When Brian Kelly was hired as Notre Dame’s new head coach in December 2009, he knew he wanted Chuck Martin on his staff. He just didn’t know where.
New offensive coordinator Chuck Martin met with the media this past Friday to talk about his role.
The two first joined forces in 2000 when Kelly hired the Eastern Michigan linebackers coach to instruct his defensive backs at Division II Grand Valley State. During Kelly’s first 10 years at GVS (1991-2000), the program was a competitive 77-33-2 and had made the playoffs three times. However, it looked like it had reached a plateau under Kelly after finishing 5-5 in 1999 and 7-4 in 2000.
That’s when Kelly installed the fast-paced spread offense and it exploded with a 41-2 record the next three seasons, with a Division II runner-up finish in 2001 and national titles in 2002 and 2003. By 2003, Martin had been promoted to defensive coordinator, and in 2004, after Kelly took the head coaching job at Central Michigan, Martin was named his successor at GVS.
Taking on the play-calling duties for the Lakers, Martin was 74-7 (.914) in his six seasons as the head coach with two more national titles. His offenses averaged 35.1 points and 427 yards per game. Martin could have many more won titles at GVS, but the long-time Notre Dame zealot couldn’t pass up the opportunity to re-unite with Kelly.
“He knew when he hired me I’d coach wherever,” Martin recalled. “He actually asked me what do I want to coach. I said I don’t care really.”
Named the recruiting coordinator, Martin also instructed the entire defensive backfield in 2010 and the safeties in 2011 before getting promoted to his new assignment of coordinating the offense and mentoring the quarterbacks.
“It wasn’t something I said, ‘Hey, Brian Kelly, this is what I want to do,’ ” Martin said.
The reason Martin was entrusted with the duties formerly held by Charley Molnar, now the head coach at UMass, pretty much comes down to trust, familiarity and leadership.
“When you’re talking about offensive coordinator, it’s not about what you put up on the blackboard; it’s about your ability to lead and communicate,” Kelly said. “It’s your ability to get your players to play at the level necessary.”
Martin makes it clear that his role is not to re-invent the wheel with Kelly’s spread but to help make it operate more efficiently. He said about 90 percent of the nomenclature of the offense is similar to when the two worked together at GVS, and tweaks were added by both men over the years.
This is not going to be about Martin’s own “style” because Kelly will still be calling the plays. It is about imparting the message and plan to every position on offense, with proper execution at a premium.
“He is still going to probably be more heavily involved in offense than any BCS coach,” said Martin of Kelly. “That’s the nature of who he’s always been. The difference is that he’s also realized after two years at Notre Dame that there’s also much higher demands on the head coaching position here than any other place he’s been.
“The general that is leading the troops isn’t sitting in the trenches day to day with the troops making sure that the troops are doing exactly what the general wants. There’s somebody else in the trenches, and that’s where we come in — not only me but the other offensive coaches and the offensive grad assistants. We want his offense to look like the way it’s supposed to look like. It’s just about execution.”
Foremost on the priority list is eliminating the deadly turnovers. In its five losses last season, Notre Dame had 19 turnovers and the opposition six. Among 120 teams the Irish finished 118th in turnover margin and 110th in most turnovers with 29. The two teams who played in the national title game, LSU and Alabama, were first (10) and third (12), respectively, in fewest turnovers.
“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you fumble the ball in some key situations it can certainly affect the outcome of the game,” Martin said. “If you throw the ball to the other team in key situations, it can certainly … but it’s not just those two facets.
Are we consistent blocking up front? It always comes back to head coach and quarterback, but if you watch our tape there were a lot of inconsistencies [everywhere] at times. That’s our job to get corrected. Sometimes you like to throw it on the players, but they do what we coach them to do. If we don’t execute Coach Kelly’s offense next year you can look at me and I’ll be — no one is going to be more agitated with me than me.”
Martin said there are two parts to his offensive philosophy.
“Part of it is just my own experience as a coach from the defensive side of the ball, kind of a unique perspective on offense, which I think is beneficial,” he said.
“The second piece is really everything I’ve learned from Coach Kelly when I worked for him the first time, even though I wasn’t on offense. I asked him a lot of questions about why, why, why, because there are things you don’t understand unless you’ve been there and done that. When I took over for him when he left the first time, we basically ran his offense.”
Martin said both have a simple rule that offense is about “players not plays.” The objective is not about schematics because there isn’t a coach worth his salt in the country — from lower NCAA level to the NFL — who doesn’t understand Xs and Os. It’s about getting the ball to your best players in the most advantageous positions.
“He didn’t necessarily focus on, ‘I’m going to come up with another pretty pass route.’ ” said Martin, downplaying roles about the mad scientist offensive gurus drawing up masterful new plays. “The one thing is we kept getting the ball to our best players in the best positions and then they’d make plays — and all of a sudden you write nice things about us.
“The other thing for us is making them defend the length and width of the field. Why the spread? He was kind of changing to the spread when I got hired the first time and all of the stuff about defending the length and the width of the field came from him, and all the different things he did with formations I learned from him — and I was on the other side of it [on defense]. I was like ‘This is a pain, spreading the field.’ ”
There are whispers that under Martin Notre Dame will run the ball more or emphasize greater physicality. Others say he will incorporate the hurry-up pace that was the hallmark of Kelly’s offenses. For Martin, his role will be judged primarily on execution and the bottom line of victories.
“He trusts my leadership, trusts I will get them to execute at a high level all the time,” Martin summarized. “He knows I don’t really care how we get to the end result, but we’re going to get there.
“He trusts always to find a way to win the game, and not push it to throw it or to run it, or create this stat or that stat. Whatever we need to win, the guy that I trust right below me in the trenches is going to be giving me information that will help us win games.”
Monday: Playing as a collection rather than just individuals on offense.
Tuesday: The four-man battle at quarterback.