New Notre Dame QB coach LaFleur transcended toxic times
The supposed splotch in the otherwise feel-good narrative of Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s latest hiring appears to be much more conjecture than reality.
Those close to Matt LaFleur, officially dubbed as ND’s quarterbacks coach on Friday afternoon, and those with knowledge of the bitter end to the Mike Shanahan coaching regime with the Washington Redskins paint the Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native as a protagonist in the otherwise dark drama.
The constant and public bickering between Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III ended with a big statistical and image hit for RG3 and a Dec. 30 purging of Shanahan and 10 of his assistant coaches, one of whom happened to be LaFleur.
That’s a year after Griffin set an NFL record for highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback (102.4) while coaxing Washington to its first NFC East title in 13 years.
The unraveling in 2013 mixed in Griffin trying to come back from an injury and ultimately being benched in favor of former Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins. Also in play reportedly was Griffin’s father, Robert Griffin II, imploring Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to ditch Shanahan for RG3’s college coach at Baylor, Art Briles. Snyder ended up hiring Jay Gruden.
“Matt LaFleur wasn’t involved in any of the conflicts between Griffin and Shanahan,” said a source close to the Redskins with knowledge of the team dynamics. “He was pretty upset that he was even dragged into it.
“He has a good relationship with Robert, a good relationship with Kirk Cousins. He’s really a hard-working guy, a genuine guy, a guy who spent a lot of time in film study trying to get himself better and help those quarterbacks to get better. That’s what Notre Dame is going to get.
“He can tell the young quarterbacks he’ll coach there what it takes to get to the NFL, because he knows firsthand what it takes.”
LaFleur replaces the QB-coaching function of Chuck Martin, Miami of Ohio’s head coach since Dec. 3, who was also the Irish offensive coordinator in 2011 and 2012. LaFleur will be introduced in a press conference at ND on Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. EST.
ND’s new offensive coordinator is also scheduled to meet with the media at that time. Mike Denbrock is expected to replace Martin in the offensive coordinator capacity when the school finishes its exhaustive vetting/human resources process.
"This is a tremendous opportunity to once again work with Coach Kelly — who I believe is best head coach in the country," LaFleur said. "I'm extremely honored to be a member of such an outstanding coaching staff and join the premier program in college football. The history and tradition at this university is unmatched. I can't begin to describe my excitement to get started."
Kelly admitted recently that he wants to be more involved in both the coaching of the QBs and the offense, moving forward. He’ll likely spend most of his time coaching probable starter Everett Golson, with LaFleur charged with having redshirt freshman Malik Zaire and incoming freshman DeShone Kizer viable options should something happen to Golson.
"Matt has a proven résumé of developing quarterbacks at numerous levels of football, none more evident than his outstanding work with the Washington Redskins," Kelly said Friday via prepared statement. "He was a major factor in the success not only of two rookies, Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, but was also crucial in the resurgence of Rex Grossman's career, who in 2010 under LaFleur established numerous career bests.”
Martin admitted his strength as a quarterbacks coach was teaching reads, progressions and recognition of coverages, not footwork, delivery and motion. LaFleur reportedly brings all of that.
“He’s got all the characteristics,” said LaFleur’s college coach at Saginaw Valley State, Randy Awrey, who has since moved on to Concordia University in River Forest. Ill. “He’s got the work ethic, the knowledge of the game. He gets it. And people like to be around him.”
Kelly and LaFleur worked together in 2004-05, when Kelly was in his first couple of seasons as head coach at Central Michigan. But their paths first crossed when LaFleur was playing for Awrey and against Kelly when he was head coach at NCAA Division II bully Grand Valley State.
LaFleur transferred to Saginaw Valley State after spending the 1999 season at Western Michigan, where the coaching staff tried to convert him into a wide receiver. Awrey went 4-6 at Saginaw Valley State in that, his first, season.
LaFleur kind of landed in Awrey’s lap and took the program to three straight NCAA Division II playoff appearances as its starting quarterback. The Cardinals went 9-3, 11-2, and 9-3 in his three years as the Cardinals’ QB and 12-1 in 2003 in his first year in coaching, as a grad assistant under Awrey. The program has not bettered the 9-3 marks either before or since.
"My respect for Matt goes back to his time as an outstanding quarterback at Saginaw Valley State,” Kelly said. “He was an incredible competitor and displayed all the characteristics a coach would want in his signal-callers. That competitive drive to succeed was on display every day during his time with me at Central Michigan. He will develop our quarterbacks at Notre Dame to the highest level. I'm thrilled to have him on our coaching staff."
In between the end of his playing days and the start of his coaching career, LaFleur made a brief fling at the pro football dream, playing with the Omaha Beef and Billings Outlaws in the now-defunct NIFL (National Indoor Football League).
“Matt may be the most competitive person I’ve ever coached, a great player and an even better human being,” Awrey said. “If I was going to take every kid I’ve ever coached and lay them on a line, he’d be at the top. And if the guy was 6-4, he would have been playing in the NFL. He has the talent.”
Kelly saw that first-hand. In 2000, LaFleur and Saginaw Valley beat Kelly’s 7-4 Grand Valley team 28-21 in a regular-season clash. The following summer, Kelly switched to the spread offense.
In 2001, Grand Valley went from averaging 30.7 points a game to 50.5. Kelly’s GVS team walloped Saginaw Valley State and LaFleur, 38-7, in game two of the regular season, then survived, 33-30, over the Cardinals in the national quarterfinals.
In 2002, GVS beat Saginaw Valley, 23-18, on its way to the national title. It was the closest game in Kelly’s 14 straight wins that season. In 2003, GVS won the national title again. Saginaw Valley, with LaFleur now coaching with Awrey, handed GVS its only loss, 34-20, during the regular season. GVS got its revenge in the national quarterfinals, 10-3.
Kelly then hired LaFleur away from his alma mater.
“You always knew he was going to be a coach,” Awrey said. “There was never a question.”
LaFleur’s father, Denny, was a longtime defensive assistant at Central Michigan after playing linebacker for the Chippewas on their 1974 national championship team when the school was playing at the NCAA Division II level. And Matt was always hanging around the program growing up.
After his two seasons with Kelly, LaFleur moved onto Northern Michigan as quarterbacks coach for a year, then to Ashland (Ohio) as offensive coordinator and QBs coach before the Houston Texas hired him away and started a string of six seasons in the NFL.
“People look at his background and wonder if he can recruit for Notre Dame,” Awrey said. “And I have to laugh, because if you knew Matt, you’d know he’ll be a natural at that.
“When he was at Northern Michigan, in the only year he was there, he recruited three quarterbacks. One went on to start for four years at quarterback there. One went on to be a defensive starter there. And one was Matt Blanchard, who transferred to Wisconsin-Whitewater, won a national championship there and has played in the NFL (Bears and Panthers).
“Obviously, the kind of talent that comes to Notre Dame is different than what comes to the Division II level, but Matt knows how to spot talent and he knows how to attract it.”
And apparently he knew how to grow and help others grow in an otherwise toxic situation last season, his fourth with the Redskins.
“He worked with a lot of different styles of quarterbacks,” the Redskins source said. “From a super mobile guy like RG3 to Kirk Cousins to Rex Grossman to Donovan McNabb. They all learned a lot from Matt, but Matt learned a lot from them, too. And in the tough times, he was still all about technique and preparation. That never wavered.”
“I didn’t get all the information about what happened in Washington,” Awrey said. “Matt and I really didn’t talk about it. But what I do know, Matt handled it like I always knew he could. You do it with class. You do it with integrity. You stand up for what’s right. And when it all falls apart, you’re still standing.”