How Chris O'Leary climbed from unheralded roles to Notre Dame's safeties coach

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Chris O’Leary doesn’t have a long résumé or experience playing the position he’s been asked to teach.

The 29-year-old O’Leary hadn’t even served as a lead position coach at the Division I level before head coach Brian Kelly promoted him to Notre Dame’s safeties coach earlier this month.

But O’Leary’s fit at Notre Dame extends well beyond his Irish last name.

“He’s kind of like the epitome to me of Notre Dame,” said Trent Miles, a former Notre Dame wide receivers coach (2002-04) who coached O’Leary at Indiana State and hired him for his first job as a graduate assistant at Georgia State.

“High character, a lot of talent, a lot of knowledge and always learning and getting better. I don’t think you could ask for anything else. That’s why they hired him. They don’t do any favors these days.”

Miles recognized coaching potential in O’Leary early in his playing career at Indiana State. As the head coach of the Sycamores, Miles recruited the hometown quarterback out of Terre Haute North Vigo in the 2011 class.

“He started off as a quarterback, so a guy who’s always smart, always looking at film, always positive, always pumping up his teammates,” Miles said. “After about our first year together, I thought to myself, ‘This guy will make a really good coach.’ So I took him with me.”

Miles left to take over as head coach as Georgia State in 2013 while O’Leary was finishing his final two seasons at Indiana State as a wide receiver. Then after O’Leary graduated in 2015, Miles hired him as a graduate assistant for Georgia State’s defensive line.

Miles started his coaching career similarly on defense after a playing career on offense and believed it would make O’Leary a better coach.

“That’s the way you can learn the most,” Miles said.

O’Leary’s work that first year with the defensive line impressed defensive coordinator Jesse Minter so much that he asked O’Leary to work with him in secondary alongside secondary coach Eric Lewis the following season. Minter first knew O’Leary as the scout team quarterback who ran the opposing team’s offense in practice when Minter was the defensive coordinator at Indiana State.

“We moved him back to the safeties to basically be my right-hand guy,” Minter said. “He was a guy who I could trust. I could go into somebody else’s meeting and he could run my meeting. I knew exactly what he was going to say. I knew exactly how he was going to teach things.”

Those two years as a graduate assistant proved to his coworkers that O’Leary could make it in the coaching world. The countless hours of work that came with little pay required plenty of passion for the career. Somewhat fittingly, O’Leary was technically back in a graduate assistant role at Notre Dame for the 2020 season before being promoted to safeties coach.

“It’s not quite as glamorous as some people think,” Lewis said. “Being a graduate assistant will definitely test your desire as far as getting into coaching and staying in coaching. I’m happy for him. Our whole staff knew he was going to be an excellent coach. Everyone’s excited for him.”

Connecting with players

The sentence that ends O’Leary’s Twitter bio doesn’t just serve as a flashy catchphrase for recruits. It captures the urgency he’s trying to communicate to his players.

“Every day is Game 7,” the mantra goes.

“That was always something he preached in everything we did,” said former Florida Tech safety Daniel Welch, who played for O’Leary in 2017 during his one season as the safeties coach at the now defunct Division II program in Melbourne, Fla.

“That’s just kind of how he goes about life, and that’s how he goes about coaching. It was something that was really cool to me and really resonated with me.”

Welch was finishing his redshirt freshman year when O’Leary came to Florida Tech. O’Leary gave him his first opportunity that fall as a redshirt sophomore to start at safety, where he would stick for three seasons and become a captain.

“He was the first coach to really believe in me,” Welch said. “He instilled the confidence I needed to jumpstart my career. He’s a big reason for everything I accomplished.”

At Florida Tech, O’Leary worked under defensive coordinator Rick Minter, Jesse’s father and a two-time Notre Dame defensive coordinator. O’Leary helped Welch understand the nuances of playing safety in Rick Minter’s defensive scheme.

“It was really more detail-oriented then everyone was used to,” Welch said. “(O’Leary) focused on the little details when it came to checking in and out of things, adjustments and all the stuff we needed to do as safeties. That helped me even later in my career take my game to the next level.”

O’Leary was only three years removed from his final college season as a player, so the connection between him and his players wasn’t hard to establish. He was able to balance being a relatable coach and a demanding teacher.

“Him being so young, it was kind of weird because we never knew when it was time to joke around with him or when it was time to get serious,” Welch said. “That wasn’t his fault. That was just how much we liked the guy. He was only there for a year, but it hurt when he left. He’s obviously doing great things now. That’s just how much we loved him.”

