A blueprint of Notre Dame's successful January recruiting official visits

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

There’s an art to the official visit.

Clark Lea knows this. When Notre Dame’s first-year linebackers coach held the same position at UCLA in 2009, he bore witness to Rick Neuheisel’s charismatic brilliance. The Bruins’ relentlessly amiable head coach transformed the campus tour into a uniquely personal voyage. Neuheisel criss-crossed his alma mater’s campus with a genuine vigor, leading recruits and their families on a trip into his past — and their future.

Lea watched and learned, as captivated as the commits.

“Any recruit that we’d offer, when they came on campus, it wasn’t a student taking them around or another coach. He was with them,” Lea said. “UCLA is obviously a beautiful place and you’re able to get out year-round, but he would have stories at each stop. He would stop and explain historical significance. He would give a personal anecdote or something funny.

“I can remember, the first time I went with him, he was on the top of Janss Steps, and he had all the families look west and get hit by the breeze in their face. He said, ‘Do you feel that? That’s the ocean breeze.’ And, ‘Look over there. That’s Bel Air.’ He was just really a neat storyteller. He had a way of making the place where your feet were incredibly special.”

Eight years later, Notre Dame — featuring six new full-time assistant coaches, Lea included — garnered the commitments of six players in the final two weeks before National Signing Day for the 2017 class, five of whom visited campus for the first time.

Granted, South Bend is a long way from Bel Air and the ocean breeze. But what did the Irish do to showcase what’s ‘incredibly special’ about Notre Dame?

‘I haven’t seen anything like that’

Every program touts coaches, schemes, facilities, uniforms.

The Irish coaching staff emphasized that only one of them offers a Notre Dame degree.

“I just felt that Notre Dame did an excellent job of highlighting what sets them apart from other institutions. It was big-time stuff,” said kicker Jonathan Doerer, who flipped his commitment from Maryland to Notre Dame on the final day, of his official visit.

“The academic piece — you could look at the percentages and the numbers all day. When they show you that kind of stuff, it does simplify your decision process a little bit.”

So, yes, Notre Dame sat its recruits down for an academic presentation. It flaunted pristine graduation rates, world rankings and post-football success stories.

But the greatest imprint came from the university’s professors — a living embodiment of what’s offered beyond touchdowns and lofty tradition.

“I met one of the professors (Notre Dame graduate and business professor Christopher Stevens) who was one of the founders of Keurig. I haven’t seen anything like that,” said wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, who flipped his pledge from Missouri to Notre Dame during his Irish official visit. “With the networking and Notre Dame being the No. 1 business school, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be talking to people who were former CEOs and know the business world well.

“I want to major in business management or business marketing. To have teachers who are at the top of their field, you just can’t pass up on that.”

‘They’re the guys that I want to play for’

Notre Dame has six new assistant coaches as well as a first-year director of strength and conditioning. Its head coach, Brian Kelly, owns an approval rating that parallels the current president’s. The team’s 2016 season, a 4-8 disaster, won’t instill much in the way of confidence.

So how did the coaching staff sell recruits on the football program’s immediate future?

“Whenever we had some free time, (wide receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander would take me into his room and show me what he was all about,” Armstrong said. “We watched some old tapes from when he was at Arizona State, some of the drills and techniques that he ran to show that this is what he’s looking for in his receivers. (Offensive coordinator Chip) Long showed me some plays from Memphis and what the base offense is going to be.

“It was very effective, just showing me what they’re about. They’re the guys that I want to play for.”

Mike Elko’s defensive staff did the same. Even special teams coach Brian Polian, who first contacted Doerer just a week before National Signing Day, was persistent in building a relationship and emphasizing a need for the lanky kicker in their class.

“I definitely spent the most time with coach Polian. I sat with him three different times,” Doerer said. “I spent a lot of time with him, just talking about what they want to see out of me and how they want to see me progress before I got there.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff didn’t merely promise a sudden turnaround. They offered each prospective commit a role in making that turnaround possible.

And the coaches weren’t the only ones perpetuating that vision.

“With (sophomore quarterback) Brandon Wimbush and some of the offensive guys, I just felt that I could relate to these guys more. These are my type of people,” Armstrong said. “That’s why I chose Notre Dame, because we’re all the same guys.

“On top of getting a quality education, we also want to win. I’m ready to go to work with them.”

‘A community feeling’

Kofi Wardlow wasn’t coming to see a show.

No bells. No whistles. No red (or in the case of Tennessee’s ritzy official visits, orange) carpets. No productions that eventually prove a whole lot different than the final product.

Just the right set of people working towards a common goal.

“I don’t want to choose a school based off its official visit,” said Wardlow, a defensive end who flipped his commitment from Maryland to Notre Dame. “They show you all the glamorous things and then when you sign and get there, you don’t see those things.

“Going to a café at 2 o’clock in the morning (at Notre Dame) and seeing everybody there chatting it up, not just giving me their full attention or asking me about anything, it’s seeing what basic life would be like there.”

What Wardlow saw is what he’ll get. No free rides or hollow promises.

“I asked (early enrollee offensive lineman) Aaron Banks yesterday, ‘Is there any surprises after being here two or three weeks?’” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said on National Signing Day. “He said, ‘No. It was what I saw when I was recruited.’

“I said, ‘What do you like best?’ He said, ‘How much support I have from the players and the university to make my adjustment.’ I thought it was a very mature comment he also made, that the people here helping you — whether it’s in the weight room, whether it’s in academics — it’s all set up.”

Notre Dame doesn’t have a football facility with a miniature golf course and a basketball court, like Clemson. It doesn’t get hit with an ocean breeze, like UCLA. It doesn’t unveil an endless array of uniform combinations, like Oregon.

It has its degree, its tradition, its values and its people.

And for those six late commits, that was more than enough.

“Everyone talks about Notre Dame and how great of a school it is,” Armstrong said. “’When you go on campus, you have to visit A, B and C. You have to go to the basilica. You have to go to the Golden Dome.’ Those are all great, but what I liked most was the people.

“The people and players, coaches and teachers, admissions people, they seemed like they wanted the best out of their students on and off the field. They wanted their students to reach their highest potential.”

At Notre Dame, at least, sincerity trumps the show.

“I had a really good connection with my host, (freshman defensive end) Daelin Hayes,” Wardlow said. “I remember going to that café at like 2 o’clock and everybody was there and it was kind of a community feeling. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be like a stranger and not know anybody.

“It was friendly. It just felt right.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame cheerleaders run out onto the field following a touchdown during the Notre Dame-Nevada NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN