One thing is clear and obvious: Public criticisms of Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator hire do not matter. Less apparent? The most important opinion regarding Tommy Rees’ abilities at offensive coordinator may not be that of the head coach who just promoted him, though he has the most at risk with the move.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly has only a handful of years left in that role. Whether it be three more seasons or five, the number is low enough that each one needs to be approached as a version of make-or-break if Kelly is to win a national championship. The decision upon who would replace Chip Long after three mostly-successful seasons could not be one made with 2022 in mind or even 2021. It had to be about 2020; jeopardizing Playoff chances in the short-term with an eye on the long-term is not a viable approach in the slightest in Kelly’s 11th year.
Thus, the most important opinion about Rees moving from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator may be Ian Book’s as he enters his third season as Notre Dame’s clear starting quarterback.
That is not overly-catering to the Irish locker room. It is not a short-sighted approach. It is a version of pragmatism mixed with betting the hand Kelly already holds.
And Book has been praising Rees for nearly three years already.
“Meeting with him once a day and going through coverages and reads, learning from someone who has done it before, it’s helped me,” Book said way back in the spring of 2017, months into Rees’ tenure. “I really like the way he teaches. It has just helped me visualizing and then going out on the field and being able to see exactly what he is talking about.”
On the surface that may seem like plenty of praise for a quarterbacks coach to stay, well, a quarterbacks coach. But keep in mind two things: That was three years ago; Rees has undoubtedly learned more about offensive scheming since then. And, again, Book’s opinion might matter most at this point.
Maybe Notre Dame will have a better national championship chance in 2021 when safety Kyle Hamilton is in his final collegiate season and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has left the collegiate ranks. Maybe it will come in 2022 with Drew Pyne or Tyler Buchner at the helm and the incoming freshmen star skill players making their quarterback look great. Maybe it will be in 2023, led by some recruit not yet on many radars.
Those are all “maybe”s. Book leading the way as a third-year starter with a talented defensive line on the other side of the ball is a reality now, one Kelly cannot afford to squander in hopes of building into one of those down-the-road possibilities.
A build was understandable, even needed, in Kelly’s early years, the ones Rees quarterbacked, part of the equation that got the Irish to a national title game appearance, finding his way to 23 wins while starting only one season opener.
“He’s done it,” Book said of his own early impressions. “Not too long ago he was running this offense here. He can show you what the reads look like. He knows. He’s done it before. It’s the best information because he’s experienced.”
A build was also reasonable coming out of the 2016 debacle — no one exactly expected 33 wins in the next three seasons, including one Playoff berth — when Rees showed up to mentor the quarterbacks and, to some extent, challenge Kelly like previous assistants had not. That concept was a holdover from memorable exchanges on the sideline between head coach and quarterback, ones that both galvanized the team and were quickly moved past by mature minds.
“Tommy wasn’t a guy who was going to back down if he thought he was right,” Rees’ former teammate Mike Golic, Jr., said when Rees first returned to their alma mater. “Both of them could certainly have that heated conversation and then come back and understand that is just part of the working environment there.”
A build now, though, would jeopardize the rest of Kelly’s tenure. Any year could be his last genuine chance at a title. Thus, he could not risk losing any chemistry with Book in 2020. Rees and Book trust each other, and that has led to good results thus far. Leaning into that trust may yield better outcomes yet.
Rees and Book speak the same language, an underrated need when discussing a playbook of any design. They have lived through parallel career trajectories, with Book’s reaching greater heights despite similar frustrations with coming of age in the spotlight. They have no learning curve to overcome this spring, instead able to focus on developing rapport with a young receivers corps.
Tearing at those dynamics would have had less of a chance of success.
If for no other reason, Book’s opinion of Rees made naming the former Irish quarterback as the offensive coordinator the right move for Kelly, who has more staked in the decision than anyone else. In that respect, Kelly has wagered a portion of his future on Book’s arm as much as he has Rees’ playcalling.