NEW YORK - When Mike Denbrock packed his bags and left Notre Dame following the 2004 season, the last thing on his mind was returning to South Bend for a second gig.
“I was thinking more about, ‘Boy, I hope I can get another job and take care of my family,’” said Denbrock Thursday during media day at Yankee Stadium.
Not only is Denbrock back for stint No. 2 with the Irish, he’ll sit in the offensive coordinator’s seat Saturday afternoon when Notre Dame takes on Rutgers in the fourth annual Pinstripe Bowl.
“I don’t look at it as an audition,” said Denbrock after taking over for Chuck Martin, who departed for the head-coaching position at Miami (Ohio) upon the conclusion of the 2013 regular season.
“I look at it more as an opportunity to step into a role that needed filling so our football team could come here and have success against Rutgers. That’s really all it is for me right now. We haven’t talked about the stuff that I know is out there. We’ve concentrated on just trying to prepare these guys the best we can and fill that void as best I can so the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and can play their best.”
What’s “out there” is the role of offensive coordinator, as is the job on the defensive side of the football where Kerry Cooks - who had the title of co-defensive coordinator with Bob Diaco during the 2012-13 campaigns - hopes to land his first full-time stint in the coordinator’s role.
“I look at it as an opportunity to have a few extra practices for our young guys and for us to be able to send our seniors out with a win,” said Cooks, who also instructs Notre Dame’s cornerbacks.
“That’s the only approach I’ve had since Coach Diaco left and I was elevated for this bowl game. What happens after this is a Coach Kelly question. I know that I love coaching and I love developing guys, so whatever role I’m in, I’m going to embrace that role.”
For Denbrock, it’s a full circle kind of thing, both at Notre Dame - where he served under Tyrone Willingham as offensive tackles/tight ends coach from 2002-04 - and as an assistant under Brian Kelly. Denbrock was, in a rare development, Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State from 1992-95, and Kelly’s defensive coordinator from 1996-98.
When an opportunity arose for Denbrock to coordinate the defense for the Buffalo Destroyers of the Arena Football League, he made the move.
“I think we led the league in (fewest) points given up, and we gave up 40 points per game,” laughed Denbrock. “So it’s all relative.”
Denbrock’s path then took him to Stanford under Willingham for a year before they made the move to Notre Dame together. Stints at Washington as offensive line coach, again under Willingham, and Indiana State as associate head coach under former Willingham/Notre Dame assistant Trent Miles were mixed in before a Kelly reunion at Notre Dame.
“I think it’s trust,” said Denbrock of the key to his relationship with Kelly. “He trusts me and knows that everything I do, I do with the idea of making Notre Dame football better.
“From my standpoint, it’s a loyal friendship first and then a working relationship that has stood the test of time. For me, it’s just the best possible situation an assistant football coach can be in.”
Cooks’ relationship with Kelly is confined to the last four seasons. Kelly brought Cooks in from Wisconsin to coach the outside linebackers. That eventually gave way to coaching cornerbacks - he was a strong safety at Iowa - and then the role of co-coordinator with Diaco.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Cooks of handling the coordinator’s role for the Rutgers game. “At least moving forward, whatever happens after this game, I can always say I was the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, and I can always point back and say, ‘There it is for the Rutgers game.’”
So is this a “Notre Dame coordinator or bust” situation for Cooks?
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Cooks said. “Too many times, the media tries to define what coaches see themselves as. I want to be a defensive coordinator. I want to be a head coach. I may see myself in the NFL.
“All that stuff is speculation. This is an opportunity that I’m going to embrace. I’m going to enjoy the moment. I want to send our seniors out the right way because they deserve it, and then whatever happens after that, we’ll see.”
Denbrock, now in his 28th year of coaching and seventh with Notre Dame, could very well be Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator. He certainly has the résumé and background with Kelly. But whatever happens, Denbrock likely won’t be leaving Notre Dame again, at least not of his own volition.
“Obviously, I loved my experience here the first time around, even though it didn’t end as well as we would have liked,” Denbrock said. “Just the university itself, the mission, the type of student-athletes we attract…it’s second to none.
“It’s hard not to have a good experience when you’re a coach in this environment. I never really dreamed that an opportunity would arise again, and when it did, it was obviously a very easy decision to come back.”
Cooks confirmed a notion presented Tuesday at the New York Giants practice facility when Irish Illustrated speculated that freshman safety Max Redfield might be in line for extended action against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“If there’s one guy who has raised his level of play throughout this last month, it would be Max Redfield,” Cooks said. “We knew that he was a talented kid. He has slowly but surely started to progress and he’s earning a little more playing time.
“The way he’s practiced throughout the last month, he’s earned some time. How much time will be determined by how he plays Saturday. But I definitely think he’s earned some time and he’s deserving of going out there and seeing what he can do.
“For Max, it was just a maturation over time. It wasn’t a specific moment when you said, ‘He’s got it.’ Even to this day, we put a lot of pressure on him and he’s still making mistakes. But he’s to the point now where we feel he can go out there and comprehend and communicate and get everybody aligned. Now, is it all going to be perfect? No, but we feel comfortable enough with him being on the field and playing at the level we expect of our safeties.”