Harry Hiestand is back coaching Notre Dame football — right where he belongs

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND – Harry Hiestand had a hard time convincing anybody in his family he would actually stay retired. 

As much as Notre Dame’s newly re-hired offensive line coach enjoyed his two-year break after resigning his position with the Chicago Bears, Hiestand, 63, never could truly leave football behind.  

“My mom (Terri) and I always thought he was going to come back,” Mark Hiestand, a junior offensive lineman at Air Force, was saying this week by phone. “When I was home, he was always watching film and talking football. That’s not really something a retired person does, you know?”

Harry and Terri rented a place last fall in Colorado Springs, but there weren’t any new hobbies to speak of. Instead, that allowed them to attend all of Mark’s home games and many of eldest son Mike’s as the latter completed a three-year run with the NFL’s Denver Broncos as an assistant defensive line coach. 

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Plus, the phone kept ringing with calls from Hiestand’s many friends in the game, and the “retired” coach had so many former line pupils scattered around the NFL – including former Irish standouts Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, Ronnie Stanley and the Martin brothers, Zack and Nick – it seemed impossible for him to turn off the All-22 film or redirect his mental energy.

“It’s easy to watch,” Hiestand said. “And you do get the itch to try to help them get better, which is what I enjoy doing.”

At one point Terri Hiestand, a former basketball and soccer coach herself, looked at her husband of three decades-plus and asked him a serious question. 

“Why don’t you just get one of these jobs?” she said. “You spend about half your day on football as it is.” 

“I do not,” Hiestand said in mild protest. 

“Oh, yeah, you do,” Terri answered. 

And that was that. Everybody in the family saw it. 

Offensive Line coach Harry Hiestand walks onto the field during the Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame NCAA football game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

“It was nice to have him up here for sure, but it always seemed more temporary,” said Mark, 21 and the third of the four Hiestand children. “I just had a feeling, at some point, if the job was right …” 

His father would coach again – officially. 

And then, in early January, Notre Dame called. For newly promoted coach Marcus Freeman and former Hiestand protégé Tommy Rees, the ex-Irish quarterback turned offensive coordinator, there was no one else to consider as Jeff Quinn’s replacement.

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Better still, the Hiestands never even sold their home in Niles, Mich. Harry took an apartment close to the Bears’ Lake Forest, Ill., training facility during his second stint with the team (2018-19), which allowed Mark and his younger sister Sarah, now a freshman soccer player at Illinois, to finish out their prep careers at Saint Joseph HIgh School. 

l-r, Terri, Sarah, Matthew, Mark, Harry and Mike Hiestand after one of Mark's games at Air Force Academy

“This just feels like the perfect spot for him to come back to,” Mark Hiestand said. “This is such an awesome situation. We’ve been kind of embedded in the Notre Dame community for a long time. It feels like we honestly never left.” 

Intensity and details

Hiestand’s reputation precedes him.

During his first run at Notre Dame, from 2012-17, the well-traveled coach established a standard of excellence that culminated in his 2017 unit winning the Joe Moore Award as college football’s best offensive line. 

With spring practice set to begin on St. Patrick’s Day, Notre Dame is counting on Hiestand to recalibrate a line that was far too porous and mistake-prone last season. Sacks and pre-snap penalties were all too plentiful. 

Head coach Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand speak during a Notre Dame football practice in 2015. (Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

Even though early enrollees Joey Tanona and Billy Schrauth were Quinn recruits, it didn’t take more than a couple of informal film sessions for the incoming freshmen to see the value in having Hiestand as their mentor. 

“I love the intensity coach Hiestand brings,” said Tanona, a Zionsville, Ind., product. “He’s very detail-oriented and he doesn’t let anything slide. Just the smallest things he can pick up on, which our eyes can’t see. When he gets talking, he’s someone you’ll run through a brick wall for.” 

Schrauth, the four-star recruit from Wisconsin who idolizes Nelson, is coming off foot surgery and won’t be on the field this spring. But he’s already looking forward to being Harry-fied this fall. 

“I love him,” Schrauth said of his new position coach. “I think our mindsets are a lot of the same stuff. He gets it. I like to play physical, and you can tell that’s his style of ball. That’s what he wants out of his players.” 

Only super senior Josh Lugg knows what it’s like to play for Hiestand among current Notre Dame linemen, although player development director Hunter Bivin and offensive assistant Chris Watt have their share of stories as well. 

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Yet, there’s probably no point in getting a scouting report on Hiestand’s coaching methods. You either do it properly or you don’t play. 

“Just his overall intensity is different from what I’ve had with other coaches,” Schrauth said. “I want to be pushed to limits I don’t know I’m capable of, and I think he’s going to be the guy that is going to get me and the group where we’ve got to be. He’s a master motivator from what I’ve seen so far. I love that.” 

Informed of the “master motivator” assessment, Mark Hiestand gave a little chuckle. 

