Notre Dame has talked about being serious about contending for a national championship for years, but its actions did not always back up their statements. Whether it was being slow on NIL, settling on Under Armour, or losing out on expensive assistants, Notre Dame has had moments the last few years where it seemed like they were only talking the talk. Aggressively targeting Mike Denbrock to replace Gerad Parker and landing one of the most sought-after assistants in college football, however, was a prime example of walking the walk.
When news broke that Gerad Parker was leaving Notre Dame to be the head coach at Troy, Denbrock’s name surfaced quickly, but it seemed almost too good to be true. Some Notre Dame media outlets deemed there was “no chance” that Denbrock would be coming to Notre Dame. Less than a week later, Denbrock is headed to South Bend after engineering the nation’s top-ranked offense and producing a Heisman Trophy winner this past fall.
Notre Dame wasn’t the only school to attempt to lure Denbrock out of Baton Rouge this month. Texas A&M and their new head coach, Mike Elko, targeted Denbrock but were turned down. Texas A&M. The program with deep pockets that is paying Jimbo Fisher a $75m buyout and whose collectives bought the highest-rated recruiting class in years just two years ago couldn’t get Denbrock to leave LSU. Maybe the oil money is finally drying up in College Station after all those payments?
Notre Dame, however, was able to get Mike Denbrock to leave Brian Kelly – a head coach with whom he has a history back to the early 1990s at Grand Valley State – and LSU after the Tigers recently agreed to a contract extension with him. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported that the extension, luckily, had yet to be finalized, making the buyout for Notre Dame much more palatable. Still, Notre Dame had to make a financial investment in their new offensive coordinator few thought they would pay for.
Another factor that helped Notre Dame in its pursuit was Denbrock’s love of Notre Dame. This will be his third stint with the Irish, dating back to the early 2000s when he served as offensive line coach for Tyrone Willingham. That was something both LSU and Texas A&M simply couldn’t offer Denrbock, no matter the dollar amount associated with their offers.
The plot lines for August’s season-opener in Kyle Field are even thicker now, as well. There’s the Elko-Notre Dame connection from his time at Notre Dame and leaving the program for more money at A&M, even after reportedly agreeing to a raise with the Irish in 2018. There’s the Riley Leonard-Elko connection from Duke the past two seasons. And now there’s the Denbrock connection. A fun game just got even more fun.
Contrast this year’s offensive coordinator search with last year’s when the Irish got both Colin Klien and Andy Ludwig on campus, only to be spurred by both before settling on Parker. That search will forever be remembered for Notre Dame being unable to overcome Ludwig’s buyout after trotting him around campus and making sure he was seen on TV with Marcus Freeman during his visit. Whatever the full reasons it didn’t work out, everyone remembers that story. Notre Dame could not lure a top coordinator away from lesser programs and had to settle on an internal candidate that few felt would be up to the task.
This year, Notre Dame moved swiftly in zeroing in on Denbrock and getting a deal done in just a few days. The timing of this year’s search – December versus February – obviously helped the Irish, but the contrast is stark. So is the perception of Notre Dame outside the program. Last year, Notre Dame was seen as being cheap and settling for, at best, their third choice. This year, the national media is lauding Notre Dame for getting the offensive coordinator from the #1 ranked offense to leave a top-tier SEC program.
It’s remarkable how much perception can change in less than a year. While Notre Dame landed Sam Hartman out of the portal in 2023, their other portal moves were thought to be more around the margins at the time. This year, Notre Dame attacked the portal by adding another top quarterback, Riley Leonard, and two of the portal’s most sought-after receivers, Kris Mitchell and Beaux Collins. Reports are that Notre Dame isn’t done targeting receiving help either. The vibes were low, even with adding Hartman heading into spring after losing Rees and replacing him with Parker. This year, the Irish were aggressive from the jump in the portal and upgraded dramatically at OC before Christmas. The vibes are good.
Just adding Denbrock to the staff doesn’t make the Irish a contender overnight after Notre Dame dropped three games – all of which were winnable in retrospect – this fall, but between their roster additions and staff improvements – including new wide receivers coach Mike Brown – they are in a substantially better position to challenge for a playoff spot in 2024 than they were this year.
There is still work for the program to do to level the playing field with other elite programs – most notably the long-awaited upgrades to the Gug. Still, for the first time in a while, the public perception of Notre Dame is that it will tap into its vast resources more than they have in the past to field a legitimate contender.