Mike Tirico talks ND-MSU, his move to NBC, and one crazy summer

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Mike Tirico is a busy man. And in the middle of one of the craziest 11-week stretches you’ll ever see, he was kind enough to talk shop with me for the Inside the Irish blog.

As he bounced between East Lansing and South Bend, and still made it to his son’s soccer game in-between, he was kind enough to chat about his move to NBC, his return to college football, his first time at a Notre Dame football game, and the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Hope you all enjoy.

 

You’ve had quite a summer. Going between the British Open to the Olympics to ND Football. How are you holding up?

It’s been great. And the pace of it all has helped with the workload for sure. It’s an 11-week stretch with the Open Championship golf, hosting the Ryder Cup, three Notre Dame games, two NFL preseason games, getting started on Football Night in America three Sundays in a row, and then, of course, 17 days at the Olympics, including the closing ceremony. Throw that all in the hopper and it’s been a lot of travel and a lot of good TV the last 11 weeks on my end.

I think by this point, most people will start to associate me with NBC as I’ve been on a decent amount of time these last 11 weeks.

 

Has that been helpful, considering your footprint at ESPN? Was that a big part of the decision to come to NBC? 

The Olympics were right up there, along with being a part of Super Bowl coverage in the years that we have it. Those were big pieces of me coming to NBC, the most attractive things. But all these other events have been phenomenal. The NBC golf team with Dan (Hicks) and Johnny (Miller) and Tommy Roy leading that group, they’re as good as there is in the sport and to be welcomed by them and be a part of their big events is huge.

And this Notre Dame package has turned into a great opportunity for me to revisit my college football roots. I’ve stayed involved in the sport each year at ESPN but to get back and be on campus and to do three games in a row at one of the cathedrals of the sport in South Bend, it’s just been phenomenal on my end.

 

What’s been your experience with Notre Dame Football? Have you called a game here? Been to a game as a fan?

I have never been to Notre Dame, it’s was my first time there. Quite simply, NBC has had the Notre Dame contract for the last 25 years, this is the 26th, and I’ve worked at ESPN the last 25 years. So a home game in South Bend wasn’t in the cards for any of us who called games. So I never had a chance to go to a game there.

I was thrilled to tour the campus, soak up some of the vibe and call a game from that stadium. It’s a bucket list thing for any of us who broadcast college football, to call a game in South Bend, and I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can do that now. And I’m absolutely looking forward to a primetime game there, with a great rival in Michigan State and the 50-year anniversary of one of the legendary games in the history of the sport.

Both teams are ranked and it’s an important game for both. You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of an environment to celebrate and enjoy college football.

 

So what were your first impressions?

I drove to campus on Wednesday night, spent Thursday 3 or 4 hours just touring the campus and walking around and getting a sense of the place. I think if you’re doing a home game for three weeks there, it’s good to have a sense of what makes it special. I had been there before for basketball games, but the football experience is different and I never really had a chance to see the campus. So to be able to soak all of it up was great.

It’s one of the great campuses in America in terms of where the students live, where they go to school, the religion roots of the campus, the meaningful places on the campus, all of those things are part of the fabric.

And then when you get to sports — most of the great venues in sports are gone. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field. Madison Square Garden, although it’s been redone several times. Those are really it, except for college venues.

And in college football, in terms of venues, there are very few where you can say all these great players — Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, first-round picks, NFL guys — played here. And because of Notre Dame’s legacy and the school’s they’ve played over the years — like Michigan, USC, Michigan State and Army and Navy — you’ve got a lot of the great players in college football played in that stadium. So you have that plus the winningest school in college football in terms of winning percentage.

The prior Saturday, I went to a Michigan home game, the night before that I went to Syracuse. So in a nine-day stretch I got to go to my alma mater to watch a game, to Michigan, home of the biggest crowd and the program with the most wins, and then the next Saturday go to the place and school that’s No. 1 in terms of all-time winning percentage, at Notre Dame. To experience college football in those places in a week, as a fan, a true fan of the sport, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

So let’s talk about Michigan. It’s somewhere you’ve been around, living in Ann Arbor. And it’s a place that’s always interesting to Notre Dame, especially with Jim Harbaugh there. What do you make of Harbaugh? What’s the best thing about him coming to Michigan? And do you think he’ll eventually change?

Within the framework of tradition, he has brought new, he’s brought innovative, he’s brought energy, he’s brought edge. And it’s all working because there are results on the field to back it up. I think they’ve lost two games in the first 14 or 15 as a coach.

The guy is getting results. He got results in San Francisco with the 49ers and he gets results here. At the end of the day that’s what gives you the runway to do what you want to do and put your spin on the program.

I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s great that Michigan State has just been awesome the last three years. When you look at the circle around the Great Lakes, those of us who live up here love football. We love football. For 51 years in the NFL, the Vikings, the Packers, the Lions and the Bears have all been in the same division. Those four teams all around the Great Lakes, they’ve all been within the same division. So they have a great rivalry.

Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Four great schools in terms of history and legacy — we’re talking Heismans, national championships, we’re talking over 500 wins, the winningest programs in the sport — when they’re all good, it’s great. So when we see Notre Dame intersect with Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan when they come back onto the schedule, it’s great for the sport and those are the games that inspire the kids who live up this way to play ball. And that just feeds to future generation.

So it’s a long-winded answer, but Michigan getting good again is great for the sport because in a couple of years when they meet again, if Michigan and Notre Dame are really good, then the football fans will get a great Saturday and a great weekend. That’s all they want.

 

You’re probably one of the only people who has actually watched the entire Michigan State-Furman game. What do you expect to see from the Spartans this weekend? 

I don’t think we know. And I don’t think they know just yet. I think they’ll have a much better answer come Sunday morning.

Here’s what we know: They are in the mold of the Dantonio teams that have turned this thing around to where they’ve finished in the top five or six here for the last three years in a row. They’re physical, they’re well coached, and they run a great program.

We just spent the day there. You’d want to send your kid to Mark Dantonio to play football. He is a task master. He’s hard on the guys, but they love him. And that’s when you know that the guy is really good. And he is.

We don’t know how Tyler O’Connor, the quarterback, is going to play for a whole year. We know he won his first road start at Ohio State. I told Tyler today that if you win at Notre Dame you should walk right out that tunnel and end your career. If you start two road games and it’s a win at Ohio State and a win at Notre Dame, you’ve done it all.

It’s probably not going to be too big for him. He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s only got one year to play but it’s really great the leadership role that he now has. They can run the ball, they’ve got a good offensive line, and running backs. On the defensive side of the ball they’ve got guys who can make some plays, a very good linebacking corps. So even though the names have changed, there’s still the blueprint for what has made them very good.

We don’t know, and candidly they don’t know, if their best players are good enough to be a top five team or not. I think we’ll start getting those answers this week and then they still play Michigan and Ohio State, among others. There’s plenty of runway to find out how good the Spartans are this year. I think they’re a really good team and they’ll play a physical game as they always do.

 

What’s your experience with Brian Kelly?

I’ve been around Brian at Cincinnati and maybe at Central, too. I was trying to piece that together and I think I might have done a MAC game when he coached at Central. Certainly at Cincinnati a few times and our paths would cross at a couple of other events during the year, and then when he coached Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama, I called that game for ESPN Radio. So I spent time around Brian in the lead up to that as well.

I know him a little bit, but not very well. But certainly know him and know why his style of football has helped Notre Dame return to being one of the college football’s most watched teams.

 

How do you think he handled the quarterback situation? Do you think he regrets playing two guys before deciding on DeShone Kizer, who is quickly ascending as one of the premier guys in the country?

I don’t think there are any regrets at all. I thought he handled it really well. When you’re in a situation with two quarterbacks, it’s always very delicate. And I think this one is made more delicate because Malik is coming off of an injury. And you don’t want to see a guy lose his starting spot because he got injured. So they tried to figure out how to manage that. And by giving them both an opportunity to play, DeShone Kizer was clearly the better quarterback in that game and he proved to be a better thrower.

So in this day and age with the way the offense is spread, that’s probably the best place to go for your No. 1 quarterback. And DeShone proved that on the field. I thought Brian handled it very well. I thought he approached it the right way and things sorted out over time. So it all works.

I will say this: Malik was terrific in terms of trying to accept the role and we saw him last week as we left practice and Malik was staying to throw extra footballs. He knows that he’s just a play away, that’s how he lost the job. And I give that man a lot of credit for embracing what the role is for the moment. That showed me that he can handle it well.

 

You’ll leave Notre Dame and then head out to host the Ryder Cup. What makes you so excited about the event?

When Al Michaels left ABC and the Disney family to go to NBC, part of the trade to allow Al out of his deal was Oswald the Rabbit, some extended rights to Olympic highlights I believe, and ESPN got the first day of the Ryder Cup. So in ‘08 in Louisville at Valhalla and in 2010 in Wales and in 2012 at Medina, I got to do the Friday at the Ryder Cup, and the ‘08 day at Valhalla is still one of my favorite and will remain one of my favorite days ever at work.

The two captains were Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, who a few years before that in the run up to it were both my partners in the 18th tower. So two guys who I sat alongside for three years in the booth are now out there as the captains of the Ryder Cup.

It was such a cool event, the atmosphere in Louisville was incredible that day. We were on the air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you didn’t think once that you were tired. It was a great day and I love the Ryder Cup. I think it’s special because you never talk about salaries, you’re talking about guys who are playing for continent or country, and every shot really matters.

People may watch Thursday and Friday at a major, but you know most of the guys are kind of jockeying around to get in contention for the last nine on Sunday, but here your second shot on the second hole on Friday could be the difference in the match. And the point could be the difference in retaining, winning or losing the cup.

I love it, I cannot wait to get there on Wednesday, and to be around it and then host the coverage while the guys call it on Friday and Saturday.

 

So who do you put as the U.S. Team’s fourth captain’s pick?

Davis has enough guys in his ears, but Bubba is still out there, right? I’ve got a guy with two majors who represented the United States of America when other guys were saying no thanks about the Olympics. But not only did he represent us by going, but he represented us by how he comported himself there. Bubba wasn’t having a good first nine holes on Thursday’s first round and he’s walking off the green and opening up his bag and giving Olympic pins and golf pins to kids who were watching.

Bubba sat one row behind me on the night that Michael Phelps won two gold medals. And with 50 meters to go, Phelps flips to turn to beat Chad le Clos, who was talking trash beforehand, and Bubba is up right behind me screaming, “Come on, Phelps! Come on, Michael!” He’s rooting like a fan.

A guy who when many people in the golf world turned their backs on the Olympics, Bubba embraced it and represented the country. He’s a damn good golfer. He’s won the Masters twice. I take him on my side anytime. If there’s a pick and he’s still out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
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Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala

Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most

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Notre Dame split with four players Tuesday night, two of them having a more noticeable ripple effect than the others.

Kevin Stepherson’s Irish career coming to a premature conclusion became an inevitability in December. The sophomore receiver forced the issue with back-to-back legal missteps underscoring a disregard for what must have already been a zero-tolerance situation. Though unproven, Notre Dame has a litany of options to replace Stepherson’s big-play potential.

To be blunt, the Irish will hardly notice Brandon Tiassum’s absence on the field in 2018. The junior defensive tackle was passed on the depth chart by two freshmen this past fall, and a few more newcomers may have pushed him further from playing time between now and Sept. 1.

But in losing two running backs — current sophomore Deon McIntosh and freshman C.J. Holmes — from the roster, Notre Dame will have to make some adjustments. If health were guaranteed the two remaining known commodities at the position, then the absences of McIntosh and Holmes could be written off with only a bit more consternation than Tiassum’s. At running back, though, health is not guaranteed. It is, in fact, rare.

Between junior Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones, the Irish have the makings of a top-flight backfield. Williams has an abundance of playmaking ability, if lacking as both a receiver and a blocker, while Jones excels in those latter two capacities and can pick up chunks of yardage simply by bowling over defenders. But, at some point in the next 11 months, at least one of the two will be hampered. Maybe yet another ankle will turn balky. Maybe Williams’ quad will seize up again. Perhaps something more severe will befall one of, if not both, Notre Dame’s lead backs.

At that point, as the roster is currently, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith will be available. That will not be enough.

A year ago, the Irish entered spring practice with known-stalwart Josh Adams, Williams and Jones ready to go. Holmes had enrolled early. Those four were expected to be the running back corps. Then Holmes injured his shoulder early in the spring. The idea of only three healthy running backs was such an uncomfortable thought, the coaching staff opted to move McIntosh to the backfield from receiver.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh finished 2017 with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As anyone who watched the latter half of the 2017 season will attest, it was a good thing they did.

How Notre Dame goes about finding a fourth back this year will sort itself out only with time. Some will bandy about the thought of moving rivals.com three-star cornerback Tariq Bracy to the offensive backfield. He excelled both as a running back and a cornerback in high school, and the Irish have depth at the latter position these days. Bracy is certainly a possibility.

The fringe will posit this is a prime opportunity to move junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush away from taking snaps. That concept will not and should not be considered for even the five seconds it took to read that sentence.

Most likely — perhaps in combination with turning to Bracy or another, less obvious suspect — Notre Dame is already urgently looking for a second running back in this recruiting class. Finding one will be easier suggested than executed, and doing so will likely take away from adding at another position.

The Irish currently have 22 commitments in this class, 21 signed and consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.) ready to do so in February. They were likely planning to reel in another offensive lineman, another defensive back and a receiver with the remaining three spots in the class.

For example, rivals.com four-star/247sports.com five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.), consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (H.D. Woodson High School; Washington, D.C.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans, La.). There are a litany of other permutations of that combination, but the point stands. Adding a running back to that limited capacity will take away from somewhere else.

RELATED READING: With four spots remaining, what recruits is Notre Dame still chasing? (Dec. 23)

Notre Dame does theoretically have the option to exceed 25 recruits in the class by counting some of the newly-arrived seven early enrollees toward last year’s recruit class numbers. It is essentially a known loophole within NCAA rules, but that theory is unlikely to become reality.

In the long view, it could create an exacerbated roster crunch in years to come. That algebra is constantly shifting. Exceeding 25 players in this class would also necessitate four recruiting successes in an abbreviated period with a shallow pool of prospects remaining after the early signing period.

Thus, the odds stand at slim of the Irish coaching staff exceeding 25 signees in this class, meaning Jones plus only three more Feb. 7. With Tuesday’s churn, a running back will likely be one of those three, and thus another position will not be.

Losing McIntosh and Holmes drains Notre Dame’s running back depth in 2018. It also shifts, ever so slightly-yet-noticeably, the roster in the years immediately afterward.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. That count had already presumed Stepherson off the roster. Thus, this development drops that number to 84, including committed consensus three-star offensive tackle Luke Jones. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.