Nevada's Brian Polian returns to Notre Dame as opposing head coach
Brian Polian sat down behind a blue table and a white microphone, opened a brown binder and organized a few pages of notes.
Then, he looked up and said exactly what he was thinking.
“Hope everybody’s doing well. It’s good to see you,” the fourth-year Nevada head coach announced at his weekly press conference. “So, we’re on to Notre Dame Week. We obviously prayed…”
“Excuse me. Prayed.” He chuckled and shook his head, acknowledging a slip of the tongue. Polian was aiming for “played,” but his pronunciation was diverted both by his past and imminent future.
“Fitting, given our opponent.”
It’s an opponent Polian knows all too well. Before he was a first-time head coach at Nevada, before he was the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Texas A&M, before he coached the special teams and safeties at Stanford, Polian held a myriad of positions at Notre Dame.
And even before that, he was a 13-year-old fan with a Starter jacket.
“I grew up as a kid, and Notre Dame was my team from the time that I was a small boy,” Polian said on Tuesday. “My dad took me there when I was 13 or 14 years old for a Notre Dame-Penn State game. I had a Notre Dame Starter jacket — one of those awful-looking, satiny Starter jackets.”
At age 29, Polian traded up for more authentic attire. He was hired by Charlie Weis in 2005 to direct the special teams and help with the defensive backs. Over the next five seasons, he would coach the linebackers and help recruit five-star Hawaiian Manti Te’o to South Bend, too.
Following the 2009 season, Weis was gone, and so was Polian.
But though time has passed, the memories haven’t faded.
“It was an incredibly formative time in my life and my career,” said Polian, who has accumulated an 18-20 record in his first three seasons at Nevada. “I do have personal feelings for the place that you can’t help. My wife and I were very young in our marriage when we got hired there. We welcomed our son when we were there. He was christened in the log chapel on campus. His middle name is after Fr. Paul Doyle, who was the team chaplain at the time.
“So I’m forever indebted to Charlie Weis for giving me the opportunity at 29 years of age to go coach there. My memories of the university and my time there are very fond. They’re very warm.”
After this weekend, Polian hopes his team’s memories of South Bend are equally fuzzy. Of course, that isn’t likely, as the Wolf Pack enter South Bend as a 28-point underdog, following a narrow 30-27 overtime victory over FCS Cal Poly last Friday.
If there is any hope to hold onto, it’s the fact that Nevada has played under a similarly searing spotlight before.
“There’s a difference between being excited about it and enjoying the opportunity and looking forward to it and being intimidated by it,” said Polian, whose Wolf Pack fell 44-27 at Texas A&M last season. “I have great respect for their fan base. It is a really, really neat atmosphere. But once you’ve played on the road in the SEC, it might be the same, but it won’t be harder.
“I mean, there were 102,000 people in the stadium at A&M last year. Our guys hung in there and fought their tails off, and I have no reason to believe that we won’t do the same thing this week.”
Added Polian: “Who doesn’t want to play under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus? You’d be nuts if you didn’t.”
Polian never brings his team to tour the opposing stadium before the game, and that won’t change this week — even for Touchdown Jesus. Sure, Heisman trophy winners have played there. Iconic coaches have strutted up and down the sidelines.
Rockne. Leahy. Hornung. Lattner. Montana. Holtz. Brown.
Those names mean something, absolutely. But at its core, Polian said, “a football field’s a football field.”
“The place is filled with legends, and history, and ghosts,” he said. “But we don’t have to worry about that. Tim Brown is not playing against us.
“I said that, and then I asked how many guys in our room knew who Tim Brown was. I like Tim Brown. He’s a good man, but it was less than 40 percent.”
At about 7 p.m. on Saturday, Polian hopes the Irish know who Nevada running back James Butler is. The same goes for quarterback Tyler Stewart and defensive back Dameon Baber.
Despite the odds, and despite his history, Polian’s new team will come ready to play (or pray).
“I’m walking down the tunnel and I’m wearing silver and blue, and I couldn’t be prouder,” Polian said. “I’m going to be on the correct sideline. I’m very excited about the opportunity to go with these guys that are my family now here.”