Analysis: Harry Hiestand's successor at Notre Dame must deliver on culture
SOUTH BEND — What does culture look like?
Mike Golic Jr., saw it in the first few minutes of Harry Hiestand being introduced six Januarys ago as his fourth offensive line coach in five years at Notre Dame.
Craig Nelson, father of Notre Dame's unanimous All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson, grasped it after three profound phone exchanges during the former five-star prospect’s freshman year at ND.
“As tough as Harry is on his players on the field, his genuine love and concern for them off the field, as aspiring adults, is even greater,” the elder Nelson said Thursday, less than 24 hours after Hiestand called every one of his players before informing Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick that his six-year run at the school was ending.
The 59-year-old, in his second tour of duty as the Chicago Bears’ offensive line coach, will have a chance to reunite with Quenton Nelson in a little over three months if he’s able to convince his new bosses to spend the eighth pick of the 2018 NFL Draft on the 6-foot-5, 330-pounder from Holmdel, N.J.
Notre Dame ninth-year head coach Brian Kelly, meanwhile, has a chance to perpetuate Hiestand’s legacy and take the sting out of the second post-Citrus Bowl exit by a key ND assistant coach if he remembers that résumés tell only part of the story.
Not that Hiestand’s was lacking. It most recently added, last month, a Joe Moore Award, emblematic of the best offensive line in college football. And in April, Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey are expected to be the third and fourth first-round draft choices he’s helped produce while at ND, joining Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin.
Even Moore himself had just two during his magnificent nine-year run at ND (1988-96) — Aaron Taylor and Andy Heck, the latter the Kansas City Chiefs’ 51-year-old offensive line coach and name that will justifiably generate speculation in connection with the ND job.
As a program, the Irish had only two first-round draft picks at any position — center Jeff Faine and QB Brady Quinn — in the 12 drafts from 2000 to 2011.
Hiestand’s calling card at Notre Dame was player development at an elite level, and it translated to the college game as thoroughly as it did in feeding NFL dreams. His successor’s should be too.
Stanley was the No. 15 offensive tackle in his class and No. 176 player overall coming out of high school, per Rivals.com. Martin and McGlinchey were each No. 22 in their respective classes, and neither made the top 250 overall.
Martin’s younger brother, Nick, and an eventual second-round draft choice as a center, was the No. 66 offensive tackle nationally in his high school class. Even the decorated and celebrated Nelson, the No. 3 tackle and the No. 29 prospect overall in the 2014 recruiting cycle, will likely leave college with a higher profile than when he entered.
The secret sauce both for Hiestand and the names Kelly must sort through in the coming days is what drives the player development model.
In Hiestand’s case, it’s culture.
“That’s going to be the most difficult thing to replace,” Craig Nelson said.
Craig’s first glimpse of it came when Quenton called home two months into his freshman season, breathless over how the position group’s chemistry was confusing him — in a good way.
“He told me the players he’s competing the hardest against for playing time — Mike McGlinchey, Steve Elmer and Hunter Bivin — are the very same guys who are working with him and helping him out the most,” Craig recalled.
“And he says that the older guys, like Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell, they were treating him like he was the next man in, not like some lowly freshman.
“That’s a difficult culture to create. And how he did it was the biggest head-scratcher to me. But these 16 kids really work hard and are genuinely rooting for another, happy for one another, helping each other every day.”
Another case in point were the two players who rotated at right tackle this past season, true freshman Robert Hainsey and sophomore Tommy Kraemer. They helped each other on the sidelines during defensive series on game days. Best friends off the field.
“Now the culture is deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of guys, those two guys and also guys like Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher — the kids that have been left behind," Craig said. "They are going to continue to pay it forward, whether Harry’s there or not. But at some point down the road that has to be reinforced and validated.”
Heistand was able to do it on the academic side as well.
An initial call by Craig to ND’s department of academic services for student-athletes yielded the kind of adjustment issues for Quenton that Craig feared: Struggling a bit in the classroom and taking the tough love from the department’s associate director, Adam Sargent, didn’t sit well with Quenton.
A few months later, in a follow-up call, the report was quite the opposite. Quenton was the epitome of effort and organization. And when Craig tried to thank Sargent, he told him to thank Hiestand.
