How Tom Rees quickly climbed the coaching ladder back to Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It might look, on the outside, like Tom Rees never left.

After all, here he is, seated in a blue padded chair inside the Guglielmino Athletics Center, draped head to toe in Notre Dame gear — green Irish hat, blue Irish pullover, gray Irish shorts and blue Irish shoes.

He is a walking, talking, whistle-toting advertisement for his alma mater, the same place where he passed for 7,351 yards and 61 touchdowns from 2010 to 2013. For four years, he sat in these chairs, a small planet orbited by swarms of local and national press, absorbing perhaps the brightest spotlight shining anywhere near South Bend.

And now, he’s back again — a little older, markedly wiser, neck-deep in a voluntary bout of Notre Dame déjà vu.

Of course, there are some subtle differences. Scruffy facial hair. Different branding. And don’t forget the name and title. Tommy left a seasoned quarterback, and Tom returned an ascending quarterbacks coach.

But what happened in between?

Embracing a lifestyle

Pat Fitzgerald recruited Tommy Rees, then recruited him again.

The second time, it stuck.

The first time, of course, was back in 2010, when Rees was a 6-foot-3, 192-pound quarterback from nearby Lake Forest High School in Lake Forest, Ill. Rees’ father, Bill Rees, was a member of Fitzgerald’s staff at Northwestern at the time, serving as the coordinator of player personnel and assistant director of football operations.

Still, Rees chose Notre Dame, and you probably know the rest.

But when he sought to become a coach in 2015, specifically as an offensive grad assistant, Fitzgerald offered an opportunity — just not with the Wildcat quarterbacks.

“Obviously it would have been easy for him to work with the quarterbacks every day, but I wanted him to expand his understanding of how to teach and how to coach,” says Fitzgerald, who is entering his 12th season as Northwestern’s head coach.

“He was a quarterback, and he never would say this, but a lot of quarterbacks operate this way. They always get mad when the receiver drops the ball, right? Well, why don’t you go out and coach that guy now and see how hard it is to be him?”

It was so hard, in fact, that Rees immediately took to the position. Northwestern cruised to a 10-3 season, and Rees was offered a position with the San Diego Chargers after having coached for all of a year.

“It’s a lifestyle, it’s not a profession,” Fitzgerald says. “You’ve got to be first to show and last to go and embrace every role that’s thrown upon you. When you do that, you usually end up learning a ton. You end up gaining the respect of the players and coaches and support staff, and you’re just a good teammate. Tommy was an excellent one.

“To see the type of success that he’s had, that’s no surprise to anybody in our program.”

A coach, not a friend

“How old is he?” asks Shane Steichen, the Los Angeles Chargers’ quarterbacks coach. He just worked daily with Rees for roughly a year, and honestly, he has no idea.

Twenty-four years old, you tell him, and Steichen nearly cuts you off. He swats away the number like a center protecting the rim.

“He doesn’t act like a 24-year-old,” Steichen interjects. “That’s the difference. He carried himself in an adult manner. He carries himself like he’s a 34-year-old, the way he goes about his business.”

Rees’ business, in his lone season as an offensive assistant with the Chargers, often required him to coach players who were significantly older and more experienced. And yet, it never showed.

“It’s hard for some young coaches to say, ‘All right, I’m the same age as these players,’ and a lot of our players were older than Tommy,” says Nick Sirianni, the Chargers’ wide receivers coach. “But there was never a moment where it was like Tommy trying to be a guy’s friend — ever. Which is a good thing. He was always their coach.”

Experience, believe it or not, is not a critical trait in a successful football coach. Do you know the game, and can you teach it?

Rees checked both boxes in permanent ink.

“When he came in, the players respected him, because he knew what he was talking about,” Steichen says. “As soon as you know what you’re talking about at any level — it doesn’t matter what level it is — as soon as you can help these guys, they’re going to respect you no matter what your age is.”

Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tom Rees coaches wide receiver Dontrelle Inman during his lone season as an offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers in 2016 (photo courtesy Los Angeles Chargers).

Trading languages

Try teaching someone, anyone, a foreign language.

Only, there’s a catch: they have to be fluent in less than a week.

That was Rees’ challenge twice last season, when the Chargers signed wide receivers Jeremy Butler and Geremy Davis mid-week with the expectation they'd be available on Sunday.

Rees had, at most, five days — 120 hours, if you don’t count sleep — to teach an offense and the terminology that makes it go.

