Notre Dame football goes from cruise control to damage control with OC hiring

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame offensive coordinator candidate Andy Ludwig, second from left (top row), takes in a Notre Dame hockey game Friday, Feb. 10 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. Seated next to him is Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker (left) and ND head football coach Marcus Freeman (right). Ludwig is currently the OC at Utah.

Anyone need an aspirin? 

After the events of the last week around the Notre Dame football program, something a little stronger out of a bigger bottle might suffice. 

High-profile coaching hirings on campus had recently gone off without a hitch. Notre Dame football needs someone after Brian Kelly ran off to the Bayou? Marcus Freeman stepped through that side door four days later. Women’s basketball needs someone to replace Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw? Niele Ivey was hired basically on the heels (no pun intended, Muffet) of McGraw’s retirement announcement. 

More:Digging into reported Notre Dame hires of OC Gerad Parker and QB coach Gino Guidugli

Baseball needs someone to revitalize a program that had wasted away into irrelevance? In three years, head coach Link Jarrett took the program back to the College World Series for the first time in 20 while injecting national championship DNA into every (hot) corner before heading home to Florida State. 

Every high-profile hiring that athletic director Jack Swarbrick oversaw seemed to turn to (blue and) gold. 

More of the same was expected last week. Football needed an offensive coordinator. It looked like it had found an offensive coordinator. Then it went sideways. 

The days that followed might best be classified as awkward, clumsy, even downright weird. At worst, a certain four-letter word with –show tacked to the end would suffice. 

Police protect Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick as students storm the field during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

It was not the finest hour (at least, publicly) for Notre Dame football, or Notre Dame athletics. From a collective Kumbaya feeling around the program last February to collective confusion this February. It got messy, then it got ugly. 

It started on Super Bowl Sunday, mere minutes before kickoff with the classic news dump that offensive line coach/Svengali Harry Hiestand was retiring. Like that, after only one year back in his second Notre Dame assistant coaching stint, Hiestand wanted to spend the proverbial “more time with his family.” 

Why shoehorn that news release right before the start of the biggest football game of the season? Maybe because Monday, bigger Notre Dame news was anticipated/expected/planned — the hiring of Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who had spent the weekend on campus. The university felt so confident that Ludwig was the guy to replace Tommy Rees, that they paraded Ludwig through Compton Family Ice Arena during a weekend hockey game. 

Sep 3, 2022; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Utah Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig prior to the game against the Florida Gators at Steve Spurrier-Florida Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

They made sure cameras framed him sitting next to Freeman. They weren’t there to see if goalie Ryan Bischel could actually stand on his head, or gauge how the Irish power play was functioning. They were there to show off the new football guy. Here he is, the shot/script seemed to say, welcome him to the fam-u-lee (sorry). 

Late Monday, a day that delivered no press conference or official announcement, word started to leak that Ludwig wasn’t the guy. Or, maybe he still could be the guy. Or, hell, who knows. Somewhere along the way, something hit a snag. Maybe it was his $2.8 million buyout. Notre Dame reportedly balked at paying it. A seemingly very public hiring process looked bungled. Looked bad. And Notre Dame never likes to look bad. 

A letter to all sides

For the next few days, those who shout from the social media shadows set their sights on Swarbrick. The barbarians were at the gate of the Gug. They called for Swarbrick to be fired. They demanded senior associate athletics director (football) Ron Powlus also go. Some even suggested that Freeman, having seemingly been undercut by his boss by the Ludwig non-hiring, resign. Walk away. 

All of it carried social media/message boards during a slow mid-February week. By Thursday, Swarbrick had apparently seen and heard enough. Seldom seen and rarely heard from during any hiring process, Swarbrick emerged from his office bunker to email those who called his job into question, and called for his job. All the theories on why Ludwig isn’t preparing a move from Salt Lake City to South Bend? According to Swarbrick, all fiction. 

More:Reports that Andy Ludwig will stay at Utah after visiting Notre Dame

Paraphrasing a line from one of his favorite movies — “Field of Dreams” — Swarbrick commended Irish football fans for their passion. He labeled that passion over the Ludwig situation “misdirected,” then went on to explain that nothing about the non-hiring of Ludwig had to do with finances. It wasn’t about not wanting to pay a buyout. It wasn’t about money. 

Misdirected to … misdirection? 

Look, it’s always about money. Especially when someone (even the athletic director) says it’s not about money. It is. 

College athletics is a bigger business today than any school president or administrator could’ve imagined with collectives with Name, Image and Likeness, with immediate eligibility transfers and athletes legally allowed to make hundreds of thousands of dollars any way they see fit. It’s really become a professional sport on a college campus. 

No longer does the notion of a Notre Dame student-athlete fit nicely into the campus experience narrative. Those days are long gone. Athletes are closer to employees than students. 

Money is the reason Kelly is coaching at LSU. Money is the reason Mike Brey stayed too long as the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach. Money. 

Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, at right,  listens as Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey speaks to the media Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, upon the announcement he’s stepping down at the end of the season after 23 years as head coach of the men’s basketball team.

Heck, even in the fourth paragraph of his Thursday letter, Swarbrick makes it about money. He encourages readers to become a member of the school’s Rockne Athletics Fund — annual membership levels run from $100 to $50,000 — so that Notre Dame can have “the resources it needs to compete effectively with the most successful athletic programs in the country.” 

Here’s a 55-gallon drum of gasoline, push it toward that inferno. 

Just because Notre Dame as an academic institution has a lot of money doesn’t mean it will spend a lot of money for athletics. Doing so clouds the overall educational mission. Spend enough of it to stay competitive? To still give the perception that they want to challenge for national championships? Certainly. Spend enough of it that the optics place too much of an emphasis on Saturday afternoons? Not happening. Not at Notre Dame. Not ever. 

That’s not old school. That’s just old. 

Notre Dame tight ends coach Gerad Parker talks with reporters during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Eventually, outrage over the offensive coordinator hiring process will cease (maybe) and spring practice will begin and we can see what kind of offense Gerad Parker — who was officially elevated to OC from tight ends coach Saturday — will run, what kind of quarterback Sam Hartman (imagine what he’s thinking) will be. Notre Dame football will again look and run and feel like Notre Dame football. 

Soon, Swarbrick (trending Friday morning on Twitter) will turn attention to the hiring of a men’s basketball coach. Like with the courting of Ludwig, there may be buyout hurdles to clear. There may be a time when Notre Dame will have to consider paying more than anticipated for the new guy. There may be a day during it when Irish basketball fans do a simmer (more like a shrug) over an unforeseen turn of hiring events. 

There also will be a moment for Swarbrick to again shoot his hiring shot. Only this time, make it. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.