Analysis: Cutting through the hype and angst of ND coaching changes
Spotting greatness or even the promise of it in the college coaching ranks, Aaron Taylor has come to believe, doesn’t reside in the length of the résumé, the amount of gush in the endorsements or what their own career as a player looked like.
It starts and pervades with the ability to teach, to develop talent, to answer the “why” questions and not just the “how-tos.”
These are the most basic and yet most telling filters through which new Notre Dame football coaching staff additions Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, Keith Gilmore and Todd Lyght must pass in the weeks and months that follow their delayed formal introduction at a Monday morning press conference.
“I think people on the outside, who don’t get a chance to watch coaches coach on the field, naturally look at the great recruiters and equate that with being a great assistant coach,” said Taylor, a 42-year-old former All-America offensive lineman at ND and current college football analyst for CBS Sports.
“They’re smooth. They have great rapport. They’re personable and they’re funny. And they can be successful, but some of them are incomplete.
“A great coach is somebody that understands that not all players are created equal. They understand some players need to get kicked in the butt, some need to be patted on the back. Some need to have that happen at the same time.
“And Monday could be different from Wednesday, which could be different from Thursday. And I think the better coaches are the ones who understand their job is to maximize the individual potential of each player and, therefore, their unit, as opposed to forcing square pegs into round holes.”
The only two remaining pieces from head coach Brian Kelly’s original nine-man assistant lineup from the 2010 season — Mike Denbrock on offense and Mike Elston on defense —have proven to fit that profile. And yet, they may be the two most underrated coaches of the Kelly Era of ND football, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Meanwhile, the gap between the first reports of Lyght replacing Kerry Cooks as defensive backs coach almost a month ago until the university actually acknowledges that and the other staff shufflings come Monday is a product of the protracted George O’Leary-inspired vetting process and the pragmatism of introducing those coaches collectively.
In the interim, the void has been filled by a cascade of voices fawning over the new additions, dancing with angst from sections of the fan base who have over-connected the dots on the corresponding staff departures.
The reality is the unknowns about the newcomers are as intriguing as the possibilities. More compelling and potentially more catalytic is where Kelly fits into the new lineup, especially when it comes to what extent he’s managing the offense and the quarterback position.
Those are the areas while at Notre Dame in which he’s constantly searched for the right mix for himself in what continues to be a philosophical taffy pull, given the strength of those areas in his coaching skill set and the pull to use his resources elsewhere.
Here are three other key factors to watch as the newly shaped staff kicks off spring practice on March 18:
Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame?
Lyght and Denson aren’t just former Notre Dame players returning as assistant coaches. They’re former stars and record-holders.
Add to that former Irish quarterback Ron Powlus returning to his alma mater in a key football administrative position, after spending the past three years as QBs coach on Charlie Weis’ Kansas staff, and former Irish linebacker Maurice Crum migrating from Kansas to become a defensive grad assistant, and Kelly’s staff suddenly takes on a heavy Notre Dame lean.
“I don’t think you need Notre Dame people to be successful at Notre Dame,” Taylor said. “I think it helps. It’s certainly a benefit, but I don’t think it’s a requirement.”
What is a requirement are assistant coaches who understand Notre Dame, understand the culture and understand the dynamic of how much and how lasting the culture shock is for some of its players.
Recent coaching departee Tony Alford, a Colorado State grad, was someone who grasped that and was a reason ND retained so many players, but not all, who found themselves wrestling with transferitis.
“I talked to several players on the team last season about just that,” Taylor said. “Tony was a guy who genuinely cared, who knew what it was like to step onto a campus and maybe not look like most of the students and maybe not be as prepared with as many bullets in your academic gun as the kids that you’re sitting next to in class.”
Taylor said the new coaches will find that dynamic doesn’t immediately or easily fade.
“In the recruiting process itself, it comes down to a kid out of California or Florida or Texas wanting to move to a cold-weather climate on a small campus, where you’re going to be challenged academically as a 17-year-old, versus going to a warm-weather campus, where they’re going to tell you what to take and which classes are going to get you through school and not ask very much of you there.
“It takes a certain level of maturity and a certain level of foresight to understand and to buy into that it’s a 40-year decision and not a four-year decision or three-year decision, as you’re hearing some kids announcing on signing day now.
“I was a perfect example of it. When I stepped on campus from California, I knew I wanted to be a part of what was going on there, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was. Guys that don’t want to be there, don’t end up there. They choose somewhere else. Or if they do commit, they transfer and end up somewhere else pretty dang quickly because of what it requires.
“That’s why you need guys on the staff who get Notre Dame and also get how tough it is for these kids. You need someone that understands and really helps smooth that transition out for guys who are attracted to it, but get there and find that they’re being challenged maybe more than they bargained for on the front end, which is a high percentage of guys.”
The numbers game
Sanford will be Kelly’s fourth quarterback coach in six years. If he, as expected, adds the title of offensive coordinator, he’ll also be the fourth in six years to wear that title and third in the past three seasons.
Taylor had iconic offensive line coach Joe Moore coach him all four of his seasons at ND, but around him was constant movement and change in the assistant coaching ranks.
“Coaching inherently is a transitive industry,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the reasons I never considered moving into it myself. My wife would have never put up with it.
“For the college player, that movement is not ideal, but it can be beneficial. I know when I was on campus, there was no secret that Lou Holtz was hard to coach for and demanded a lot out of his assistants, and it’s a big reason why he was successful.
“But when you have movement at positions, it’s difficult because there are different techniques that different coaches have. Like I could have worked 2½ to three years on getting my footwork right to execute a certain technique, and then another coach comes in and wants it done a different way. So you’re starting over from scratch to a certain extent from that standpoint.”
The potential positive? You might end up with a better coach than the predecessor, one who knows how to get more production from the player.
Growing pains and gains
High football IQ is both a gift and a trap for coaches climbing the career ladder.
It’s those who can translate their own football IQ into manageable, digestible bites who not only climb faster, but make a lasting impression.
“It’s why you see pro coaches who come to the college ranks struggle sometimes, because it’s not just X’s and O’s,” Taylor said. “In the NFL, everybody knows how to run, block, catch, tackle and throw.
“But in college, you have to make a two-star guy turn into a four-star player, take a three-star player and get five-star production out of him. Some guys are naturally talented, but I think the skill is with coaches who are able to develop talent.
“That takes time, and not everybody can do that. I have no idea if Todd or Autry would be able to do that. But because of their age and because of the résumé that they had as players, they’ll certainly have the attention and the respect of the guys in their (meeting) room. And that will be a huge benefit to them and the results that they’re able to attain.”
Conceptually, Taylor said, almost every coach talks the talk of player development and some even go through the motions of it, but the authenticity or lack thereof behind it makes a monumental difference in whether players ultimately buy in.
“Players are smart enough to see through the BS,” Taylor said. “They know who cares and wants them to do well for them. And they know who is only yelling because their (butt) is in a bind and they’re getting yelled at in the coaches’ meeting rooms.
“Is their passion for self-gain or for the betterment of the player and the unit? I think savvy players kind of sift through that, and ultimately it makes a big difference in the bottom line of that coach and of the team.”