Well-traveled assistant coach Al Washington makes smooth transition to Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND – Aiden Gobaira had only been on Notre Dame’s campus for a few days this January when the early enrollee had a cold bucketful of modern college football reality splashed in his face.
Having already decided to honor his commitment in the early December changeover from Brian Kelly to Marcus Freeman, the four-star defensive lineman from Fairfax, Va., found himself six weeks later saying hello and goodbye to his position coach, Mike Elston, in revolving-door fashion.
“I was definitely shocked,” Gobaira said of Elston’s sudden jump to Michigan, his alma mater, after 12 seasons on the Irish coaching staff. “It came out of the blue for me. Would’ve loved for him to stay, but it’s all right.”
Under Elston’s watch, five Irish defensive linemen were drafted in the past three years alone, including 2019 first-rounder Jerry Tillery and 2020 third-rounder Julian Okwara. With Isaiah Foskey and the Ademilola Twins, Jayson and Justin, opting to return for one more season, another deep and talented group figured to pad those impressive totals.
Gobaira was looking forward to learning from a coach who had made it his trademark to get three sets of defensive linemen ready to roll through for at least a series or two every fall Saturday.
“With coach Elston leaving, it was super hard,” Gobaira said on Feb. 4, when the wound was still fresh. “When coach Kelly left, that was one of my main points: “I’ve got Freeman here and I have Elston here. I’m safe. I’m good.’ “
Until he wasn’t.
In some ways, the timing couldn’t have been worse for a young player like Gobaira.
Notre Dame moved quickly to replace Elston with Al Washington, a known quantity in Midwest coaching circles and most recently the linebackers coach at Ohio State for three seasons.
Still, there would be plenty of catching up to do for Washington, 37, with his position group, including a player like Gobaira, who he was meeting for the first time.
“I hadn’t talked with him,” Gobaira said. “I wasn’t a part of his recruiting process.”
Fortunately for all concerned parties, Joshua Burnham was.
Burnham, Gobaira’s fellow early enrollee and spring-semester roommate, got to know Washington well as a Buckeyes recruiting target from Traverse City, Mich. The linebacker vouched for the high-energy assistant, even after rejecting his overtures to sign with Notre Dame.
“As soon as coach Washington was selected, I knew that I was in great hands,” Gobaira said. “Josh kept telling me how great of a guy coach Washington was, and then I got to meet with him and I really got to see what kind of guy he was.”
A three-year starter at defensive tackle for Boston College from 2002-05, Washington has a long résumé that includes brief stops at Michigan (2018) and Cincinnati (2017) as well as a five-year run in Chestnut Hill, where he coached running backs for all but his last season at his alma mater.
That year with the Bearcats gave Washington a chance to work alongside Freeman, his future boss, but it also accelerated his understanding of how to make quick connections as a recruiter and mentor at an unfamiliar workplace.
In Gobaira’s case, coach and player bonded over their shared affinity for film study.
“He’s a really technical guy,” Gobaira said. “He talked to me about how he’s a really big film guy and likes to immerse himself in film. He’s going to send me a little link to all the film I should watch, and then I’ll start studying it.”
A father of two, Washington also regaled his inherited young prodigy with stories about parenthood in the coaching profession.
“He was telling me about how he’s a family man,” Gobaira said. “He wanted to get to know me. It was more me talking to him about my past and talking about how I got here and stuff.”
Gobaira is a natural talker, but he found himself oddly nervous in that first meeting with this friendly stranger suddenly thrust into a vital role in his athletic career.
“I was, like, really antsy – itching to meet him,” Gobaira said. “Just trying to make a good impression, honestly.”
Return to Columbus
Washington didn’t have to coach this season to earn a paycheck. He could have sat at home and made $600,000, according to reports.
Signed to a contract extension through 2023 after turning down a chance to be Tennessee’s defensive coordinator a year ago, Washington lost out in the shuffle that accompanied Jim Knowles’ arrival from Oklahoma State to become the Buckeyes’ new DC.