“That’s high praise,” Mark said. “Maybe he’s trying to move up the depth chart. I’m sure the players can see his passion. My dad has always been a 100-percent guy. They see that everyday mentality. I’m sure he shows up when he doesn’t even have to. They probably see that and are motivated to put in extra work when he’s not around.”

Recharged battery

That all-in mentality extends to the recruiting side of the job. After Hiestand returned to the NFL the last time, speculation circulated that it was the year-round grind of recruiting and its associated travel that pushed Hiestand out of the college game. 

Asked about that on Feb. 16, when Freeman’s revamped staff was trotted out for the media, Hiestand pushed back on the notion. 

“Recruiting’s fine; it wasn’t the recruiting,” Hiestand said. “Do you like sitting on a tarmac on a plane for 45 minutes? That’s the part that is no fun. For me, it became the travel.”

And that was before pandemic restrictions added to the challenge.

“Just do that every week for four straight weeks and you’re probably hitting your limit,” Hiestand said. “Just the things that you run into – getting to the airport – that kind of wears on you.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand talks with reporters during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

With an impressive résumé that includes previous stops at East Stroudsburg, Penn, USC, Toledo, Cincinnati, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee, Hiestand has gained a particular appreciation for working with the quality of student-athlete that Notre Dame typically attracts. 

“Meeting these young men that you can meet because you’re at Notre Dame, going into a high school in Seattle and there’s 10 people who want to meet you because you’re from Notre Dame … that part of it is no problem,” Hiestand said. “I think there’s some decent players that I helped bring here who would probably tell you that. But when you can recruit nationally and you look at this kid in Florida or Seattle or (former Hiestand signee) Aaron Banks in Oakland, Calif., it’s like, ‘We’ve got to go there.’ “ 

Since his return, Hiestand has already made it through a weeklong recruiting swing through five states, bouncing from Rock Island, Ill., to Boston to New Jersey and down to Charlotte before hitting Cincinnati and returning home. What Terri calls his “sabbatical” seems to have recharged his travel battery.

He called her with the good news – “I don’t know why, but I feel great” – while walking past the rocking chairs in the Charlotte airport. 

“I kept waiting to be ready to explode,” Hiestand said. “But no, I was good. That part – not an issue. I know how important (recruiting) is. I always have. It’s the lifeblood of your program, so it’s no problem.”

Forming bonds

The list of All-Pro linemen who can vouch for Hiestand on the recruiting circuit is unmatched. 

Consider, for instance, the buzz that spread through the Air Force Academy sideline when Nelson showed up at the Falcons’ 2021 spring football game. In Denver for offseason workouts, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Nelson walked in with the elder Hiestand and predictably turned heads. 

“Everyone was looking at me like, ‘How did you get this guy?’ “ Mark Hiestand said. “That was a pretty cool experience.”

Jan 9, 2022; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson, a Harry Hiestand protégé, is expected to become the NFL's highest paid guard when he signs his extenstion with the Colts.

Projected to become the highest-paid guard in NFL history once he signs his extension, Nelson has been as generous with his wisdom toward Hiestand’s youngest son as the coach always was with “Q.” 

“When it comes to fundamentals, I’m always going to go to my dad,” Mark said. “But I’ve definitely talked to (Nelson) about the motivation stuff. Not like a crazy amount, but he’s definitely been supportive. He knows what I’m doing over here. It’s always nice to have the support, especially of people that have done amazing things in the sport.” 

Seeing those connections form and the loyalty built among his father’s former students has inspired Mark to pursue a career in coaching. Before going into the acquisitions branch, he hopes to work as a grad assistant at Air Force, which would count toward his five-year service commitment. 

That would make it three Hiestand men in the coaching business. Mike, 31, recently joined the Los Angeles Chargers as an offensive assistant. 

Matthew, 29, works in juvenile justice in South Bend. 

“It’s always cool to see how my dad impacts these guys and inspires them to be better players and impacts their lives in a big way, especially those main guys like the Martins, McGlinchey, Stanley, Nelson,” Mark said. “Those guys are like relatives to me.” 

Motivational quotes are a big part of the Hiestand Method. Before Mark’s spring scrimmage last weekend, he received an email from his father with the following unattributed statement: “The depth with which you master the basics influences how well you understand everything you learn after that.”

Hiestand has built his coaching legend on that very philosophy. Master the little things, and big things are sure to follow. 

He’s also fond of quotes from military leaders, especially this one from General George S. Patton: “May God have mercy upon my enemies, because I won’t.” 

Just wait until Schrauth and his fellow O-linemen hear that one for the first time.

Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino can be reached at mberardino@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino. 

St. Pat's Day practice

Marcus Freeman’s first spring practice as Notre Dame football coach will begin on St. Patrick’s Day, Thursday, March 17, and conclude with the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, April 23. 

There will be  a newly instituted draft process three days before the Blue-Gold Game to pick the teams.

A kickoff time for Blue-Gold has yet to be announced. 

Pro Day for Notre Dame draft hopefuls will be held on March 25.