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The perfect coaching staff for the perfect season

Dec 12, 2012, 4:51 PM EDT

Kelly tunnel AP

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.

  1. 9irish - Dec 12, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Wow. There were only a few on Weis’ staff that even rang a bell. Too many Chiefs, not enough Indians. Captains need Lieutenants, not a bunch that think they are all captains.

  2. alsatiannd - Dec 12, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    The large Ole Miss cohort explains a lot. What is that? Some sort of high school?

    • 9irish - Dec 12, 2012 at 8:22 PM

      I noticed that, too. What was that connection??

  3. seamus0317 - Dec 12, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    I am good friends with one of the ND starting offensive linemen. He said Hiestand is a much better coach than Warriner. He stresses footwork and fundamentals which are the attributes of all great linemen!

  4. harvupdyke - Dec 12, 2012 at 8:23 PM

    Again, this Kelly guy had a good year at Grand Valley, but they didn’t win they’re conference & missed D2 playoffs. Why all this press for a D2 coach? Sure they had a good year, but c’mon now!

    I don’t understand how there is no mention of Coach Saban’s staff. They are a legitimate D1 staff.

    We’ll see y’all January the 7th.

    Roll dam tide.

    • ndnphx - Dec 12, 2012 at 9:22 PM

      Gawd. You may think Saban is god now, but ND faithful all remember him from Michigan State, where we kicked his ass annually. He’s still running the same schemes. #not impressed….

    • dmac4real - Dec 12, 2012 at 9:26 PM

      Kelly won two Nattys at GVSU (I go there, and the entire athletic facility is named after him. They dont name athletic facilities after average coaches)….

      Then went on to CMU and had success…

      Then did the same at Cincy…

      Now is doing the same at ND…

      Yea, hes awful.

    • shamrocknroll - Dec 12, 2012 at 11:03 PM

      Those of us who went to Notre Dame know the difference between “they’re” and “their.” Clown.

      • 9irish - Dec 13, 2012 at 9:18 AM

        Not to mention “dam” and “damn”. THAT one really bugs me!

    • notthatconfused - Dec 13, 2012 at 8:42 AM


      Don’t you have a tree to poison somewhere?

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Dec 13, 2012 at 9:27 AM

      yep, saban’s a real peach all right. i especially liked how one year he commented on central florida’s recruiting class, and noted that he didn’t have the luxury of recruiting kids that central florida recruited, because he could never get those kids through admissions at alabama. a real class act.

    • joeschu - Dec 14, 2012 at 9:07 AM

      Wow… troll harder man.

  5. ajw21 - Dec 12, 2012 at 8:49 PM

    Why no info on Bama? Its an ND blog thats why. Hope you come back after Jan 7.
    Go Irish!

  6. ajw21 - Dec 12, 2012 at 8:51 PM

    oh yeah & Kelly won two div 2 Natl titles with GVS.

  7. jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 12, 2012 at 9:52 PM

    Didn’t know Hiestand was a Joe Moore disciple, that explains why the line play has improved so much. Also, it should be noted that Longo has had success with Kelly at CMU and Cincinnati. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

  8. norcalirish - Dec 13, 2012 at 12:46 AM

    shamrocknroll: yes! I was thinking the same thing, rofl

    9: good point! I had never thought of it like that

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