Analysis: Tommy Rees is one of football's hottest young coaches and Nick Saban proves it

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — A year ago this month, Tommy Rees found himself answering questions about his loyalty to Notre Dame.

“There’s a lot of opportunities that come across your desk,” the youthful offensive coordinator said. “There are very, very, very few of them that are better than Notre Dame.”

That was three “verys,” for those counting at home.

More:What makes Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees so attractive to the NFL? Sean McVay has some thoughts

One year later, here we go again.

Working for legendary coach Nick Saban at Alabama isn’t for everyone, but it just might be the right opportunity at the right time to lure Rees away from Notre Dame.

According to multiple reports Rees has emerged as the focus of Saban’s latest search for an offensive coordinator. There was a lengthy Zoom call on Wednesday, according to Football Scoop, and the regal Tide reportedly sent a private plane for Rees on Thursday so he could spend the day in Tuscaloosa, Ala., talking football with Saban.  

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees watches players during the team's first spring NCAA college football practice at the Irish Athletics Center, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. (Santiago Flores/South Bend Tribune via AP) ORG XMIT: INSBE302

More smoke? Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman and three fellow transfers had been scheduled for more than a week to meet with the local media on Friday at noon.

Thursday afternoon, exactly two hours after ESPN's Chris Low first linked Rees to the opening at Alabama, Notre Dame rescheduled that session for Feb. 10.

For the second straight winter, Notre Dame’s 30-year-old offensive coordinator is in play.

Last time around, Rees seriously entertained overtures from LSU and Miami before opting to stay put at his alma mater. After choosing to work for first-year coach Marcus Freeman rather than follow mentor Brian Kelly to the Bayou, Rees could soon find himself scheming against Kelly in the SEC West.

“Anytime you have opportunities, no matter what profession you’re in, I think it’s your job to explore them,” Rees said last Feb. 16. “There’s no harm in exploring what other opportunities may present. You want to handle all those things the right way.”

Rees added then: “I’m a competitive person. There certainly are aspirations for what I want my career to look like. It would be a disservice to the staff, to the players, to entertain any of those without any validity.”

Tracing the history

It should be noted that Washington Huskies OC Ryan Grubb reportedly turned down the same job at Alabama this week, but a $2 million annual salary might not have been as tempting for Grubb, who signed an extension in November that pushes his annual pay to $1.67 million by 2025.

Rees likely could have at least approached $2 million a year if he’d jumped to LSU, where Kelly ultimately turned to ex-Notre Dame OC Mike Denbrock, or Miami, where Michigan’s Josh Gattis lasted just one season before Mario Cristobal threw him overboard.

This isn’t the first time Saban has turned his steely gaze to South Bend with an offensive coordinator opening to fill. In January of 2019, there were reported sightings of then-OC Chip Long in Tuscaloosa, but Long ultimately stayed put while Saban hired Steve Sarkisian instead.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator coach Tommy Rees  and head coach Brian Kelly discuss strategy during Notre Dame Fall Camp on Saturday, August 07, 2021, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

By that December, Long was fired after a two-loss season. Rees, after three seasons coaching quarterbacks, eventually got the nod as the youngest coordinator in program history at 28.

Three years later, after showing the ability to win with such disparate quarterback talents as Ian Book, Jack Coan, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner, Rees has seen his stock continue to climb among those in the industry.

That stretch included a 31-14 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama in December 2020. Eight seasons earlier, Rees was the backup quarterback on the Irish team that fell 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS Championship.

More:What happens if Notre Dame assistants draw interest from a Power Five school with a coaching vacancy?

No doubt the chance to work with Rees, even with All-America tight end Michael Mayer off to the NFL, was an important part of the appeal that landed Hartman as the biggest prize in this year’s transfer portal.

Rees also has proven to be effective on the recruiting trail, where Notre Dame’s second straight top-10 signing class includes early enrollee Kenny Minchey, a four-star quarterback from Tennessee. CJ Carr, a four-star quarterback from Saline, Mich., heads the early offensive haul for the Class of 2024 after making his non-binding commitment last summer.

More:Will Notre Dame offense really be Wild Tommy's Aerial Circus in 2022?

If Rees leaves, where does that put Notre Dame’s chances of making it three straight top-10 recruiting classes?

Meanwhile, Saban turned 71 last Halloween but shows no signs of slowing down. His eight-year, $93.6 million deal runs through the 2029 season, when he will turn 78.

Path to prosperity

While Saban says he intends to coach through the full length of that contract, history suggests that shouldn’t really matter in Rees’ calculation.

Of Saban’s last six offensive coordinators, just two have stayed longer than two years: Jim McElwain (2008-11) and Lane Kiffin (2014-16).

Alabama coach Nick Saban looks on from the sideline during his team's game against LSU at Tiger Stadium.

Of greater note to Rees might be the fact four of those past six Tide OCs left to run their own college programs: McElwain (Colorado State), Kiffin (Florida Atlantic), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Sarkisian (Texas).

Doug Nussmeier, the offensive play-caller in 2012-13, left for the OC job at Michigan and spent the past five seasons as an NFL assistant for the Dallas Cowboys.

Bill O’Brien, a former NFL head coach, created the current opening at Alabama when he left after two seasons to be Bill Belichick’s OC in New England.

With 10 or more NFL teams looking for new offensive coordinators this cycle, Rees had yet to be publicly linked to any of them. But the former Chargers offensive assistant (2016) has many friends in the NFL, including Philadelphia Eagles coach Nick Sirianni, and Rees has made no secret of his ultimate interest in professional coaching.

“One thing I’ve always wanted to do is compete at the highest level,” Rees said last February. “I was in the NFL for one year and I really enjoyed it, but right now my feet are where I’m at. This is where I’m committed, and this is where I want to be.”

For how much longer? After Thursday’s news, that is once again an open question.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.