Jack Swarbrick

New hires put coaching vacancies into perspective


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.

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.