How Notre Dame's new assistants survived, thrived in mad dash to signing day

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a reason Clark Lea wasn’t allowed to give Notre Dame’s campus tours.

During the program’s many recruiting visits last month, the prospective Irish players weren’t the only ones in desperate need of a tour guide.

“With a place like Notre Dame, there’s not a lot that you need to research,” said Lea, who was introduced as the team’s linebackers coach on Jan. 12, less than a month before the Irish signed 21 players on Wednesday’s National Signing Day. “You can look at U.S. News and World Report and figure out that it’s an elite school. Then the tradition in football speaks for itself.

"So most of the kids that we’re going to recruit, when you tell them we’re here to win national championships; when you tell them they’re going to graduate with an elite education and can show them the numbers; that starts the conversation. Then it’s relationship and trust-building.

“But my first time through on an official visit weekend, I learned where a lot of things were,” Lea added with a laugh. “I got lost a few times along the way, which is important, because you fail and you correct and that’s how you learn.”

For Notre Dame’s six new assistant coaches, the last month has been full of traveling, recruiting, studying — and learning.

And apparently, for Lea, that means getting lost.

“Clark Lea is challenged with directions,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said with a wry grin on Wednesday as Lea sat in the back of the room. “Don't follow him around. He gets us lost. He was on the West Coast (recruiting), and everything goes north and south. Once we went into Pittsburgh, he was lost.”

Lea may have been occasionally lost, but in Notre Dame’s mad dash toward signing day, the new Irish staff shared a common direction.

Forward. Always forward.

“It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind from the time the (Wake Forest) bowl game ended to today,” said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Elko, who was officially hired from Wake Forest on Dec. 20. “(You’re) learning about this university and how to sell this university, getting going on a recruiting binge to finish this class, opening some areas that I hadn’t been familiar with in recruiting, watching a ton of tape, trying to figure out where we had to go and then going out there and trying to sell this place.

“Yeah, it’s been crazy. It’ll continue to be for another year, probably, to be honest with you.”

Consider the list of responsibilities Notre Dame’s new coaches jammed into a frantic January. Simultaneously, they sought to:

• Move to South Bend

• Find a place to live

• Build relationships with the coaching staff

• Learn about Notre Dame

• Identify potential recruits

• Meet said recruits

• Bond with said recruits, and

• Land said recruits.

The itinerary leaves little room for rest and relaxation.

“It’s obviously a lot of newness,” Lea said. “The transition is always complex, and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to live and you’re trying to figure out who your new coworkers are. One thing that really helped in that was just that things are so organized here recruiting-wise that you kind of jump in and they hand you the keys and you just get to drive. That part of it was seamless.

“With coach Elko and I coming in, we got to know the guys that had offers. We got to know the guys that were committed. We got to know the guys that we were targeting to finish strong.”

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander’s strategy toward meeting committed recruits was fairly simple: Be prepared, and expect the same from the kid you’re signing.

“I kind of prepped him,” Alexander said of his first meeting last month with committed wide receiver Michael Young. “I don’t want to go into a home and the kid’s just sitting there, saying, ‘No, I don’t have anything,’ and, ‘Coach, I’m fine with you just being here.’ I wanted to know what was on his mind and I wanted him to speak from the heart, so he prepared several questions. He wanted to understand how I was going to coach him, what specific things I was going to try to teach him, what my philosophy was, where I stood on building him fundamentally.

“There was a bunch of stuff that we talked about, but it was good to get to know him, and it didn’t stop there.”

For a solid month, it never stopped.

No one complained, and everybody traveled.

“We’re leaving to go on the road. It was Jan. 11th or 12th,” said Mike Elston, Notre Dame's recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach. “Del Alexander hadn’t even been in the office yet, and (offensive coordinator) Chip (Long) had just gotten in on Sunday — the day before we were leaving. So there were a lot of challenges.

“Everything was being done via phone or Facetime. I’m sending messages to them. (Director of player personnel Dave) Peloquin is sending messages to them about, ‘Hey, check these guys out. We can get you guys in there on Monday or Tuesday.’”

Added Lea: “It felt like three straight weeks of nonstop (recruiting) and all hands on deck. It was a new state and a new city every day. But it was fun. As a competitor, this is fun for us, because you believe in what you’re selling — the product here at Notre Dame.

“My job is to get the word out and make sure the recruits are seeing it from the same vantage point that I saw it when I made my decision. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s certainly tiring.”

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian had plenty of time to sleep on the plane.

Just as he did with Manti Te’o in 2009, Polian flew to Hawaii … and brought a player back to Notre Dame.

“I did not want to be the guy just sitting in there eating a bagel and not doing anything to help the cause,” Polian said a few minutes after Hawaiian defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa sent his National Letter of Intent to Notre Dame. “I was involved with one or two others that went off in another direction. But I was very hopeful that we could get this guy, because I wanted in some small part to make a contribution to this class.

“With Myron and with (kicker) Jonathan Doerer, I feel like, even though I’ve only been here a month, I was able to do a little something to help the cause.”

In a trying, tiring and ultimately satisfying month, everybody did something — most more than a little. Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class multiplied from 15 steadfast members to 21 in the final week, punctuated by the addition of three players — Tagovailoa-Amosa, safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive end Kofi Wardlow — that announced decisions on National Signing Day.

On Thursday, Lea still probably won’t be able to give a credible campus tour.

He’s still learning, but the direction is clear.

Forward. Always forward.

“Each staff brings different personalities,” Kelly said. “These are guys that like each other. I enjoy being around them. They work hard. They understand Notre Dame. They understand our distinction. We're going out with one message. We're going out looking for the same kind of kid. That's a real good synergy when you turn over a number of coaches on your staff.

“For me, I'm proud that I get a chance to lead the group that I have. They hit the ground running. They didn't ask for much. They asked for a little bit of direction in terms of, ‘What are the general guidelines? Let's go to work.’ And they work. That was great to see.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

New Notre Dame football coaches pose for a photo with head coach Brian Kelly, fourth from left, during a press conference Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN