We hear about staff continuity all the time as a necessity in college football coaching, but the reality is the vast majority of schools are unable to achieve it.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is entering his third season in that role for Notre Dame.
If a program is failing, coaches will be fired. If a staff is thriving, assistants will be hired as head coaches elsewhere, or the head coach will move up the coaching ladder. Other times a better opportunity might come along for assistants.
Notre Dame did not thrive in 2011, but still lost three coaches elsewhere, with offensive coordinator Charley Molnar accepting the head-coaching slot at new FBS member UMass, and running backs coach Tim Hinton and offensive line coach Ed Warinner joining Urban Meyer’s new staff at Ohio State.
Intern Scott Booker has been hired to fill one of the vacancies at a position to be named later, and earlier this week recent Tennessee Volunteers assistant Harry Hiestand emerged as the front-runner to succeed Warinner.
Not since 1964-65 under Ara Parseghian has any of the seven successive coaching regimes not had to replace at least one assistant after the second season. Lou Holtz, notably, replaced three of his four assistants on defense after losing the final three games of his second season by an 80-30 margin.
Bob Davie replaced offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Colletto — extremely unpopular among the fans — after his second year in which the Irish finished the regular season 9-2 and were 16th nationally in rushing yards per game with a 212.5 figure. Plus, Colletto had three offensive linemen drafted that season, including first-round pick Luke Petitgout. Two years later, Colletto was wearing a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens.
On the other hand, Tyrone Willingham’s refusal to shake up his staff too much after a 5-7 finish in his second season eventually cost him his job in his third. Charlie Weis ousted veteran defensive coordinator Rick Minter after two seasons and a 19-6 run in 2005-06 with a much less seasoned figure in Corwin Brown … but the defense never did get it right during his five-year tenure.
If all goes right for Brian Kelly in the next several years, he will lose more assistants for the right reasons. No matter what, the head coach has to be the centerpiece of a program’s excellence and continuity in winning. Here’s a short history and some trivia about assistant coaches at Notre Dame:
The first Notre Dame coach to have the assistant title was line coach Howard “Cap” Edwards in 1913 under first-year boss Jesse Harper.
Edwards coached only one year, so then 1914 Notre Dame graduate/wide receiver Knute Rockne was named “first assistant” by Harper from 1914-17. There is no record of a “second assistant” after him.
Rockne is one of four Notre Dame assistant coaches who were promoted to the Irish head coach position. The Rock did well for himself, but he didn’t have to chase ghosts as did the others:
* Hunk Anderson (1931-33) —Named “senior coach” after Rockne’s tragic death on March 31, 1931, he and “junior coach” Jack Chevigny weren’t on the same page during their one season together in 1931, and Anderson was fired after a 3-5-1 finish in 1933. He faced a virtually impossible task as Rockne’s successor amid tragic circumstances.
* Terry Brennan (1954-58) — Speaking of the impossible…the 26-year-old Brennan, after just one season as the 1953 freshman coach, was the hand-picked successor by school president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. for Frank Leahy, who had six unbeaten campaigns in his 11 years.
Brennan finished in the top 10 three times in five years, but in his final three seasons the Irish were 15-15.
* Bob Davie (1997-2001) – Similar to Brennan, he had to replace a Hall of Fame coach (Lou Holtz) who was at the Notre Dame helm for 11 years. Like Brennan, he lasted five years (35-25 overall, and 19-18 in his last 37 games) – and like Brennan, he seemed to be out of coaching forever until accepting the New Mexico job last November.
No Irish head coach had greater continuity in his staff than Ara Parseghian. Three of his assistants – backfield coach Tom Pagna, defensive backs coach Paul Shoults and defensive line coach Joe Yonto – were with him all 11 seasons from 1964-74.
In Parseghian’s final six seasons from 1969-74, he had only change on his staff. Offensive line coach Jerry Wampfler took the head coaching job at Colorado State in 1970 and was replaced by Bill Hickey.
No Ordinary Joe
The record for most years as an Irish assistant was 19 by Joe Yonto – 17 straight during the Parseghian and Dan Devine years (1964-80), and then the first two under Lou Holtz (1986-87). In between, he served in an administrative capacity for Gerry Faust from 1981-85.
What’s amazing is Yonto had no college coaching experience when Parseghian hired the Notre Dame graduate from the high school ranks. He gradually moved up the ladder, first as a defensive line assistant to John Ray from 1964-68, then as coach of the entire line when Ray took the head coaching position at Kentucky in 1969, and then defensive coordinator in 1977.
The runner-up was linebackers coach George Kelly with 17 years from 1969-85, spanning the last six years under Parseghian and then the entire Devine and Faust regimes. He moved to an administrative capacity under Lou Holtz and later became special assistant to the athletics director.
The word “coordinator” was not used until Devine came aboard in 1975. He gave the offensive coordinator title first to Merv Johnson that year, followed by recruiting coordinator to Brian Boulac in 1976, and finally defensive coordinator to Yonto in 1977.
Moore Or Less
The most popular surname among Irish assistants was Moore, with three total.
Wally Moore was first the freshman coach and later offensive line assistant for Parseghian from 1966-74.
Mal Moore, a Bear Bryant disciple and the Alabama athletics director since November 1999, was the running backs coach from 1983-85 and assistant head coach his last two years under Faust.
Finally, Joe Moore was hired to coach Notre Dame’s tackles and tight ends in 1988, took over the entire line the following year, and had an indelible impact through the final year of the Holtz era in 1996.
In 1973, Parseghian made Greg Blache the first black assistant coach in the program’s history. Recruited by the Irish in 1968, Blache’s playing career was truncated by an injury, thus beginning a coaching apprenticeship, and by 1973 he was named assistant coach for the junior varsity program.
A long-time fixture in the NFL, Blache is now retired from the profession after serving as the defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2008-09 under Jim Zorn.
At one point four years ago, Notre Dame had three former assistants who coordinated defenses in the NFL: Blache, Carolina’s Mike Trgovac (1992-94) and the late Jim Johnson (1977-83) of Philadelphia.
Blache and Johnson were both on Gerry Faust’s staff from 1981-83 before leaving for the newly formed USFL. It just goes to show that even with talented assistants, if the overall direction is not there, you can produce a mediocre 18-15-1 record as the Irish did from 1981-83.
Trgovac has been the defensive line coach at Green Bay the past few years — where he won a Super Bowl ring with quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, the Notre Dame QB from 1972-74 and Lou Holtz’s QB coach from 1992-95.
Super Bowl Champion
Can you name the only Notre Dame assistant who was a head coach for a Super Bowl champion?
The answer would be Hank Stram, who guided the Kansas City Chiefs to a Super Bowl IV title in 1970. Stram was the backfield coach for Brennan’s last two teams in 1957-58.
The record for most national titles by a former Irish assistant is Rockne with three (1924, 1929 and 1930).
However, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (1996-2000) is closing in, having won two at Florida from 2005-10 and posting a career record of 104-23 (.819) at his three previous coaching stops, including 7-1 in bowls.
Barry Alvarez (1987-89) recorded the most wins ever by a former Irish assistant in the collegiate ranks. He was 118-73-4 (.615) in 16 seasons at Wisconsin (1990-2005), was 8-3 in bowls, and won three Rose Bowls — one more than Bo Schembechler did in 21 seasons at Michigan.