Kelly tunnel

The perfect coaching staff for the perfect season


To know what this 2012 Notre Dame coaching staff is, you first need to know what it isn’t.

So let’s turn back the clock seven years.

It was imagery that Notre Dame fans took to like catnip. Newly hired head coach Charlie Weis, slaving away in his office in Foxboro. Weis was building a Super Bowl winning game plan for the Patriots by day and putting together an elite Notre Dame coaching staff by night.

When the staff was announced, it looked to Irish fans that Weis had built a veritable all-star team, assembled from places far and wide, with pedigrees and resumes difficult to poke holes in.

The initial staff was as follows:

David Cutcliffe: Asst. Head Coach (Offense) / Quarterbacks — Former head coach at Ole Miss.
John Latina: Offensive Line — Offensive Coordinator at Ole Miss.
Bill Lewis: Asst. Head Coach (Defense) / Defensive Backs — Former Georgia Tech head coach.
Mike Haywood: Offensive Coordinator / Running Backs — Texas recruiting coordinator, ND grad.
Rick Minter: Defensive Coordinator / Linebackers — Former Cincinnati head coach.
Rob Ianello: Receivers / Recruiting Coordinator — Arizona WR coach, Recruiting whiz, Barry Alvarez asst.
Jappy Oliver: Defensive Line – South Carolina defensive line coach
Bernie Parmalee:- Tight Ends / Special Teams – NFL TE, Miami Dolphins coach
Brian Polian: Head Special Teams Coach / DB Asst. — Central Florida Asst., son of Bill Polian.
Ruben Mendoza: Strength and Conditioning — Ole Miss strength coach.

Strong on paper was an understatement. Twenty-five seasons of experience as a collegiate head coach. Twenty-nine seasons as an offensive or defensive coordinator. Over a decade of NFL experience to go along with Weis’ NFL career.

While the staff suffered a major blow when heart bypass surgery forced Cutcliffe to resign over the summer before ever coaching in a game, the first edition of Weis’ staff still looked like the one he designed — a collection of coaches brought together to help Notre Dame win.

Of course, that didn’t exactly happen. Latina was pushed out after mediocre line play in favor of Frank Verducci. Bill Lewis retired to take an administration job. Haywood moved on to a head coaching job. Minter was dismissed in favor of Corwin Brown and a 3-4 scheme, who gave way to Jon Tenuta. Oliver was the scapegoat for an underwhelming defensive front, replaced by grizzled veteran Randy Hart and the upstart former All-Pro Bryant Young.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that instability atop the Irish football program played a huge role in some of the struggles that took place in Weis’ final three seasons. But the high profile nature of the coaching staff — a group of mostly veteran coaches that had each reached professional heights before coming to South Bend — also colored the lenses through which the average fan looked at Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame staff as he began assembling it.

Kelly’s plan was basically the antithesis of what his predecessor laid out. Every member of Kelly’s staff, with the exception of holdover Tony Alford and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, had a direct connection to Notre Dame’s new head coach. While Weis favored resumes, Kelly built a core staff that was young and hungry.

This is the 2009 coaching staff that Kelly announced.

Bob Diaco: Defensive Coordinator / Inside Linebackers — DC under Kelly at Cincinnati
Charley Molnar: Offensive Coordinator / Quarterbacks — Passing Game coordinator at Cincinnati
Tony Alford: Wide Receivers — Kelly holdover.
Kerry Cooks: Outside Linebackers — Hired by Kelly at CMU, played with Diaco at Iowa.
Mike Denbrock: Tight Ends — Coached at Grand Valley with Kelly, Former ND asst.
Mike Elston: Defensive Line / Special Teams Coordinator — With Kelly at CMU and Cincinnati
Tim Hinton: Running Backs — With Kelly at Cincinnati
Chuck Martin: Defensive Backs / Recruiting Coordinator — Took over Grand Valley State program
Ed Warinner: Offensive Line — No connection to Kelly. Ohio native & former Kansas OC
Paul Longo: Director of Strength and Conditioning — With Kelly at CMU and Cincinnati.

A group that was initially labeled as “small timey” by skeptical fans has stayed mostly in place. It has also earned its place in college football as one of the hardest working, most energetic staffs in the game.

While this group hasn’t stayed completely in tact, the changes in the group feel more evolutionary than anything else. Molnar, who made the only climb up the ranks when he ascended to offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, exited to take the UMass head job, no golden parachute, but a timely exit after Kelly had all but assured sweeping changes to the offense after 2010. Hinton and Warinner, who left Kelly’s staff to move to Urban Meyer’s at Ohio State, always felt more like outsiders compared to the core of the staff, and Warinner’s departure also likely factored into him being bypassed for the vacant offensive coordinator position.

Kelly didn’t reach far outside his network to make hires. He promoted from within, moving Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator and pulling Scott Booker up from the offensive intern ranks to tight ends coach. He also relied on Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks’ relationship with Bobby Elliott to solidify the defense, bringing in a veteran coach that wasn’t exactly the norm on the staff, but was beloved by his two superiors after mentoring the duo at Iowa. The hiring of Harry Hiestand was another reach outside of the network, but Kelly said he talked with a large group of contacts before deciding to bring in the former Chicago Bears, Cincinnati and Illinois coach, and the Joe Moore disciple has rewarded his head coach with strong line play and immediate praise from the players.

After two years of building cohesiveness and ironing out some kinks, the 2012 coaching staff is as close to perfect as you can be in college football.

In Bob Diaco, Kelly has a rising star in the ranks, a passionate leader that is beloved by his players and embodies the effort and determination he expects from his team. With Chuck Martin coordinating the offense under Kelly’s direction, they have a leader that won’t flinch in critical moments, with Martin deserving massive amounts of credit for preparing Everett Golson and bringing the best out of him on the big stage.

The continuity on the staff has also been key. If Diaco ends up Barry Alvarez’s choice at Wisconsin, Kelly has the opportunity to promote from within, with three capable choices in Cooks, already his co-defensive coordinator, Elliott or Mike Elston. Offensively, character assistants like Hiestand and Denbrock, who has done a tremendous job in his second tour at Notre Dame, don’t seem like candidates to bolt at the next big offer, and Tony Alford’s ability to cross-train on Kelly’s staff should give him the opportunity to move to coordinator if and when Martin gets a head coaching opportunity.

Just as important, Kelly is building a farm system of coaches that will be ready to step into a role. Ernest Jones was brought into the fold to take a non-coaching role, but rest assured he’ll have a job on staff when one opens up. Bill Brechin has spent three years as an offensive intern and graduate assistant, and he’ll likely work his way to a promotion as well. David Grimes is working with the staff as well as a defensive intern, adding another ND graduate to the bullpen. While there are certainly scary scenarios out there if coaches move on, Kelly has built in provisions that should help keep continuity and keep the head coach from spending time coaching his coaches.

While there’s still one very big game left, the 2012 season will be remember as a year where the Irish caught lightning in a bottle. But Kelly seems to have done the same with his coaching staff, putting together the perfect combination of assistants to help propel Notre Dame to a perfect regular season.

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

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 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.