Analysis: VanGorder firing won't affect recruits, but next hire needs to

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

One of the most common pieces of advice given to college football recruits is also the most ignored:

Don’t commit to a coach. Commit to a school.

It’s a sound premise with a simple message, but it’s not that easy.

College coaches spends months, and many times more than a year, developing relationships with recruits and their families. Those coaches become the embodiment of a particular school. Much of what the recruit learns about a school comes directly from those coaches.

So while in a perfect world recruits wouldn’t make long-term decisions about their future that relied heavily on coaches who aren’t guaranteed to be in the same role tomorrow, that’s not often the case. And the best college coaches know how to take advantage of that.

At Notre Dame, Brian VanGorder didn’t. The demise of the defensive coordinator, whose tenure ended four games into a third season with his firing on Sunday, runs deep in his failings as a recruiter.

As prospects across the country made commitment decisions based on coaches, almost none were giving their pledge to Notre Dame because of VanGorder.

“From being around the country, I never heard his name mentioned by any recruit which is unusual,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “I always heard Kirby Smart, Chris Ash and D.J. Durkin being mentioned. He wasn’t making the defense his own.”

Smart’s recruiting as a defensive coordinator at Alabama led to him securing the head coaching job at Georgia this offseason. The same can be said about Ash (Ohio State to Rutgers) and Durkin (Michigan to Maryland).

“Most coordinators want to become head coaches someday, so they’re fanatical recruiters. More so than the head coaches are usually,” Lemming said. “They’re the ones in charge of the other three or four defensive coaches on the staff. They’re telling them, ‘I want this guy. I need this.’ I didn’t see that with Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame’s recruiting classes of 18 commits for 2017 and six commits for 2018 will likely be unaffected by the firing of VanGorder. Thirteen of those recruits are projected to play defense for the Irish. Six of them responded immediately on Sunday reaffirming their commitment in text messages to the Tribune.

“I’m 100% to ND,” four-star senior linebacker David Adams wrote.

“I’m fully committed to Notre Dame,” four-star junior linebacker Bo Bauer wrote.

Linebackers Ovie Oghoufo and Drew White, safety Isaiah Robertson and defensive tackle Kurt Hinish shared the same sentiment. The 1-3 start and the way Notre Dame finishes the season will likely have a greater impact.

The recruiting industry readily gives credit to assistant coaches for helping a program land a commitment. Yet VanGorder isn’t listed as the primary recruiter on 247Sports for any of Notre Dame’s 24 commitments. The website credits him as the secondary recruiter for Adams, Bauer and linebacker Pete Werner, but even that may be generous.

Recruiting coordinator Mike Elston was the lead recruiter for all three of those players which, in part, has led to his growing reputation as one of the better recruiters in the country, according to Lemming.

In VanGorder’s two-plus years in South Bend, he landed two commitments as the primary recruiter: three-star defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah in 2014 and three-star linebacker Jamir Jones in the 2016 cycle. Shortly after arriving at Notre Dame from the New York Jets, VanGorder convinced Mokwuah, a Staten Island (N.Y.) product, to flip his commitment from Rutgers. Mokwuah has only appeared in three games at Notre Dame and has yet to record a tackle.

Jones, from Rochester, N.Y., chose to join his older brother, Jarron, at Notre Dame once VanGorder gave the green light on a scholarship. He saw action against Nevada in the second game of his career.

VanGorder never seemed to fully embrace the recruiting process. Recruits asked about their impressions of him rarely mentioned more than his seven-year NFL coaching career. But when recruits talk about offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and running backs coach Autry Denson, two of Notre Dame’s best recruiters, they routinely mention the personality, leadership and coaching style of both men in addition to their various NFL experiences.

On signing day earlier this year, VanGorder was asked to describe what he enjoyed about the recruiting process. After a long pause and a “hmm,” VanGorder said he enjoyed the social aspect of meeting recruits.

After a pause and a "hmm," he said, "I really enjoy the social aspect of it once I'm there." Not a big fan of the travel.

— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) February 3, 2016

Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator hire needs to fully embrace recruiting. It shouldn’t be a pain that requires deep thought to describe. In the eyes of Lemming, interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson could be that guy. But there’s only so much recruiting a coach can do until his job status is solidified.

“He was a good recruiter at East Carolina,” Lemming said of Hudson. “He went to Florida State where they were all good recruiters because (head coach) Jimbo Fisher demanded it. Then at Purdue, he couldn’t recruit well because they were such a horrible team. He had a good recruiting reputation which now needs to be renewed because he hasn’t had much of a chance the past several years.”

“He has a lot of energy and he’s an aggressive guy. The biggest break in Greg Hudson’s career is happening right now. He can really make a name for himself. He can’t sleep for the next five months. He has to simplify the defense, coach them up, bring confidence back to a team that’s shown no confidence at all. But the key for him to become really successful is recruit great players.”

Whether Hudson retains the job next season, Elston shifts over from recruiting coordinator (doing both jobs is asking too much), or an outside candidate receives the job, a passion for recruiting should be near the top of the resume.

Kelly needs kids committing to the coordinators AND the school. It’s a better formula for securing top recruits on signing day and building a better defense.


Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks in the direction of the scoreboard as he walks off the field following the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game on Monday, Sept. 17, 2016, outside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN