Learning from Notre Dame's history with its offensive coordinator hirings
The last man to hold the title of offensive coordinator on a Notre Dame national championship football team parlayed his three-year run on the job (1987-89) into an opportunity to head the UNLV football program.
Four years later, he became an absolute force in his chosen field.
His sort of accidental chosen field. Real estate.
And still is a force.
“I thought I’d sit out a year and then get back into coaching,” Jim Strong said Wednesday recalling his career pivot after being fired by UNLV at age 39. “One year turned into two, and well I’ve been just very fortunate and blessed. I was able to spend time watching the kids grow up and those kinds of things.
“I still love football. I’m a lot better coach just going to the game on Saturdays, and not going to practice and seeing what they need to be doing. It was a great transition. I’ve kind of had the best of both lives, working with the kids in the college game and having a life after football.”
He’s 68 now, living and working in Branson, Mo., and keeping an eye on Notre Dame’s latest offensive coordinator coaching search.
One of the most consequential such assistant coaching searches in modern day Irish football history, given the state of the program, the autonomy and room from creativity that comes with the job, the promising roster waiting for the emerging choice and a head football coach who’s an elite recruiter himself.
And quite a contrast to how then-Irish head coach Lou Holtz responded to Strong’s departure for UNLV. Holtz, who always had his fingerprints all over the Irish offense anyway, didn’t designate a new offensive coordinator in the 1990 or ’91 seasons. Eventually, in 1992, he named son Skip offensive coordinator.
There really hasn’t been a consistent pattern since. Some Irish offensive coordinators have called plays. Others never got the chance. Some coached quarterbacks. Some did not.
Some got a shot at being a head coach, though Skip Holtz (USFL’s Birmingham Barons) and Chuck Martin (Miami, Ohio) are the only two current head coaches from the ranks of former Irish offensive coordinators going back to the start of the Lou Holtz Era (1986).
As the current search moves quickly through the Zoom phase to actual on-campus interviews and a pared-down field, there’s one common thread among the former OCs needs to be kept in mind:
It’s not a position that tends to have longevity and likely won’t again if Tommy Rees’ successor is successful.
Mike Haywood, at four years under Charlie Weis, had the longest run, though he only called plays for three-quarters of a season. And when he left following year four of the Weis regime for a head coaching job at Miami (Ohio), Weis did not name a successor.
Rees, who departed for Alabama last week, was former ND head coach Brian Kelly’s sixth offensive coordinator in his 12 seasons at the school and held the job for three years between the Kelly and Freeman regimes.
So in other words, trying to calculate longevity into the equation for Rees’ replacement, is a misplaced priority. Chances are even the next guy won’t stay long enough in the role to coach elite committed 2024 QB CJ Carr throughout the entirety of his college football career.
The best-case scenario is someone who turns out to be an upgrade of Alabama’s new 30-year-old OC, does it at that level for two or three years, and leaves the job as attractive an opening as it is now or better.
Giving way to a new search, with again high stakes for Freeman but the beginning of a hiring track record and the shrewd coaching cornerstone philosophy of being the lead recruiter on every prospect to mitigate negative impact on recruiting classes every time he has to go coordinator shopping.
So, what that Notre Dame OC job could lead to — elsewhere — is a big part of its appeal and the transitory nature its likely to have while Freeman is head coach is backed into his own process.
Strong, for one, is admiring this search from a distance — the quality of candidates, and the efficiency and speed of it.
“I think Marcus Freeman knows what he wants to do,” Strong said. “He's a great football coach, and he’s going to look at those individuals, and whoever ends up with it — what an honor and an opportunity to work at one of the premier institutions in the country with not only great players, but great young men.
“I follow Notre Dame football enough to know that he has a lot of qualified candidates. And I believe he’ll make a great decision.”
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