need to get tweaked. If you’re taking over a defense that every game last year they lost by 30, then how do you make that jump that quick? I don’t know. It’s probably pretty hard. But that’s not what we’re looking to do here.”
What they are looking to do does not sound much easier. But they’re not kidding themselves about that, either. “Could we work any harder? No,” said Brian Polian, who begins a second stint as Notre Dame’s special teams coach after four years as Nevada’s head coach. “The reality of it is, we couldn’t. There are people I know in the real world who look at what we do in the football world and think we’re absolutely nuts. To us, this is the life we live. There’s an incredible sense of urgency to be great.”
As they reconstructed this staff for a very consequential season, Kelly and other Notre Dame officials who put out their own feelers and did their own due diligence did well to focus on candidates who might provide stimulating perspectives. Candidates who weren’t beholden to Kelly, or at least have the backbone to voice disagreements. Candidates who weren’t friends or former co-workers at long-ago stops. A four-win season doesn’t mean you trash everything, but it certainly demands that you be open to anything.
Now Kelly must let this big gambit play out. He must let the new ideas flow. He must let his new coaches do their jobs. Because they’re already on the clock, and you’re damn right it’s ticking.