“There was never, ‘Hey, how am I supposed to do that?’ Sirianni says. “That’s a pretty daunting task, to say, ‘Teach this guy the entire offense in a week, so he’s ready to play in an NFL football game on Sunday.’

“You’re speaking Chinese to him initially, because your words are not the same words that he knows.”

Rees took Chinese, and he made it English. However daunting, five days was more than enough.

“I was blown away because Tommy got them both ready to play within the week, and it allowed me to focus my attention on the game plan and the other players that were going to play in that game,” Sirianni says. “It’s a pain in the butt, because he’s got his own work to do, too.

“He was not only able to communicate (the offense), he was able to work his butt off to get it done.”

Two in a million

Make a list of all the things you need to do this week.

How many items are on it? How far down does the rabbit hole go?

“He’s probably got a million things to do in a week, and I’m not saying figuratively,” Sirianni says of Rees’ former gig. “I’m saying literally a million things.”

Say Rees is breaking down game tape, Sirianni explains. Each play has at least 10 things worth noting, from the obvious to the virtually imperceptible. Now, compound that by 50 or 100 plays. Now, run through a practice — drill after drill, day after day. Teach a new addition the offense. More game tape. More drills. More scouting. No sleeping.

Just as Rees comprises a million working cells, his job boiled down to a million weekly tasks.

Oh, and no room for error.

“Me and Shane (Steichen) would get on him a little bit if he ever made a mistake. And you know what? It never really fazed him,” Sirianni says. “I know in that position I used to get frustrated about that. It’s like, ‘I just did a million things. I made three mistakes out of a million, and you’re going to bust my chops on that?’ I remember distinctly thinking that, and Tommy may have thought that, too. But you could never tell that Tommy thought that.”

The life of an entry-level assistant means that when you finish your work, you don’t go home. Instead, you stay until all of the other assistant coaches have left, just in case your services are needed. And when the game ends on Sunday, when the other assistants spend time with their families, you head back to the office. Your family is football. You start cutting up tape and diagramming plays.

Occasionally, you make a mistake — in Rees’ case, two in a million.

“You could tell he played in a game at Michigan in the fourth quarter and it was tight,” Sirianni says. “You could tell he played in front of all the fans at Notre Dame. You could tell he played in a big game at USC to end the year.

“You could tell those things based off his calmness and based off his readiness. He prepared himself to make only two mistakes out of a million.”

Plenty left to learn

When Rees decided to take the job as quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame, he called Fitzgerald, who was running on a treadmill at a hotel in Houston in between in-home recruiting visits.

Still, he answered the phone.

“I look at my coaches like my players,” Fitzgerald says. “I’m going to be there for them to help them with anything they need until I die. Whether they like it or not, they’ve got me.”

These are the people, in a span of two years, who have shaped the man and coach that Rees has become.

“Those two guys really challenged me to be better and understand, ‘This is the expectation we hold for our players, and you can never come below that. You never want to bat an eye,’” Rees says of Steichen and Sirianni. “I worked really hand-in-hand with Nick, and he taught me about being hard on those guys and never accepting anything but the utmost perfect detail.

“There are little things — how you grade a player, how you present a handout to them — that I’ve really developed from him and has gone a long way with teaching these guys.”

“These guys,” in Rees’ case, are Notre Dame quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush, Ian Book and Montgomery VanGorder. Since he accepted the ND position in January, they have impressed him, they have surprised him … and occasionally, they have annoyed him.

“They come up even when I don’t want them to and start talking to me about football,” Rees says with a laugh. “I love the group. I really do, and that’s what you get when you come here.”

Rees knows that better than most. He also understands the burden that Wimbush — a junior and first-time starter — will carry this fall. Tommy Rees has been there, and Tom came back to help lighten the load.

“When I first got here (this winter), I took a step back and said, ‘Hey, you need to make sure these guys understand it. Just because it makes sense to you doesn’t mean it’s going to click for them,’ ” Rees says. “You have to understand how they learn. If you get them on the board or you’re going through film, how do they retain it best? For me, that’s been a lot of fun, learning how those guys learn.”

Age may be irrelevant, but Rees, too, is still learning. After two years, and millions of tiny tasks, look how far he’s come.

“I expect to see great success from Tommy,” Fitzgerald says. “Like I told him, ‘Don’t forget about me someday.’”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees speaks with other coaches while the team is warming up during practice, Friday, March 31, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