Tom Zbikowski goes inside a coordinator change and how it can affect ND's players

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If there’s such a thing as car lag, Tom Zbikowski is neck deep in it on I-90, zipping along with his German Shepard fresh off a reunion of sorts in Northern Minnesota with former Notre Dame football teammates Jeff Samardzija and Trevor Laws.

The former Irish All-America safety and current Chicago firefighter/part-time professional boxer is still lucid enough, though, after double-digit hours in the car, to recall vividly the three different defensive coordinators and three different position coaches that helped shape his college experience.

“The good ones can really change the path of your career for the better and the bad ones can really screw it up,” Zbikowski, 31, said of the assistants who worked with him on a daily basis.

“The (crappy) thing about college athletics is that you really are, to some degree, at the hands of someone else’s discretion on how they handle what you bring to the table. It is a fine line from having that right approach with you and being a distraction.”

As he pondered how current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly might go about a permanent solution to replacing ousted defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder — interim Greg Hudson or someone from the outside — the lessons learned from all those coaching changes came flooding back.

Kelly’s attention, by the way, is on the more-pressing near future, with a matchup for his Irish (3-6) against Army (5-4), its triple-option offense and No. 6 defense nationally Saturday in a Shamrock Series game at the Alamodome at San Antonio, Texas.

“When you watch some of these 48-42 games, you wonder if a defensive coordinator even matters these days,” Zbikowski said. “But then you look at the really good teams, and they all still play defense.”

After Zbikowski redshirted in 2003, he was a four-year starter from 2004-07. Head coach Tyrone Willingham recruited him out of Buffalo Grove (Ill.) High School, but he played more seasons under successor Charlie Weis.

Zbikowski’s coordinators, in succession, were Kent Baer (currently the defensive coordinator at UNLV), Rick Minter (defensive line coach at Georgia State) and Corwin Brown (out of football since after the 2010 season). His DBs coaches, in succession, were Trent Walters (retired), Steven Wilks (assistant head coach, DBs coach with the Carolina Panthers) and Bill Lewis (last year coaching was 2007, at ND).

Some general takeaways by Zbikowski from all those different voices?

• Playing together trumps scheme and to a certain extent trumps talent. Being on the same page matters.

• A bad idea is better than no idea.

• It’s not about how much the coordinator knows. It’s how much the players know. And not every coordinator is a good teacher.

• Players don’t all learn the same way. Zbikowski claims he never opened a playbook in college or during his 5-plus pro seasons.

“It didn’t make sense to me,” he said of the X-and-O diagrams. “It looked like Etch A Sketch.”

He couldn’t memorize plays, but he could learn concepts and learn how the pieces of the defense fit together.

“I didn’t mind messing up on the field and taking a few (butt)-chewings, because that was my process,” he said. “And that’s why I was never a (true) freshman starter or a guy a coach liked right off the bat.

“It took time, but once I got it down, you could count on me. And from then on, there wasn’t anybody in the room who understood the defense better than I did.”

• Stats don’t always tell the story about an assistant coach’s prowess. Minter had the two worst seasons statistically of Zbikowski’s four as a starter, but impacted him the most positively.

“We didn’t have depth when Minter was our coordinator,” Zbikowski said. “He was the hardest worker on the entire staff. He was really great with situational stuff, and putting you in the best position to make plays, but some of that got lost in the translation because of our personnel at the time.

“He just consistently put you in the right place and the right situation. So did Bill Lewis.”

Lewis, Zbikowski said, was the best coach who touched his football career at any level.

“He was just an old school guy who made you believe every detail mattered,” Zbikowski said. “He was a true professional. He really was.

“Used the old translucent paper with the overhead projector with the markers, with the spit flying onto the screen. Details and footwork every single day. He didn’t get all hung up on a bad play or a real good game. Just even keel. Nothing was as bad as it seems. Nothing was as good as it seems.”

The coaching changes, Zbikowski says, got easier with each one, and he said he learned something different from all of them.

“When it comes right down to it, no one’s got the perfect defense,” Zbikowski said. “Something’s always got to give. You pick your poison. But you move around and disguise what you’re willing to give up. And the guys who can teach you how to do that are worth hiring and keeping.”

Fatigue is starting to set in as Zbikowski’s final stretch toward home comes into focus. The question comes about how similar or different this year’s 3-6 team might be to the 3-9 version he played on in 2007, his final college season.

“The only good thing about that year was how the fifth-year guys got a lot closer, so my personal life was better,” he said. “Losing to Air Force and Navy and starting out 0-and-(bleeping)-whatever-we-were is something I don’t even want to remember.

“Other than playing quarterback against Duke and a couple of good (punt returns), I’ve put it out of my mind. I just try and pretend I had graduated by then and was somewhere else. It kind of works for me.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Former Notre Dame All-America safety Tom Zbikowski (top), here celebrating with teammate Jeff Samardzija, played for three different defensive coordinators and three different DBs coaches during his college career. (Tribune File Photo)