Whatever Happened to ND Men Becoming Football Coaches?

With all the questions swirling around the Notre Dame football program at the moment, one thing is fairly certain:

If there is a coaching change, the odds of a former ND player taking the reins are pretty remote.

About the only possible candidate from the ranks of former Irish players is Tom Clements, the Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach the past four years. Clements, ND’s quarterback from 1972-74, has been an NFL assistant since 1997, after a four-year stint as Notre Dame’s QB coach (1992-95).

With all the talk about the program needing an established, successful college head coach, Clements is pretty much an afterthought.

How ironic that a school with Notre Dame’s great football heritage has produced so few coaches in recent decades.

Because, from the 1920s through the 50s or 60s, Notre Dame produced the greatest “coaching tree” in the history of the game.  Notre Dame grads who played with and under Knute Rockne literally spread across the nation, guiding college and high school programs seemingly everywhere.

One of the most amazing facts we discovered in doing research for Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions was that all 11 ND regulars in 1924 — seniors all — were coaching college football in the fall of 1925.

That included three head coaches — captain Adam Walsh at Santa Clara, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher at Villanova and fullback Elmer Layden at Columbia, Iowa (today’s Loras College).  Others from that team had great success as coaches, including Jim Crowley at Fordham, Noble Kizer at Purdue, Rip Miller at Navy, Stuhldreher later at Wisconsin and of course Layden back at ND.

At one time, nearly half the head coaches in the Southeastern Conference were Rockne proteges, including Frank Thomas at Alabama and Harry Mehre at Georgia.

For 46 straights seasons, from when Rockne ascended to head coach in 1918 through the 1963 season, Notre Dame football was led by a former Irish player:  Rockne (1918-30), Hunk Anderson (1931-33), Layden (1934-40), Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53), Ed McKeever (1944), Hugh Devore (1945, 1963), Terry Brennan (1954-58) and Joe Kuharich (1959-62) formed a nearly half-century succession.

For the 46 seasons since then, no ND head coach has been a former Irish player (Weis having been the only ND alum).  From 1964 forward, it’s been Ara Parseghian (Miami of Ohio), Dan Devine (Minnesota-Duluth), Gerry Faust (Dayton), Lou Holtz (Kent State), Bob Davie (Youngstown State), Ty Willingham (Michigan State) and Weis.

And the names being bandied about as possible (or dream) replacements for Weis are products of a variety of mostly Midwestern and Eastern schools:

Urban Meyer (Cincinnati), Jon Gruden (Dayton), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Bob Stoops (Iowa), Kirk Ferentz (Connecticut), Brian Kelly (Assumption College, MA), Paul Johnson (Western Carolina) Mike Stoops (Iowa), Gary Patterson (Kansas State).

Yes, Meyer was an ND assistant under Holtz and Davie (1996-2000) and Gruden spent his formative years in South Bend while his dad coached under Devine, but none of these have the daily connection with the University that earlier coaches had.

It’s sad to watch any Notre Dame man experience any sort of failure. And, despite whatever criticisms of Charlie Weis are piled up, his love of the University is unquestioned.  He sincerely wanted to see it return to the type of football glory he experienced as a student in the 1970s. He ached for it.

And there are plenty of things he did well these past five years.

There’s no question that he sold quality recruits — excellent, high-character football players — on the value of becoming one of the Fighting Irish.

Sometimes overlooked has been Weis’ ability to connect with the Catholic high school powers across the U.S., something missing in past years. Just look at the ND roster for a reminder of how strong a link there is to Catholic schools, from Immaculata in New Jersey to Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks.

Certainly, no coach in recent history has done a better job of reaching out to former ND coaches and players.  To hear Joe Theismann and Rocket Ismail address the crowd at the USC pep rally is a reminder of the great spirit and success of Irish football alumni. You could close your eyes and almost see and hear Rock himself firing up ‘the fellows.’

One only hopes that, if there is a change at the top, the new coach will take time to really understand the spirit of Notre Dame….and all it means.