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Notre Dame's Next Man In At DC: Mike Elko

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Mike Elko is Notre Dame's 12th defensive coordinator hire since 1990.
Photo by Joe Raymond

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This winter, Wake Forest’s Mike Elko became the 12th coach to hold the defensive coordinator title at Notre Dame since 1990. That was the year Barry Alvarez — after a glorious reign in 1988-89 with the Fighting Irish that featured the 1988 national and a school record 23-game winning streak — was hired as the new head coach at Wisconsin, and he is now the athletics director there.

The average duration as the DC at Notre Dame is about 2.5 years for two reasons: Either you do well enough to elevate yourself to a head coaching job, none of whom were more successful than College Football Hall of Fame coach Alvarez, or the job does not get done during or within that three-year period and you get ousted. Here is the breakdown:


Gary Darnell (1990-91)

Just as coaches tell players to “tune out the noise” from the outside, so too should fans do the same every time they hear that the new defensive coordinator plans to be “aggressive.” (When has a coordinator ever stated his goal is to be “more passive”?)

Darnell came from Florida, where he made his name with his attacking, blitz-happy approach (“if they wiggle, we get ‘em”), in contrast to the more conservative Alvarez. Unfortunately, his style never quite meshed with Lou Holtz’s approach, and the head coach often took over the play-calling on defense in the marquee games.

In a mutual parting of ways, Darnell moved to the University of Texas after his second year, later became a head coach and has been retired from the game since 2007.


Rick Minter (1992-93 and 2005-06)

He was the DC during Notre Dame’s two best back-to-back seasons the past 25 years, yet finished on a down note both times.

The 1992-93 teams replete with NFL talent were 21-2-1, but after the 41-39 loss to Boston College in 1993, he was hired as head coach at the University of Cincinnati, where he coached 10 years (1994-2003) before Mark Dantonio (2004-06) and Brian Kelly (2007-2009) took the post.

Minter was then hired by new Irish head coach Charlie Weis in 2005, and the Irish were 19-6 those two years with consecutive BCS bids — but ended 2006 with 44-24 and 41-14 losses to USC and LSU, respectively. His next move was to Marshall.

The 62-year-old Minter also had coached in the NFL and his most recent stop was at Georgia State (2016), where the staff was fired after a 2-8 start.


Bob Davie (1994-96)

Considered a rising superstar in the coaching ranks while overseeing Texas A&M’s “Wrecking Crew” defense, the 39-year-old Davie was hired by Lou Holtz to learn how to become a head coach — and then became his successor after the three-year run as DC.

Fired after the 2001 season, Davie was in the ESPN booth for more than a decade before the itch to get back into coaching led him to take the New Mexico job in 2012. He’s done an exceptional job turning around the moribund program, taking the Lobos to a division title, 9-4 record and a bowl win last year.


Greg Mattison (1997-2001)

Davie’s right-hand man had the longest tenure as a Notre Dame DC, although the head coach added plenty of collaboration. Mattison seemed most comfortable as the defensive line coach — where he continued to work for the Irish through the Tyrone Willingham era the next three years.

After Willingham was deposed, the now 67-year-old Mattison was on the 2006 Florida staff that won a national title under Urban Meyer, coached in the NFL, and has been at Michigan since 2011, and is in his third year as Jim Harbaugh’s line coach.

Kent Baer (2002-04)

His 2002 defense was the heart and soul of Notre Dame’s 10-1 start. It finished 9th nationally in scoring defense, 10th against the run and 13th overall.

After the ouster of Willingham, he followed him to Washington, where he was fired, and has made stops at San Jose State, Colorado and UNLV, where the 66-year-old Baer has been since 2015.


Corwin Brown (2007-09)

The former Michigan star came from the NFL and had a rough debut during a 3-9 campaign in 2007 while the Irish cupboard had gone mostly threadbare. By 2009, Weis’ last season, Brown was named co-defensive coordinator with Jon Tenuta before the staff was replaced.

He has been out of coaching since 2011, a year in which a domestic disturbance at his home resulted in a self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Jon Tenuta (2008-09)

Among his initial titles were “assistant head coach” before moving to co-coordinator in 2009. An impressive resume on paper made him the make-or-break hire in the Weis era, but the shared role with Brown never jelled, and the 397.75 yards given up per game in ’09 set a new school record during a 6-6 season. He was recently hired as the defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati, where 2010-16 Irish assistant is the offensive coordinator.


Bob Diaco (2010-13)

He had the second-longest DC tenure at Notre Dame since 1980, highlighted by the remarkable 2012 campaign in which the Irish defense propelled a 12-0 regular season and led to Diaco winning the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.

Hired as the head coach at UConn in 2014, Diaco was fired after a three-year record of 11-26, and he was hired this winter as the defensive coordinator at Nebraska.


Brian VanGorder (2014-16)

The first five games were promising, followed by the epic collapse that has put the Kelly era in jeopardy. With an NFL style that did not fit the college game, his first season saw the Irish set single season school records in points allowed (29.2 per game) and total yards (404.2 per game).

With the seeds of doubt planted, it never got much better, and he became the first assistant to our knowledge fired during the season after last year’s 1-3 start.

He finished 2016 as a defensive analyst at the University of Georgia, and took a similar position at Oklahoma State this past February.


Greg Hudson/Mike Elston (2016)

Defensive analyst Hudson and long-time Kelly assistant Elston simplified and ran the defense after VanGorder’s ouster. Overall, there was appreciable improvement on that side of the ball, but not enough to prevent a 4-8 finish.

Hudson did not return this year, while Elston remains the defensive line coach and recruiter.


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