After turning down the Vols, Washington was quoted saying that it was “the best decision for me right now.” That rationale appeared to be spot-on when Tennessee’s defense allowed 29.1 points per game last season, 90th in the country.
Then longtime Kelly associate Kerry Coombs was formally replaced in Columbus after a drama-filled, two-loss season, and college football’s amped-up offseason coaching carousel later deposited Washington in South Bend.
His first opponent in his new role as Irish defensive line coach and run-game coordinator? You guessed it: Ohio State on Sept. 3 in Columbus.
“That will be exciting,” Washington said on Feb. 16, when he was introduced along with the rest of Freeman’s inaugural coaching staff. “I’m excited for these kids. I’m excited to do it with them.”
As useful as Washington’s deep knowledge of Ryan Day’s program and personnel will be in that high-profile matchup, one thing the assistant coach won’t allow himself to do is make this meeting about him.
“That will take care of itself,” he said. “Listen, I got a lot of respect (for Ohio State), and it’s well-documented, but I’d be doing (Irish players) a disservice if I said Sept. 3, ‘I’m trying to win this day.’ It sounds cliché, but I believe in it. We have so much to do and so much ground to cover.”
During his three years at Ohio State, Washington tutored three linebackers that were selected in the top three rounds of the NFL Draft: Malik Harrison (third), Pete Werner (second) and Baron Browning (third). His skill and determination on the recruiting circuit also helped the Buckeyes sign a number of five-star prospects, including defensive end Jack Sawyer, running back TreVeyon Henderson and 2022 signees C.J. Hicks (linebacker) and Sonny Styles (safety).
The latter, younger brother of Notre Dame wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., was a major recruiting target for the Irish.
“We’re looking at the best of the best,” Washington said. “Not only are they really good players, but this kid is about the right stuff off the field. It doesn’t mean you have to be a saint or Dudley Do-Right, but it means you have an idea of what you want to be and what you want to do. That helps.”
Recrafting his recruiting pitch and pivoting to an Irish-centric worldview wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine for Washington, given his recent employment history.
His great uncle, Dick Arrington, was Notre Dame’s first Black All-American after playing both ways in 1965. An injury to star defensive tackle Kevin Hardy forced Arrington, a 5-foot-11, 232-pound offensive guard, to fill the void.
“I’ve always felt Notre Dame was the tip of the spear,” Washington said.
Born in Kiln, Miss., and recruited out of Erie, Pa., Arrington played one season for Joe Kuharich (1963) and two for Ara Parseghian. In 1964, Arrington was part of the starting offensive line for quarterback John Huarte in his Heisman Trophy season.
Double duty was an Arrington specialty. He also placed third in the 1965 NCAA wrestling tournament in Wyoming, making him one of only four Notre Dame football players to earn All-America honors in both football and a second sport.
Bob Golic (wrestling), Rocket Ismail (track and field) and Moose Krause (basketball) are the others.
Arrington, who died in 1993 at age 51, gave a fascinating interview to The Scholastic, Notre Dame’s student magazine, in its May 1965 edition after it named him the school’s Athlete of the Year.
“When people ask me how I can keep up with studies and play two sports, I tell them I don’t know,” Arrington told the magazine. “It’s very hard for athletes around here to keep up with solid courses and also play. Yet a person needs sports in his life if he is going to be well-rounded.
“You have to have knowledge in the first place, but it will do you no good unless you learn to work yourself hard and not quit just because you are tired or sore.”
Arrington, who played briefly for the AFL’s Boston Patriots after being drafted 31st overall in 1966, attended college during the peak of the civil rights movement.
“Besides sports and studies, you also have to have social activity, a chance to develop your own personality,” Arrington told The Scholastic. “It is something we don’t emphasize here as much as the other two, and it is hard to find the spare time, but without all three you can’t really expect to be well-rounded.”
March 14 will mark the 29th anniversary of Arrington’s death. Three days later, his great nephew will take the field for his first spring practice as a coach at Notre Dame.
Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for ndinsider.com. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.