Notre Dame's Brian Polian brings new perspective to familiar roles

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

The cough drops aren’t helping.

Brian Polian sat at a makeshift table inside the Loftus Center, and it sounded like his voice was coated in a thick layer of cement. He was croaking like a prolific, persevering chain smoker — pumping out words in a raspy, guttural grumble.

Don’t let the voice fool you, though; Polian is in his element.

He can’t cover Freddy Mercury, but rest assured, he’s content to coach.

“My wife calls it ‘training camp voice,’” Notre Dame’s special teams coach and newly appointed recruiting coordinator said last week. “Usually about day five or six, it goes. There is no 'Carpool Karaoke' with me. Springsteen comes on in my car and I can’t sing along, because it’s gone. We went to Walgreen’s yesterday and bought a big thing of cough drops just to try and bring it back a little bit.

“But I usually am yelling at anywhere from 11 to 22 people at one time, so it’s a little bit different than being with a position group.”

Different than being a head coach, too. Back in November, Polian — who served his first term as Notre Dame’s special teams coach from 2005 to 2009 — was fired after four seasons and a 23-27 record in the head job at Nevada.

Now, he’s back in South Bend — and in familiar roles. On Sunday, head coach Brian Kelly announced that Polian has been named the program’s recruiting coordinator, a position he previously filled at Central Florida (2004) and Stanford (2011). Polian, 42, has also coached special teams with five different programs.

His stint as a head coach, however, granted Polian a fresh perspective.

“There are days right now when I’m really happy I have this job, because I get to coach football again,” Polian said. “The good news is I don’t have to go and raise money for chocolate milk. I don’t have to speak at 60 rotary clubs to get people to come to games. When you’re a head coach at a mid-major that doesn’t have very much, you’d be amazed at the amount of time you spend away from football.

“Now, to be out there coaching, working hands-on with the guys in drill work and leading football meetings every day, it’s a lot of fun. I would like someday to have another chance (to be a head coach), because I felt like we did a lot of good things at a hard place. But I’m not thinking about that now. I’m really just enjoying coaching ball and being with these kids.”

Kids like senior punter Tyler Newsome, who’s focused more on the outcome than the “ooohs.”

“Everybody looks at a 58-yard punt and says, ‘Oooh.’ But you go cover it,” Polian said. “That’s been the big challenge, to get Tyler to understand that a 44-yard fair catch is a big win. The 55-yard line drives down the middle of the field have to go away.

“So if he’s going to mis-hit a ball and it’s a 37-yard fair catch, don’t boo, because I’m high-fiving him.”

Kids like junior placekicker Justin Yoon, who is attempting to find his groove after sitting out spring practices with an injury.

“There’s always technical things that we can tweak a little bit, but we’ve backed him up as far as 52 (yards). He’s made it,” Polian said of Yoon, who converted one of three field goal attempts in Sunday’s scrimmage. “I’m trying to be very careful with him. There’s constant communication. ‘How are you feeling?’

“I think sometimes, if they’re left to their own devices, they will hit a thousand balls. Really, there comes a point where that is counterproductive. With that whole group I’ve tried very hard to make sure that we’re getting a lot of good teaching with them, but when their work is done, their work is done.”

Kids like freshman Jonathan Doerer, who continues to close in on a starting role delivering kickoffs.

“He’s the leader in the clubhouse, but we’re not quite there yet,” Polian said. “I want to put him in the stadium with some people around. He’s done a really nice job on the practice field.

“You can never replicate 82,000 and screaming, but we’ve got to try to keep putting him in pressure situations. Thus far, he has reacted very well. He is a very long and loose, athletic guy. He’s got a really, really bright future.”

Polian’s future, in the long term, is uncertain. But he’s more effective in the present after learning from his past.

“I think that’s one place where I’ve really evolved since I left. How do you practice smart without running them into the ground?” Polian said. “How can we get the work done that we need to get done without sprinting 80 yards up and back all the time and finding new and creative ways to drill and be conscious?

“Frankly, we have science that we didn’t have when I was here the last time. We can come off a practice, and if a guy was wearing the GPS, it can tell you how far he ran in the practice. That has changed how we approach certain periods and how we do certain things.”

Unfortunately, all the science in the world can’t save Polian’s struggling voice. A little older, a little wiser, and just as hoarse as ever, all he can do now is choke down some cough drops and get to work.

“When I got here (in 2005) I was 29. I was young. This was my first exposure to Power Five football,” Polian said. “I was trying to get to know Charlie (Weis) and how everything was going to work with him.

“People forget, when I got here at 29 I was not the special teams coordinator. That is not why I was brought here. It happened through the spring, so all of a sudden you were thrust into all this responsibility. There were times when it was like, ‘OK, am I ready for this?’ And there was a point I reached when it was like, ‘Yeah, I am. I’m going to be fine. What we do is fine.’

“Now I’m just a little bit more comfortable in my own skin.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Polian runs a drill during practice, Friday, March 31, 2017, in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)