Former Notre Dame great Tim Grunhard on Marcus Freeman: 'He's going to have to adjust'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Tim Grunhard, starting guard for Notre Dame on the 1988 national champions, has co-authored a forthcoming book on his football playing and coaching experiences

SOUTH BEND – Before Tim Grunhard became a 1988 national champion at Notre Dame, before he was drafted in the second round and went on to start for 11 seasons (1990-2000) at center for the Kansas City Chiefs, he was part of Lou Holtz’s first recruiting class for the Irish.

Grunhard shares a number of Notre Dame stories in his forthcoming book, “View from the Center: My Football Life and the Rebirth of Chiefs Kingdom.” One of his favorites is from the summer of 1986 and Holtz’s first team meeting after Grunhard, son of a South Side Chicago policeman, arrived on campus with his fellow hotshot recruits.

“We felt special; we felt like we were the future of Notre Dame,” Grunhard, 54, said in recent phone interview. “We’re sitting in the back, feeling pretty comfortable about ourselves, and Lou walks in. He said, ‘I want all the guys I just recruited to stand up.’

“We thought he was going to say, ‘Here we go, these are the guys I’m building this program on. I watched that Miami game in ’85, and that was embarrassing. That’s not the way Notre Dame does it, and I brought these guys in to change that attitude and that culture.’ “

(l-r) Former Notre Dame offensive linemen Colin Grunhard (2017-20) and Tim Grunhard (1986-89) at Colin's graduation

That’s not what Holtz said.

“He looked at us and said, ‘I just want to tell you guys one thing: If I had one more month of recruiting, none of your a--es would’ve been here.’  We sat back down and learned our lesson right there. We were certainly nothing special for him at that point.”

Over his final two seasons at Notre Dame, Grunhard and the rest of the ’86 recruiting haul would go 24-1.

“Lou was always good at that kind of stuff,” said Grunhard, a left guard and long snapper in college, “bringing people back to reality and using motivation to get the best out of his players.”

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Grunhard, a former assistant under Charlie Weis at Kansas and a longtime high school football coach at Kansas powerhouse Bishop Miege, addressed a variety of topics about his alma mater. Son Colin was a reserve lineman for the Irish from 2017-20 before finishing out his career at Kansas:

On the worst start since 2011 

“The Irish are down a little bit right now. They’re in a little transition period. It wasn’t pretty against Marshall. There’s nothing we can say positive about that game. But the one thing is I think they do have a good nucleus of young guys they can build around.”

On Jarrett Patterson’s move to left guard

“I wasn’t real in love with that either, to be honest with you. I think he’s a great center, great communicator. He’s the undisputed leader of that offensive line. I didn’t understand why they put him at guard, but there must have been a reason. Maybe they didn’t like the options at the other guards. The communication factor is just so important, and it just looks like right now that they’re just a little bit off with that. I think Patterson going in at center and being the guy that is the (leader) for that offensive line and really for that offense, that would be a positive for them.”

On the offensive line’s struggles

“It really comes down to one thing: They have to be tougher. They’ve got to find a way to dig deep and take care of business, especially on those third- and fourth-down situations that are short (yardage). You cannot get stuffed like that. That’s unacceptable. I think Harry (Hiestand, the offensive line coach) knows that, and I think they know it too. You’ve got to impose your will on the defense, and they just haven’t been able to do that yet this year for one reason or another. But if there’s one guy that’s going to get it, it’s going to be Harry. I promise you he’s not going to stop his message. They’re either going to come to him or they’re going to be gone. It’s as simple as that.”

On potential youth movement

“It will be interesting to see what they do, whether they say let’s get some of these younger guys in there (on the offensive line) and let these guys learn this year as we go through this process of transition or they stay with some of the older guys that they have in there. They have the talent there; they have the guys. There’s never a doubt of Notre Dame having talent. It’s just sometimes you have to find the right combination, and I don’t think they’ve found that yet.”

On Marcus Freeman’s ‘teammate’ approach to coaching

Former Notre Dame lineman Tim Grunhard (second from right) with (l-r) children CJ, Cassie, Colin and Cailey; his mother Charlotte and wife Sarah

“Well, it’s worked at some other places, I’m not sure if the coach out of Clemson (Dabo Swinney) has a little bit of that attitude. Georgia (Kirby Smart), maybe a little bit, but you look at Alabama (Nick Saban), they certainly don’t have that attitude there, and they’ve been the most successful team. There’s a fine line, and coaches have to walk that fine line.

