Brian VanGorder is hard-nosed football guy

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

When Notre Dame director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo describes one of the newest additions to the program’s coaching staff, he uses words such as competitive, intense and confident.

When Longo’s thoughts drift back to the late 1970s and early ’80s and he describes a former teammate at Wayne State University, he uses the exact same words.

The same guy — Brian VanGorder, Longo’s teammate at Wayne State and now ND’s first-year defensive coordinator — has remained the same guy.

“Hasn’t changed a bit,” Longo said. “You always knew what you were going to get.”

What Notre Dame is getting is a throwback, hard-nosed football guy whose say with his players is final, and one who realizes that observers can view him as a taskmaster whose voice booms.

But through that thick exterior, and beyond the trademark moustache that Longo jokes VanGorder has had since kindergarten, there are healthy doses of care and respect.

“I think through all that, sometimes people miss I really care about the player. I try to reflect well how he feels,” VanGorder said.

“I still remember that and I try to keep that in mind as I teach and coach — think about the player, not just me as a coach, but how’s the player see it, how’s the player affected by it. Not just the game, but by how I coach him. All those things are really important.”

What was important to fifth-year Irish coach Brian Kelly when he began the search to replace Bob Diaco, who is now the head coach at Connecticut, was finding a guy who could well-express his message.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher,” Kelly said. “I think, first and foremost, when you're talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and to teach. And Brian is one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I've ever been around.”

Kelly should know. A quarter-century ago he hired a young guy with no college coaching experience to coach his linebackers at burgeoning power Grand Valley State. That guy? VanGorder, who was in the infant stages of his coaching career.

After finishing his college career as a linebacker at Wayne State, VanGorder helped coach at his alma mater, West Bloomfield High School in Michigan, for a season before getting a crack to make the Miami Dolphins’ roster as an undrafted free agent.

With VanGorder being a stranger to Florida, the only person he knew in the Sunshine State was a guy who had started a football program at a private school in Florida, and he told VanGorder that if the Dolphins didn’t work out, he had a job as the head coach at Boca Raton Academy, which had recently fired its coach.

So VanGorder, who has a degree in criminal justice from Wayne State and had initial dreams of working for the FBI or Secret Service, had a fallback.

“The NFL thing didn’t work out, I called him up and took the job and I was in it,” said the 55-year-old VanGorder, who took that head-coaching job in 1982. “Yeah, I was in it.”

He’s still in it, a 25-year college coaching veteran who has coached in the pros (Jacksonville, Atlanta, New York Jets), and coordinated defenses at the highest level of college (Georgia and Auburn). In 2003 VanGorder was named the winner of the Broyles Award which goes to college football’s top assistant.

VanGorder spent three years at Grand Valley, two as linebackers coach and his third, the 1991 season, as the defensive coordinator.

“That was such a great time,” said VanGorder, the father of five, one of whom, son Montgomery, will be a walk-on quarterback with the Irish this fall. “We really didn’t know what we were doing, but boy we loved it.

“We had great enthusiasm in respect to it, and I think that we both shared a personal pride in respect to succeeding and doing it right. We had a blast. We were winning — that always helps. But I just had really fond and great memories of my entire time.”

Following the 1991 season, VanGorder was back at his alma mater as the Wayne State head coach. And if those players weren’t aware of VanGorder’s prowess as a player, Longo certainly could have filled them in.

Longo recalls he and his Wayne State teammates learning the hard way what they would get if they roamed the middle of the practice field. Waiting was a fierce linebacker, often with a forearm as a reminder that it was best for those with the ball to keep their head on a swivel.

“Oh yeah, are you kiddin’ me?” Longo said. “He loved that stuff. He’s a throwback linebacker. It’s 1977. We threw the ball on third down. It’s just bang, bang, bang. That’s his game, between the tackles.

Outside the tackles? See ya. But inside the tackles, he was pretty good now.

“He was a natural hitter. He laid out. He got a bead on you, he’d lay you out if you’d run right at him. You didn’t want to run right at him. You were going to eventually lose that battle, because he was one tough sucker.”

Three-plus decades later, Notre Dame’s defenders are learning that when they hit the practice field, it will be with the expectation that they will tend to every detail, there will be precision in what they do, and that they will take coaching.

“He’s demanding. He’s very precise in exactly what he wants and what he’s teaching,” Longo said. “But he’s also very positive in the sense that he doesn’t tear them down. He tells them exactly where they’re at, what they need to do get from A to B. He definitely doesn’t sugar-coat anything.”

There’s no sugar-coating that what VanGorder inherits at Notre Dame. Yes, the defense has stars at each level — Sheldon Day along the line, Jaylon Smith at linebacker and KeiVarae Russell at cornerback — but there are also depth and talent questions, particularly in the front seven.

Four defensive starters — Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson — were among the top 187 players selected in the May NFL Draft, and another three key performers — linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, and defensive lineman Kona Schwenke — signed as free agents.

VanGorder’s answer? A multiple defense that could use a lot of 3-4 looks one week and a lot of 4-3 looks the next. In fact, those looks could change from down to down, depending on down/distance and personnel.

That approach made for an important spring in which new terminology and new looks were meshed with some old and new personnel. The teaching style that Kelly pointed out upon hiring VanGorder was put to use in the spring, as it will be when fall camp commences in August.

VanGorder is perhaps as important as any hire Kelly has made since arriving in South Bend prior to the 2010 season. It was defense that carried the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game two years ago, and it was a slip in defense that was one of the culprits in ND slipping to a 9-4 mark in 2013.

In 2012, the Irish ranked seventh nationally in total defense in allowing 305 yards per-game, and finished second in the country by allowing 12.7 points per contest. Last year, the total defense ranking dropped to No. 31 (364 ypg) and the scoring figure went up to 22.4 ppg, which ranked the Irish 27th in the country.

Diaco's departure prompted Kelly to reach into his coaching past to hire VanGorder away from the New York Jets, where he was completing his first season as the team’s linebackers coach.

When VanGorder arrived in New York, he was faced with rebuilding a linebacker corps that contributed to the team the previous season ranking seventh-worst in the league in run defense. VanGorder’s largely new cast of linebackers helped straighten that figure out to where the run defense was the third-stingiest in the NFL.

After ND's Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers in New York, word leaked that Kelly had tabbed VanGorder to run his defense. The move was made official in mid-January.

"In putting together a staff, I wanted to be around people that I enjoy being around," Kelly said. "And Brian is the right fit for me and this staff."

“He wanted to come here. He had other opportunities. There were people who wanted to make him their coordinator in the NFL, but he wanted to come here,” Longo said.

“I thought it was great, because I knew not only who we were getting, but what we were getting. It’s nice to have a close friend like that on staff, but there’s no doubt that he was the best guy out there for us. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Just as Longo gushes about the hire, he too relishes the fact that his good friend is now just steps away.

"It's still kinda neat when you hear that booming voice that he's coming in here, just rattling cages and stuff and just keeping everything going," Longo said.

“He was a great teammate. He was a great leader. He’s a 35-year close friend who hasn’t changed in 35 years. We could go a year without talking, and he’s still the same guy. Same morals, same principles. Just the same — this is what he stands for, this is who he is.

“And that’s not going to change.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is involved in the recruitment of Keisean Lucier-Smith. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