Jack Swarbrick

New hires put coaching vacancies into perspective

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Filling a coaching vacancy is tough business in major college football. Your pool of potential targets is always shifting, already happily employed, and also filled by men who have to act as if they’re absolutely uninterested in switching jobs right until the point they sign on the dotted line. Adding to the complications, there’s an unruly group of fans and media watching your every move, and even tracking your flights, as you set about scouring the country for your next head football coach.

Yet when Jack Swarbrick went about looking for the next head coach of Notre Dame after dismissing Charlie Weis after 21 losses in three seasons, he did so in a relative cloak of secrecy, only turning up after securing Brian Kelly as the Irish’s next football coach. While there was smoke surrounding Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, there were no leaks from the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, no outsiders with advanced knowledge of the search, and no real idea of who else was in the running for the job until Kelly’s name was announced by Notre Dame.

Maybe the fact that Kelly was the overwhelmingly logical choice is what rankled many of the feathers of those that didn’t like the hire. Perhaps it was the workman like apprenticeship Kelly had served, with six years spent at the D-I level at Central Michigan and Cincinnati after an illustrious run at Grand Valley State, a solid, but certainly not dazzling CV. Sure Kelly put up near historic numbers in the Big East, but that incredible run came with the built-in caveats that come with playing in a conference that now lacks the traditional powers of the other automatic qualifiers.

But after watching elite football programs like Miami miss on Domer fantasy Jon Gruden and “settle” for Temple coach Al Golden, while Florida AD Jeremy Foley replaced fellow Domer dream Urban Meyer with Will Muschamp, the defensive coordinator of the worst Texas team of the decade, and it might be time for Irish fans to either recalibrate what kind of coach should be coming to South Bend next time the head job comes vacant, or come to grips with just how good of a hire Kelly was by Jack Swarbrick.

Thanks to some research by the hibernating website Blue-Gray Sky, let’s take a look at the hires of some of the other “big name” colleges since 2006:

School Outgoing Incoming Days Elapsed
Florida Urban Meyer Will Muschamp 2
Miami (Fla.) Randy Shannon Al Golden 14
Tennessee Lane Kiffin Derek Dooley 2
Southern California Pete Carroll Lane Kiffin 2
Florida State Bobby Bowden Jimbo Fisher 0
Notre Dame Charlie Weis Brian Kelly 10
Oregon Mike Bellotti Chip Kelly 0
Tennessee Phil Fullmer Lane Kiffin 28
Washington Tyrone Willingham Steve Sarkisian 39
Clemson Terry Bowden Dabo Swinney 49
West Virginia Rich Rodriguez Bill Stewart 18
UCLA K. Dorrell Rick Neuheisel 25
Arkansas Houston Nutt Bobby Petrino 15
Nebraska Bill Callahan Bo Pelini 8
Texas A&M Dennis Franchione Mike Sherman 3
Michigan Lloyd Carr Rich Rodriguez 28
Stanford Walt Harris Jim Harbaugh 14
Alabama Mike Shula Nick Saban 37
Miami (Fla.) Larry Coker Randy Shannon 15
North Carolina John Bunting Butch Davis 21

Above are arguably the 20 most high-profile coaching transitions of the last five seasons. Taking a look at the list, you get the idea of just what type of coach jumps from a job that they have to a job that opens up.

Of the head coaches on that list, regardless of what you thought of the job that Kelly did in his first year at Notre Dame, it’s hard not to rank him above every head coach on this list with the exception of Nick Saban, Rich Rodriguez, and probably Bobby Petrino. Obviously Rodriguez’s struggles at Michigan help frame the discussion, while Petrino’s “personality” make him a tough fit at a place like Notre Dame.

Simply put, no matter the shine of the Golden Dome, or any other college program, here’s empirical evidence that shows no coach — regardless of the history of the football program — flees a top job at an elite college or NFL team for another school.

Even new Florida coach Will Muschamp addressed the concerns of his lack of head coaching experience in his opening press conference, surely as a reaction to the news of a defensive coordinator getting his first head coaching job at a place like Florida.

“I know that there will be criticism about maybe not hiring a guy without head coaching experience and I certainly understand that,” Muschamp said. “But I do think if you look at it you can really look at all the examples across the board of guys that had no head coaching experience and did an outstanding job because they were the right fit, for the right job, at the right time. And you can look at a lot of examples of guys that had head coaching experience and went to situations like Florida and didn’t have success like you thought they might have.”

Muschamp’s comments might as well be taken verbatim from Swarbrick’s introductory press conference where he called Kelly “the right man at the right time for Notre Dame.” Only in Kelly’s case, he also put together one of the best six year runs of any coach in Division I-A football in his two stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

Neither Swarbrick nor Kelly are happy with being 7-5 after one season on the job. But if you look at the process of hiring a new coach at a major college football program, there’s every reason to believe that Notre Dame and its administration actually made the best move possible when considering their options. That may be a tough pill for some Irish fans to swallow, but it’s probably a far better one when you consider Kelly would likely have been the front-runner for both the Miami and Florida position had he stuck around another season at Cincinnati.

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.