Dark times shed new light for Notre Dame DC VanGorder
SOUTH BEND - He could have burbled on for another 45 minutes and still not sufficiently covered all the superlatives on his elongated-but-impressive résumé.
The most intriguing and telling part, though, of Brian VanGorder’s meet-and-greet with the media Tuesday, his first as Notre Dame football’s defensive coordinator, was how he dealt with the scattered hiccups in his past.
That he’ll run a multiple 3-4 defense, as predecessor Bob Diaco did, and likely amp up the pressure, paints an incomplete picture of what the 54-year-old father of five brings to the meeting room, the field and the recruiting trail.
The overlay is a toughness forged through tough circumstances, such as his first foray as a college head coach, at his alma mater Wayne State, no less.
VanGorder had just finished three years at Grand Valley State, working for his new boss, Brian Kelly — the first two Kelly being the defensive coordinator at GVS and VanGorder the linebackers coach, the third Kelly’s first as head coach with VanGorder elevating to defensive coordinator.
It was 1992, and VanGorder tried to immerse himself in offensive football, traveling to the nearby University of Michigan to pick the brains of then-Wolverines offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and offensive line coach Les Miles (yes, that Les Miles), and to Michigan’s heated rival to brush up on defense from longtime Ohio State assistant Fred Pagac.
Reality back on his own campus, where he had been a college teammate of Notre Dame director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo and Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery more than a decade earlier, forced him to concoct a way to make those X’s and O’s work in a disadvantaged situation.
“The president at the time had tried to drop football at Wayne State,” said VanGorder, who fashioned a 16-17 record from 1992-94 before parachuting out to an assistant coaching job at the University of Central Florida.
“So it was a fund-raising program, and we were competing with 11 scholarships, and I believe that everybody else had like 36 at the time. And I didn't have any full time coaches. But it was a blast. And you had to learn how to really manage a game, and games for the most part that you were mismatched in terms of personnel.
“You had to really build a certain pride about who we were and what we represented to overachieve, and we were able to do that at Wayne State.”
There was the one-and-done head coaching experience at Georgia Southern in 2006, when VanGorder went 3-8, two years removed from the end of a celebrated four-year run as the University of Georgia’s defensive coordinator. There he had won the Broyles Award (2002) as the nation’s top assistant coach.
It’s one of just three losing seasons in the program’s modern history (1982-2013), which includes six FCS (Division I-AA) titles.
VanGorder’s tough lesson there was trying to force a pro-style offense on a team that had long been triple-option — and wildly successful with it, instead of a more gradual morphing toward that philosophy once he had a chance to recruit to that personnel.
“You talk about a transition that’s nearly impossible,” he said.
What seemed equally impossible was preserving the team chemistry when the botched schematics went south.
“I know people say, ‘We stuck together,’ ” VanGorder said. “Well, I'm telling you this group stuck together, and they were great coaches. Those coaches are in the NFL, some of them now.
“I know that some people were really disappointed in that event. I'm not, as I look back on it. It’s another opportunity to learn. It’s an event that you gain experience through, and you either choose to learn from it or you despise it. And I've always chosen to learn from all those kinds of things.”
His one-year stint as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2012, a statistical disaster, opened the door for a chance to work with Rex Ryan in 2013, when the college door closed on VanGorder and the rest of Gene Chizik’s deposed staff.
VanGorder served as the New York Jets’ linebackers coach under Ryan, one of the NFL’s most twisted and respected defensive minds.
“Deciding to go back into the NFL and catch on with Rex has been a real blessing for me,” VanGorder said. “You know, Rex is different than the coaches and different than myself in terms of his approach — he sees the game and ultimately schematically how he works and coaches a game.
“I think it was invaluable for me ... to really open my eyes again to somebody that's really unique in the business. ... He's created some things from a schematic standpoint that are problematic for offensive coaches. A lot of them they don't like the idea of running their offense against Rex, because it is — it's challenging.”
How much of that finds its way into the post-Diaco 3-4 multiple look and what that looks like in September is VanGorder’s wildcard and perhaps ultimately his trump card.
For Kelly, who has an aggressive bent bubbling inside of him anyway, the Ryan factor was not one of the litany of reasons he expressed Tuesday for why he hired VanGorder, but it’s a given that it’s a welcome asset.
He did cite VanGorder’s penchant for being a teacher, his understanding and ability to build on Kelly’s player development mantra, his wide range of experiences (even the painful ones), and the fact he “gets” Notre Dame.
“He understands Notre Dame,” Kelly said, “and understands the unique qualities that we have here, and that you're shopping down a different aisle here at Notre Dame.”
Kelly too was shopping down a different aisle when he picked VanGorder, a multi-faceted, complex thinker whose gift is boiling all that down into simple, manageable bites.
And that includes how he treats and what he expects from his players.
“I kind of relate that to raising our children,” he said. “We discipline them, but it’s important that they always know how much we love and care about them. And I think that’s one of the secrets of coaching. And that’s, at least, how I’ve always worked.
“We’re going to work them hard and we’re going to expect them to be the best that they can be, and we’re going to provide every opportunity to do that. Again, there’s going to be ebbs and flows and times when they’re going to feel uncomfortable.”
Just like VanGorder felt in his darkest moments, moments when he reinvented, renewed and reawakened.