“He says, ‘If Quenton ever messes up, the first thing out of his mouth is: please don’t tell coach Hiestand.’ ” Craig related. “Harry cares about these kids 24-7. It’s not like, OK, they go into the film room, go to practice and then out of sight, out of mind. He really was all over it.”
Not that his vigilance was ever easy for the players.
Golic played for John Latina, Frank Verducci and Ed Warinner before Hiestand arrived for his fifth and final season at ND in 2012.
“Harry really is so uncompromising in his standard that it is going to be uncomfortable much of the time,” Golic said. “He’s really going to push you to the edge. And there are going to be days where you walk in there, and you’re dreading that film session, because you know the mistakes that you made.
“Harry was so clear in communicating this is exactly what we want — in this play, in this rep, in this setting. We had guys who cared in a position room before Harry got there, but Harry brought our culture to another level.
“This is the standard. This is the pride in this unit. We’re going to do all these things together. We're going to do all these things through one set of eyes. And you guys are going to go out there and whip ass.”
For months on end, the outside world kept telling Golic that the sky was falling.
And there were plenty of moments that it actually felt real.
The Notre Dame offense imploding — again — in an 18-14 come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Five-star defensive end prospect and freshman All-American Aaron Lynch announcing his defection to USF in the spring of 2012.
Prized cornerback recruit Tee Shepard’s academic snag. Eleventh-hour recruiting losses of cornerback Ronald Darby, offensive tackle Taylor Decker and wide receiver Deontay Greenberry. The offseason arrest and subsequent suspension of incumbent starting QB Tommy Rees. A seemingly endless stream of key injuries.
And the one that would seem to hurt the most, Urban Meyer coming back to coaching and poaching running backs coach Tim Hinton and offensive line coach Ed Warinner from Kelly to fill out Meyer’s first Ohio State coaching staff.
“One thing he was very clear on from that first meeting with Harry, and every day after that he was my position coach, was being the Notre Dame offensive line coach meant something to him,” Golic said.
“The pride in this position at this particular school, because of the history and the players that have come before. He really wanted to emphasize that. He wanted us to have a sense of where we fit in in the larger picture of what it meant to be for a Notre Dame offensive lineman.
“And for us, that was powerful — to have a guy who came in and immediately had this, not only understanding, but reverence for a place where Joe Moore had a tradition and was such a strong voice and fixture back with coach (Lou) Holtz.
“I think seeing the way he understood that immediately ingratiated us to him, because he knew he was a guy who cared about this place as much as we did.”
And now he’s moved on. A “gut-wrenching decision,” Craig Nelson was told.
It wasn’t the first time NFL teams had knocked in the past few years, not even the first time the Bears had inquired.
“We knew when we hired him his last step could be in the NFL,” Kelly said in a statement Wednesday night.
The recruiting trail and the travel it entailed may have played a role.
“Harry hated to recruit. He told me that,” Craig Nelson said. “It’s really ironic, because he’s so good at it. The recruiting put him like center stage and in the spotlight, two places he’s not particularly fond of being. The only thing her despised more than recruiting was Media Day, as you know.
“His honesty and his passion for what he does throws such a large shadow over how uncomfortable he might be. The next guy may cast a wider net and have a different methodology for recruiting, and that’s OK. But Harry Hiestand’s strength is being Harry Hiestand, and that’s why my son ended up at Notre Dame.”
Craig Nelson then told the story of a former Irish assistant, assigned to the New Jersey area, who never took more than a casual interest in Quenton beyond coming to a couple of his basketball games of his. And even though Quenton held 34 other scholarship offers, there was zero from the Irish.
So after taking an unofficial recruiting visit to Northwestern, Quenton was convinced by Craig to at least give Notre Dame a look. So they called the area recruiter, who sounded disinterested and suggested they call someone in the recruiting office to arrange the visit.
“We felt like intruders when we walked into the Gug (Guglielmino Athletics Complex),” Craig said. “But then Harry comes down and sees Q, and invites him to come up and watch film with him, and that was the beginning of everything.”
Similarly Hiestand won over Golic and the other players he didn’t recruit but inherited. With a high standard. With uncompromising toughness. With culture.
“You know we had all this crazy stuff going on that offseason before the 2012 season, but coach Hiestand made us feel confident that we could overcome anything,” Golic said. “That’s what great coaches do. And we came out of spring practice saying, ‘Why not us? And why not now?’ ”