Now that we know definitively that Brian Kelly will be back to coach Notre Dame in 2017, the most pressing issue facing the Notre Dame program is finding a new defensive coordinator. If Kelly is to succeed in rebounding from this disastrous 2016 season, this hire has to be a grand slam. For that reason, Kelly’s attention should be on luring Charlie Strong back to Notre Dame.
Charlie Strong may not be interested in being a defensive coordinator again after his failed stint as a head coach at Texas, but should he be open to the idea, Notre Dame should do everything it can to get him on board.
The Case For Pursuing Charlie Strong
Notre Dame needs a strong defensive coordinator who rebuild a unit that’s been bruised and battered ever since Bob Diaco took his perfectly parted hair to Storrs to coach the Huskies. The Brian Vangorder experiment was a disaster of nearly epic proportions with Notre Dame failing to play competitive defense for long stretches despite a wealth of NFL talent at times. The fact that Jaylon Smith – one of the program’s greatest linebackers of all-time – excelled in spite of the scheme instead of because it is proof alone Vangorder’s defense would never work at Notre Dame.
When Kelly made the decision to hire Vangorder he stayed in his comfort zone and brought in a coach he knew and was comfortable with. He played it safe and the result was a disaster. This time around Kelly needs to go outside his comfort zone. If he goes back to the well of coaches he knows or simply elevates a current assistant – none of whom have proven to be ready for the challenge nor have had much, if any, outside interest – Notre Dame will be looking for more than a new defensive coordinator sooner rather than later.
Strong would be outside Kelly’s comfort zone though the two do know each other from squaring off against each other the last two seasons. Strong would be an outside voice and a voice from someone who has run a program and worked with elite level college defenses before. His coaching credentials speak for themselves.
Prior to his successful run as a head coach at Louisville, Strong served as the defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz at South Carolina from 1999-2002. Before moving on to Florida under Ron Zook and eventually Urban Meyer. Strong spent seven seasons at Florida winning two national titles as part of Meyer’s staff.
Outside of Strong’s resume and credentials, he just spent the last three years building connections and ties with high school coaches in talent rich Texas. Notre Dame has struggled to recruit the Lone Star State after a brief stint of success a few years back. Todd Lyght’s addition in early 2015 has helped some, but Strong would be able to reopen some doors in Texas for Notre Dame on the recruiting trail.
The Case Against Pursuing Charlie Strong
Let’s assume that Brian Kelly and Notre Dame want Strong and the feeling is mutual. However successful, or unsuccessful Strong ultimately ends up being, his potential Notre Dame tenure would be brief. If Strong flames out and is unable to rebuild the Irish defense, there’s a good chance the entire staff will be looking for jobs since Kelly has to nail this hire to rebound his own Notre Dame career. If Strong works some of his old magic and the Irish have a resurgent defense, he will get another head coaching opportunity somewhere in fairly short order.
Strong would be a bandaid in many ways for Notre Dame. Is that necessarily a band thing though? Notre Dame has to start playing better defense and if Strong comes in, rebuilds the defense, and leaves after two highly successful years, it shouldn’t be difficult at all for Kelly to find a replacement.
Some will also argue that Strong lost his magic at Texas and might be burnt out and unable to step right into a new job. And it is a valid concern, but at the same time, perhaps a return to just coaching defense is just what the man needs to get his mojo back.
There is also the argument that Notre Dame should look to identify a young up and coming defensive mind like a Dave Aranda at LSU. A coach that is still on the rise and not yet ready for a head coaching job but still has a bright future. A defensive version of current offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Does Kelly have time to make such a hire though?
Oh an spoiler alert: there ain’t no way in hell Notre Dame can lure Aranda from LSU after the contract he got.
Would Charlie Strong Want the Job?
There’s a good chance that Charlie Strong can be a head coach next year at a FBS program if he wants to be one. For instance, Purdue could do a hell of a lot worse than Charlie Strong as their next head coach. That said, there aren’t a lot of great openings this year so the bigger question might be, does Strong even want to coach in 2017?
Rumors are his buyout with Texas will net him in the range of $10 million. That’s a lot of money to make to not work next fall. After his quick burn out in Austin, Strong might simply prefer to take a year off, relax and recharge, and come back next fall when there are some more marquee openings.
At the same time, the fire to coach burns in these guys and Strong is still a relatively young coach.
The Notre Dame defensive coordinator position could be very appealing to Charlie Strong if he is open to a coordinator gig. Being the defensive coordinator at a program like Notre Dame is in a lot of ways a more high profile position than being the head coach at a smaller program. Being able to refocus solely on the defensive side the ball and not have to worry about all of the outside factors that fall on the head coaches’ responsibilities could entice him as well.
One aspect of the job that would be a deterrent to an up and coming head coach could be a moot point for Strong as well. A young coach could be scared away by the scrutiny that Brian Kelly is under following this year’s 4-8 campaign. Many coaches may not want to jump into what very well could be a short term situation. In Strong’s case, however, he almost certainly would be looking at any coordinator position as temporary anyway.
Strong also coached at Notre Dame for four years under both Lou Holtz and Bob Davie. From 1995-1998, Charlie Strong coached the Notre Dame defensive line under Lou Holtz and then Bob Davie. He saw what both a successful and unsuccessful head coach at Notre Dame looks like. Perhaps helping rebuild the Irish defense would appeal to him.
Would Brian Kelly Ever Consider It?
The biggest question in all of this might be, would Brian Kelly even consider bringing in a coach like Charlie Strong at all since he’s outside his close circle. Two years go Kelly went outside that circle with Mike Sanford and to a lesser degree Autry Denson and Todd Lyght. The latter two coaches’ Notre Dame ties made those hires different than that of Sanford who Kelly had no connection to.
That said, Kelly tabbed Vangorder as his defensive coordinator last time around even though he hadn’t been coaching on the college level for a few years and didn’t appear to have much interest from other programs. Kelly also was steadfast in his support of Vangorder even as the Irish defense continued to be a sieve week in and week out.
Kelly has said that he will look inside and outside of the program, but could his need to win now force him into going with someone like Mike Elston and only making subtle tweaks instead of wholesale changes?
Notre Dame could do far, far worse at defensive coordinator than Charlie Strong and at a bare minimum Kelly needs to make that call – if he hasn’t already. If Strong is interested, the only remaining question should be, how much will it take to get it done.