Will Notre Dame football come on strong with Matt Balis replacing Paul Longo?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Mike Golic Jr. watched from a distance as the injuries accrued at an alarming rate in 2015, followed by a spate of fourth-quarter fades this past Notre Dame football season.

Usually the knee-jerk response to such things from the outside looking in doesn’t align with the internal audit. But the fact that seventh-year director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo won’t be returning in that capacity for an eighth season suggests something was amiss in that aspect of the football program.

Matt Balis, a source confirmed to the Tribune on Friday, will be named Longo’s successor once he completes the university’s exhaustive post-handshake vetting process. Irish Illustrated was the first to report the news of Balis’ anointment.

As for Longo, who had been with Irish head coach Brian Kelly for 13 seasons — covering stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati as well — there’s a chance he could accept a reassignment in the ND athletic department/football office.

“When you have a kind of season we had last year, everything gets looked at under a magnifying glass,” said Golic, a former Notre Dame offensive lineman and current co-host of ESPN Radio’s overnight sports show, First and Last. “If you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find things anywhere.”

Apparently Kelly did and is.

Longo joins defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and special teams coordinator Scott Booker as casualties of this past season’s 4-8 meltdown, with the offensive brain trust — offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach/offensive play-caller Mike Denbrock — opting out on their own.

And the trap doors may not yet be done unlatching.

So far, defensive coordinator Mike Elko and special teams coach Brian Polian are the first two in the next coaching wave that the university has officially acknowledged, with offensive coordinator Chip Long and Balis next in the queue for their introductory press release.

Perhaps Kelly’s most emphatic stride toward his own reinvention, though, is the ongoing makeover of the strength and conditioning program.

Just why an impending shift was necessary becomes apparent when talking with former and outgoing Irish players and their parents. There appeared to be too much of a do-it-yourself philosophy, to the point one departing player said, “It was clear that we were at a competitive disadvantage in games.”

Tracking fourth-quarter point differentials doesn’t tell the whole story. Though the Irish were outscored, 81-52, in the fourth quarters in 2016, they held an advantage in each of the previous four seasons, including a 90-39 command in 2012.

Golic, whose own experience with Longo was positive and productive, and didn’t mirror that of the more recent Irish players, doesn’t yet know what Balis’ vision for the program is.

The knowns include that the 1996 Northern Illinois University graduate comes to ND from the University of Connecticut, where he coordinated all 24 of the school’s strength and conditioning programs.

And his previous stops include spending four seasons working for Urban Meyer when the Ohio State head coach was at Utah and Florida, and that he overlapped former Irish strength coach Mickey Marotti at Florida for two seasons.

Golic’s own ascent from unheralded 265-pound recruiting three-star prospect to 295-pound starting right guard on the 2012 Irish squad that played in the national title game against Alabama was fueled in the weight room. So he knows the impact a strong leader in the strength and conditioning program can have.

“It can make a tremendous difference,” he said of his five years at ND that included three under Longo. “Outside of just the program that the strength and conditioning coach puts together, they’re the only voice the players have during those times of year when the coaches aren’t allowed to be around the players.

“The importance of that voice and how they’re molding the identity of a team, that starts in the offseason. When you talk about the values and what you want the strengths of your team to be, to me that starts in January and February when guys get back in the weight room.”

Just like offenses and defenses evolve over time, the strength and conditioning industry does too, and the coaches are challenged to keep up with the progression.

“So much has already changed from just a few years ago in regard to rest and recovery and the role that nutrition plays in all of this,” Golic said. “I know that’s something a lot more programs, including Notre Dame, have invested in.

“So it’s learning just how much everything you do, that whole picture, can affect it and how just going in and working hard in the weight room and putting up a ton of weights won’t be enough if you’re not doing it in the right, structured way and not adding to it when you’re away from the weight room.”

Perhaps part of the problem that led to the leadership change at ND and the solution moving forward may rest on the players’ shoulders. That’s one of the reason Kelly named a record number of captains (six, once DeShone Kizer declared for the NFL Draft) and doing so in December instead of waiting until August, as he did in 2016.

“Coach Longo used to say, ‘You lead from the front and I’ll lead from the back,’ ” Golic related. “He wanted guys who were the leaders on the team to be just that.

“Certainly the coaches have to set what they want the culture to be, set what they want the ideals of the program to be. But once that standard is there, it’s on you as players, because ultimately I’ve always believed that football is player-driven and that’s who you win with.

“So those guys have to decide this is how far they’re willing to take this thing. That was always our mind-set, that we were making sure we drove the ship and pushed it as far as we could and set that standard for everyone else.

“And then the people who were stragglers and left behind, those were the people the strength and conditioning coaches would get on those guys and try and find ways to correct that behavior.”

Now it’s up to a new regime to make those corrections.

“It’s just unfortunate that when things like that happen, people have to lose their jobs because of it,” Golic said. “It’s the ugly side of the business side of college football.

“But I think coach Longo would be the first to tell you in the scheme of everything that happened last season, he would wear his appropriate share of the blame, just like the players have to, just like the coaches have to and everyone down the line.”

New Notre Dame director of football strength and conditioning Matt Balis comes to the Irish from the University of Connecticut. (Photo Courtesy of UConn Sports Information/STEPHEN SLADE)