Jesse Minter, now 37, recognized the difference between how he and O’Leary related players.

“I consider myself a young guy, but he is the new age,” Minter said. “He knows how to reach guys. Whether it’s keeping up with the technology that they enjoy or can understand easy, he can always give them things that they can access on their phones or their iPads. As a communicator, he has such an infectious energy that he can keep a room engaged.”

Minter was in regular contact with O’Leary in the month leading up to his promotion. He believes that some Notre Dame players were among those advocating for O’Leary to become the safeties coach. O’Leary worked primarily with the rover linebackers last season and impacted Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah so much that he offered a quote about O’Leary for Notre Dame’s announcement of O’Leary’s promotion.

“Coach O’Leary understands the art of winning every second, minute and hour of each day,” Owusu-Kormaoah said in a statement. “He taught us that if we would continue to focus on painting the small details, that we would one day cultivate a masterpiece.”

Said Minter: “If the players go to bat for you, then they feel good about it. They realize he made them better. They understood the way he taught things. That more than anything carries a lot of weight.”

Earning trust

Not long after being named Vanderbilt’s new defensive coordinator in late January, Jesse Minter met with the program’s graduate assistants and support staff. He pointed to O’Leary as an example of how to make their own path in coaching.

“This guy, no matter what job he had, that was the most important and the greatest job in the country in his eyes,” Minter said. “There are a lot of guys, especially when they’re in the GA or analyst roles, they’re always thinking about what move can I make. How can I get to the next place? How do I get the full-time job?

“Honestly, he earned the right to be the safeties coach there by being the best at his current job and didn’t worry about that stuff. That’s such a strong lesson for guys trying to make it in this profession. Be where your feet are and do the best job you can and people notice.”

O’Leary joined Notre Dame’s staff as a defensive analyst in 2018. It wasn’t a heralded role coming off his first season as a position coach at Florida Tech, but it was a foot in the door at Notre Dame. He worked as a senior football analyst in 2019 before taking on the graduate assistant role in 2020. In his statement announcing O’Leary’s promotion, Kelly said O’Leary had been on a job interview for the past two years.

O’Leary had much less time to impress new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who was hired in January to replace Clark Lea when he left to become the head coach at Vanderbilt.

“The impression he’s been able to make on (Freeman) tells you everything you need to know about the guy,” said Minter, who was hired by Lea at Vanderbilt after spending the previous four seasons with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

O’Leary’s energy was highlighted by all three coaches interviewed for this story. It’s part of what makes him relatable and quick at making connections.

“He’s a naturally confident guy and has a great sense of humor,” Lewis said. “That helps him relate to a lot of different kinds of people. He’s a sincere guy which helps. People see through the coach talk or BS at times. He’s a pretty straight shooter.

“People trust Chris. They like being around him from a personality standpoint. Ultimately, they’re going to respect what he says because he’s a smart guy, he works hard and he studies the game.”

O’Leary gained that reputation with Lewis at Georgia State in his first two years as a coach. He matched his natural personality with an intense desire to learn more.

“He asked a lot of questions both from a defensive standpoint and from an offensive perspective,” Lewis said. “You could tell by his questions that he knew what was going on. He understood the game from a much deeper level than some young coaches do. He knew he wanted to be a coach, he put the time in and it’s paying off for him.”

While O’Leary’s promotion didn’t come with fanfare on corners of the internet interested in big names, it’s come with praise from those who know him best. Now’s his chance to prove them right.

“It’s a relationships and perception business, and he’s earned the right by building great relationships within that building and having coach Kelly trust him enough,” Minter said. “He could have gone out and hired 100 different DB coaches. He could have got a guy from the NFL. You’re at Notre Dame. He could have got guys from Power Five schools. I know they interviewed some other guys. That makes it even more special.

“He literally earned that job. He knows this. You have to earn it every day now. That’s just the opportunity. It’s not the ending. Now it’s up to him to continue to thrive and use his platform. He’ll be a tremendous recruiter as far as building relationships with recruits, parents and coaches. I obviously think the world of the guy.”

Jeremiah Owusu-KoramoahNew safeties coach Chris O’Leary worked with rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) as a graduate assistant last season.
New Notre Dame safeties coach Chris O'Leary inherits a position with one star — Kyle Hamilton, pictured — and a lot of question marks.