“You want to have a relationship with your players. You don’t want you players to fear you. You don’t want your players to not trust you. You don’t want your players to not think that you have their best interests in mind. On the other side, it’s just like a good parent. I tell my kids all the time: ‘I’m not your friend, I’m your dad.’ I don’t want to be your friend, because I don’t think that works in parenting and I don’t really think it works in coaching.”

On keeping the proper distance

“In 2001, I was coaching the offensive line right out of the NFL. First four games of the year, we weren’t playing very well. I just couldn’t figure out what it was because I thought we had a really good line. I figured out, not that they didn’t respect me, but I think I had too close of a relationship with them. I had to draw that back and say, ‘I’m not your friend here, I’m not your teammate, I’m your coach. We’re not doing some of the things I know we can do. I think maybe you’re just a little too relaxed and comfortable here.’ I made them uncomfortable, and then we made a run to the state championship.

“Coach Freeman, as a first-time head coach, there’s a whole different world when you sit behind that desk as a head coach. As a coordinator sometimes you get away with that. You can be friendly with the players and you can have those friend-type relationships with the players. But a head coach, it’s like the parent. They have to respect you. And I’m not saying they don’t respect coach Freeman because I really think they do, but I think they’re just kind of feeling it out. It’s a feeling-out process. Right now, it’s not working the way that he wants it to work. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts because he’s going to have to adjust.”

On the urgency to turn things around

“It goes fast. Next thing you know it’s going to be November. Notre Dame has to be in a position where it can at least get to a bowl game. Bowl games are important, not just because of players getting PlayStations. You get a couple extra weeks of practice. Building a program and building a team where you want to go to (requires) making those steps and getting those extra practices at the end of the year. That’s what Notre Dame needs. Listen, they’re not going to any playoff games. They’re probably not going to any big (New Year’s Six) games, but they need to go to a bowl game so they can work on things in December with some practices so they can get a little better for next year.”

On modern coaching staffs

“One of the things that Lou did and other successful coaches have done, they give ownership to their assistant coaches. With that ownership, they also have responsibility, good and bad. Sometimes I think because there’s so many guys, you’re not quite sure who to blame. When things are going good, everybody takes the credit. But when things are going bad, everybody’s pushing the blame to somebody else. And there’s plenty of people to push it to. That could be part of it too.

“We knew who the guy was who was our coach. We knew who the guy was that we had to answer to and we knew who the guy was who we were going to listen to. It was one voice. If you have two assistant coaches at each position, who do you listen to and who gets the blame and who gets the credit? It just causes confusion. And any time there’s confusion, there’s hesitation. And any time there’s hesitation, either off the field or on the field, you’re going to lose.”

Pregame Mass:Marcus Freeman brings back Notre Dame tradition

On pregame Mass in the late 1980s

“Most of the guys that were on our team really liked it. It was kind of the calm before the storm. It was like the ‘Pavlov’s dog’ deal. When you started ringing the bell, you started watering from the mouth. Once we walked out of the church, game face was on. It was a great indicator of, ‘Hey, here we go. Let’s go play.’

“There wasn’t this huge Player Walk-type of deal they have now. We walked from Pangborn (Hall), which is where we had Mass, over to the stadium, right along South Campus there. Some people would say, ‘Let’s go. Good job. Go Irish!’ But it wasn’t this whole lineup. It was a quiet, solemn deal, and once we got into the stadium, we knew it was game time. That was a really important factor in my career at Notre Dame. I loved going to Masses.”

On his late father, Chuck

“My dad died my rookie year (1990), after about the fourth or fifth game, of cancer. He came to one game at Arrowhead (Stadium). He said, ‘Hey, this is great, but it’s no Notre Dame.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ He was a South Side of Chicago, Chicago Bears/Notre Dame fan his whole life. And he loved Notre Dame and was just so happy the four years that we were there. And I’ll tell you, he thought the NFL was cool, but it was no Notre Dame. He was right.”

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino and TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.