Notre Dame Football Coaching Searches Tend to Be Crazy

Each of the last three Notre Dame head coaching searches have all included some wild and crazy moments.

No one thought Notre Dame football would be going through a coaching change this off-season though Jack Swarbrick claims he isn’t surprised Brian Kelly left. Now that we are, though, it’s a good time to remember that Notre Dame football coaching searches tend to be crazy, and during the last three, there’s been at least one ridiculous, hard to believe story that has happened. Hopefully, this time around, that isn’t the case, but history has proven otherwise.

If you only remember the Brian Kelly search or were even too young to remember that one since it was 12 years ago, let’s take a stroll down memory lane to look back on the ridiculousness that has surrounded past Notre Dame head coaching searches.

In December 2001, after Notre Dame fired Bob Davie, it looked like they had a replacement right out of central casting. Then Georgia Tech head coach George O’Leary, an Irish-catholic with a proven track record as a college head coach at a big-time program, seemed too perfect on paper. It turns out he was.

O’Leary famously lied on his originally coaching resume years and years before about a master’s degree he never received. A fairly innocent thing to do for someone trying to break into the coaching ranks as an unproven coach. It ended up costing him the Notre Dame job after a tenure that last mere days. Today it seems crazy to think that something like that would cost a coach a head coaching job – especially their dream job -, but that’s what happened 20 years ago with Notre Dame and O’Leary.

After resigning from Notre Dame, O’Leary caught on at UCF in 2004 and compiled an 81-68 record, including a 12-1 record with a Fiesta Bowl win in 2013.

After the O’Leary fiasco, there was a belief that then Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was Notre Dame’s guy. Momentum built over several days before there were scattered reports that Notre Dame and Gruden had come to an agreement only to be refuted a few hours later. Legend has it that Gruden wanted to finish out the NFL season before taking over at Notre Dame but notoriously bitter Oakland owner Al Davis wouldn’t let him so he stayed with the Raiders and went on to win the Super Bowl a few months later.

Notre Dame hired Tyrone Willingham weeks later in a move that never would fly these days – waiting until the end of December to name a head coach. There was no early signing period back then, and early commitments were still rare as December and January were the hotbed recruiting months.

After Notre Dame fired Willingham three years later, Notre Dame infamously flew the private jet to Salt Lake City, Utah, to sign Urban Meyer as the next head coach at Notre Dame. News reports showed the Irish contingent landing in Utah only to be told by Meyer that he was accepting the head job at Florida, where he went on to win two national titles. Notre Dame’s top brass was left with egg on their face as they flew back home without a head coach and started their search over from scratch.

Gruden’s father was an assistant at Notre Dame in the 1970s under Dan Devine, and Gruden grew up in South Bend as a Notre Dame fan. Gruden even famously told Playboy magazine that he had lost his virginity to the Notre Dame fight song playing in his head. Since the alleged close call in 2002, Gruden has been a pipe-dream candidate for some Notre Dame fans ever since. Given his recent off-the-field issues that forced him to resign with the now Las Vegas Raiders, he probably won’t be a candidate this time around.

Finally, during the coaching search that produced Brian Kelly, there were some widespread rumors of alleged interest in the position by then Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops. No formal reports of Stoops negotiating with Notre Dame or being interested developed, but there was rampant speculation that Notre Dame and Stoops had mutual interest for a few days. That speculation turned out to be false. Still, for a few days of the nearly two-week-long search that ended with Brian Kelly accepting the position at Notre Dame, there was a lot of Stoops to Notre Dame chatter.

So what crazy, wild story will develop this time around? Meyer has already thankfully denied any interest in returning to college, so that’s out the window. On the other hand, Luke Fickell made a non-denial, denial of interest in the job so that one could be fun. Either way, there is almost always one wild, out-of-left-field, crazy story that pops up during a Notre Dame coaching search.

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5 Comments

  1. I remember the wild ride that resulted in Weis being named coach very well. We were all set for Meyer and it blew up in everyone’s faces. And then all the trash talk about ND firing Willingham because he was a Black coach (though after his sting at Washington we learned he really was just a bad HC).

    I do remember some of the Stoops talk before hiring BK, but it never seemed all that serious, at least not like the Meyer talk a few years prior. It always seemed to me like BK was ‘the guy.’ There was some chatter, but it just seemed to me they settled on BK pretty quickly. A move I freely admit I wanted to see myself. I thought BK was ‘the guy’ myself at the time.

    Now, well I don’t know. I didn’t expect this myself. I think ND has to make a homerun hire here though. We have a strong recruiting class we don’t want to scatter. And it’d be nice to maintain some consistency among the coaching staff. Freeman would obviously give you the best continuity and the best chance to hold on to most of our recruits. But there is some risk as well, since he has no HC experience and not a lot of coaching experience in the big leagues of CFB. But I think I might chance it. We don’t want BK poaching him at LSU first of all. And he does have a good rapport with players and recruits, and important factor. And while I hate to use race as a deciding factor, it won’t hurt ND to have a minority head coach.

    1. Just the name ‘Kelly’ had everyone swooning….for such a serious decision, that was really incredibly funny to me.
      (Aside: remember those scrappy Parseghians from Waterford?)

      At his introduction as ND coach, he came up to the microphone, all grins. And immediately pronounced Notre Dame two different ways (No-truh the first time, and No-terr the second).
      I said to myself:
      “Hunh. A guy who just got the biggest job at Notre Dame doesn’t know how to pronounce it.”
      Or he’s such a bullshitter putting on heirs, that he can’t even help mangling words he knows perfectly well.
      Either way, not good.
      And I came decide that it was definitely the latter….a chronic bullshitter.

  2. Well, BK is going to learn that LSU will not be patient. He’ll get 2, maybe 3 years to WIN a NC at LSU then he’s out. It’s not enough at LSU just to get in the playoffs. They expect NC’s. So he may quickly find himself looking for another new job in 3 years. And I will laugh my ass off when that happens. BK is a good coach for a school like Illinois or Boston College, where NC’s aren’t expected. But he’s not an elite coach.

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