Notre Dame football: VanGorder casts strong impression
The already-worn thread in the Brian VanGorder-to-Notre Dame saga is the Grand Valley State connection that flashes too much inside-the-box thinking when it comes to Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s critics.
While the more than two-decade-old chemistry between the soon-to-be anointed Irish defensive coordinator and Kelly sparked the hiring that will become official once ND’s protracted and George O’Leary-inspired vetting system runs its course, it’s hardly an indication of who VanGorder has become, particularly over the last calendar year.
Multiple sources confirmed the hiring first reported Saturday night in the hours that followed No. 25 Notre Dame’s 29-16 New Era Pinstripe Bowl conquest of Rutgers in New York.
The scuttlebutt Sunday, including from insiders in the coaching community, is that Kelly has upgraded the position. Both former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and VanGorder are Broyles Award winners, emblematic of the nation’s top assistant coach. Diaco, Connecticut’s recently minted head coach, took the honor in 2012, VanGorder nine years earlier while coordinating the defense at the University at Georgia.
“I think Brian will have more tools in the box and be a little more aggressive,” one coach familiar with both men said.
The aggressive streak is purported to have come with the one season VanGorder just spent coaching linebackers for New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
Kelly said publicly in recent days that he wanted a new coordinator who will keep ND in a base 3-4 defense but with the multiple principles to slide into 4-3 packages. VanGorder, by all accounts, fits that description almost prototypically. What he’ll likely add from his Rex Ryan experience is aggressive looks on third down and exotics occasionally on all downs.
Even as a position coach — and not someone coordinating a defense — the 54-year-old Jackson, Mich., native made a significant impression on those who watched him with the Jets in 2013.
“What struck me while watching Brian in training camp was seeing how much of a teacher he actually is.,” said Manish Mehta, who covers the Jets for the New York Daily News. “And there’s a lot of clarity in his message. And when you speak to him privately, you can tell he’s a guy who can convey that message in a simple, meaningful way.
“A lot of coaches, who are great football minds, don’t necessarily have that ability to deliver their points in a manner that everyone can understand, and I think he’s very clear, very direct, incredibly insightful, so he’s got the makeup of being a head coach, to be honest with you.”
VanGorder has done that too — at alma mater Wayne State (1992-94) and Georgia Southern (2006), the latter constituting one of a couple of coaching hiccups on the résumé. The other was his single season at Auburn (2012), where his son, Mack, remains a backup defensive back.
The Tigers gave up a school-record 420.5 yards a game with VanGorder coordinating the defense, including a school-record 671 to Texas A&M during Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel’s run to the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
“I think some of those deficiencies at Auburn, as someone who watches college football somewhat closely, had more to do on the recruiting end of things and the personnel he was given in those situations,” said Kristian Dyer, who covers the Jets for Metro New York and is also a contributor to Yahoo! Sports’ NFL coverage.
“Look, I saw a coach who I think can make that transition being a defensive coordinator at the college level from where he was in the NFL, because he’s got energy, he’s enthusiastic. He’s the guy when the pack is running from one station to another in training camp, he’s the first one there. He’s not walking there. He’s running. He’s leading by example.
“And when you’re taking the kind of blue-chip talent they’re going to get at Notre Dame, I think the players feed off that kind of energy. And I think dealing with a coach like a Rex Ryan, whose someone who’s very much a gung-ho, upbeat guy but very much about the details, this was a good place for Brian to come for just a season to be able to re-establish himself and maybe shake off that Auburn stigma.”
Kelly and VanGorder didn’t have stigmas or even reputations yet when they both coached under Tom Beck at Grand Valley State. In the first two years they were together, Kelly served as Beck’s defensive coordinator and VanGorder as the defensive line coach.
When Beck left to go to Notre Dame in 1991 as the Irish running backs coach for Lou Holtz, what turned out to be poetic symmetry of sorts saw Kelly elevated to GVS’ head coach. He promoted VanGorder to be the defensive coordinator.
The next year VanGorder was off to Wayne State, where he had played linebacker for four years, lettering in two of those. One of his teammates there was Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery.
“Brian was a tough, tough football player for us,” said Dick Lowry, who coached them through their junior seasons. “Awful, awful tough kind of a football player. Was always ready to play. He had a great attitude and a great mind.
“I thought he would (get into coaching), because he was a real student of the game. We never talked about it, but it didn't surprise me, and it doesn't surprise me that he's been very successful.’’
Many feel he’ll excel at recruiting, though VanGorder has had to do that only one season in his last seven as a coach. The rest of the time he’d been in the NFL, including five with the Atlanta Falcons and the last four of those as that team’s defensive coordinator.
“What's a good sign is that he's used to SEC recruiting, and that's a major plus for him,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, referring to VanGorder’s four-year run at Georgia and one season at Auburn.
“There's no better athletes than in the SEC. This guy has coached against those athletes. He knows who to go get. He knows how to win in the toughest conference in the country and he knows how to recruit. It's a win-win for Notre Dame.”
But even those who have only seen his pro side like the father of five’s recruiting potential.
“He comes off as a good family man,” Dyer said. “You see him with his kids up in training camp, college-age kids and there’s a love and affection there that I think will translate well to the recruiting trail. Certainly when you’re talking to fathers and mothers and saying, ‘Hey, entrust your son to me for 3-4-5 years,’ he can certainly speak to that experience.
“So while he may not have the deep ties you may want in the Midwest, and in particular, in the Northeast, for recruiting with the high school coaches, I think he can come in and be the kind who can earn that confidence.
“I thought it was a very savvy hire for Notre Dame, and he brings with him that NFL résumé and pedigree, which always works with selling kids on a defense and certainly sells to recruits that, ‘I’ve got the contacts to take you to that next step,’ which all these kids think they can do.”