On November the 29th, when Notre Dame Vice-President and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick was first made aware that long-time and winningest Notre Dame Football Head Coach Brian Kelly would be leaving abruptly to be the head coach of the Louisiana State University, the list of things that needed to be done must have been daunting. Dealing with the media, securing assistants, ensuring position coaches stayed on, and, of course, conducting a search and hiring a new head coach, all the while trying to hold a recruiting class together. However, after talking with players on the Fighting Irish football team, Jack Swarbrick concluded that the first and most important thing that needed to be done before all others was to secure the continued services of Notre Dame Director of Football Performance Matt Balis.
“It was the protection of the culture that led me to make the unusual decision to make a commitment to our Director of (Football) Performance Matt Balis,” Swarbrick would relate before introducing Marcus Freeman, “That regardless of who became the head coach, he (Balis), the ‘Minister of Culture’ if you would, would stay in his position.” Very high praise indeed and even more so when considering the value placed on Coach Balis by the players themselves.
Matt Balis’s chapter at Notre Dame began in 2017, but his story is much longer than that. Matt Balis started his career as the Assistant Strength Coach at Houston in 2001. Urban Meyer brought Balis with him to Utah in 2003 as the Assistant Strength Coach. Recognizing his value immediately, Meyer would make Balis the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Utah the very next year. Balis would help build a 12-0 Utah team that won the Fiesta Bowl in 2004. Urban Meyer would next bring Balis with him to Florida, where Balis was a part of building the 2006 BCS National Championship Florida Gators team.
Next, Balis would head to Virginia as the Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach for two years before Dan Mullen, former Florida offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, came calling and lured Balis to Mississippi State to help turn around a program that had won only 18 games during the previous four years. Mullen would often call Balis the most important part of his program and “the best strength coach in the country.” Balis would spend five years at Mississippi State, helping secure four straight winning seasons and bowl appearances, with the Bulldogs winning three of them. In 2010, Balis was one of three finalists for the FootballScoop Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. Coach Balis would spend a three-year stint as Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Connecticut, and then, after the disastrous 2016 Notre Dame football season, Jack Swarbrick would come calling employing Balis as the Notre Dame Director of Football Performance as a part of the overhaul Coach Brian Kelly was forced to undertake.
At Notre Dame, the difference Matt Balis had on the strength, conditioning, as well as toughness was quickly apparent. In 2018, just two short seasons after the 2016 debacle, Notre Dame reached the College Football Playoffs for the first time. Their team was not only one of the best in the country, but it was built largely with unheralded recruits. Balis would again be one of the three finalists for Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. In 2020, Balis’s player and culture development would help Notre Dame reach the College Football Playoffs for the 2nd time in three years with a team that was comprised largely of unheralded recruits.
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During his five years as the Notre Dame Director of Football Performance, Matt Balis has consistently helped develop three- and four-star talents into college stars and NFL players. Developing three-star prospects such as Tommy Tremble, Ade Ogundeji, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah into some of the most physical players on the field and NFL draft picks is now commonplace. Likewise, developing 2014-2020 recruiting classes that Rivals ranked no higher than 11th and which averaged nearly 14th over that span into the types of teams with the athleticism, toughness, and physicality to win 54 wins over the past five years is now expected.
New Irish Head Coach Marcus Freeman has led a surge in Notre Dame football recruiting as defensive coordinator and is almost certain to do that at an even higher level as head coach. Notre Dame currently sits fourth in the country in the Rivals rankings this year as the recruiting period winds down, and future recruiting classes already look to be very highly rated as well. With dramatically improved recruiting and one of the very best Directors of Football Performance in the country Matt Balis, it is indeed, as Jack Swarbrick stated just as he took the microphone to introduce Freeman: “It’s a great day to be Irish.”