Sunday, January 02, 2005

Introducing the Assistants | by Michael

Over the past couple of weeks there's been a lot of rampant speculation about who Coach Weis would tab as his assistant staff. According to various recent reports (here and here), Charlie's got his guys all lined up, and although the official announcements might not come until the bowls are over, we figured if the major media is reporting it, we might as well jump in, too. Here's a brief rundown on the (reported) new hires.

As soon as Charlie Weis was hired, a question that immediately sprang to mind was, "Who's going to coach the defense?" Weis's offensive prowess is well-known, so his most important hire is certainly going to be on the defensive side of the ball. In Rick Minter, Weis has not only found a very solid, if not spectacular defensive tactician, but a coach with some previous ND lineage.

As many Irish fans will recall, Minter served as the defensive coordinator for Holtz from 1992-93, and under him, the Irish defense was nothing short of fantastic. (Holtz hired him after watching Minter turn Ball State into a nationally-ranked, top 10 defense for two years running. Yes, Ball State). That ND '93 defensive squad might be the best Irish defense in recent memory, and I'm including the '88 squad in the mental rundown. From 92-93, the Irish had a top-10 defense and were especially stingy against the run, to the tune of allowing only 91 yards per game. Minter sent 18 players from those two teams to the pros, including memorable Irish stars such as Jeff Burris, Bobby Taylor, Bryant Young, Tom Carter, Greg Lane, and Demetrius DuBose.

Minter then became the head coach at Cincinnati, and in his 9 years there he went 53-63-1. Cincinnati was a football wasteland before Minter arrived, and while he didn't propel them into the national spotlight, he did instill some level of respectability: he took the Bearcats to four bowl games, their only postseason appearances in the past 50 years. He left Cincinnati as the school's all-time leader in wins.

Strategically speaking, Minter usually employs a 4-3 defense.
Irish fans will remember such schemes from the early 90's, when guys like Young and Flanagan clogged the middle while DuBose, Bercich, and Peterson prowled from sideline to sideline.
"My base philosophy is a four-man line," Minter said. "There are all kind of shades and overs and unders you can play, but it's going to be four down linemen and three linebackers as a base."
Minter picked up a lot of his defensive expertise from Tampa Bay Buccaneers DC Monte Kiffin, whom he served under while on Holtz's '78 Arkansas staff. He still uses a version of Kiffin's 4-3 to this day, but with heavy modifications of his own design:

“I’ve become a little bit more of a multiple front, movement, disguising, attacking — a little bit different flavor than what Monte and Pete Carroll (another Kiffin disciple) have done as they entered the NFL world,” Minter said.

Minter said his scheme allows him to be flexible. In the base four-man look, Minter can shade the line to the tight-end side or he can bring a linebacker near the line of scrimmage opposite the tight end, a variation that Kiffin and Carroll often use.

Minter also might occasionally try a three-man line — the scheme favored by Charlie Strong, Lou Holtz’s first defensive coordinator at USC.

In other situations, Minter could rush as many as seven.

“There’s not a lot of secrets out there,” Minter said. “We’ve got to mix in our zones, try to confuse the quarterbacks.”

After being fired by Cincinnati, Minter was quickly scooped up by Holtz again, and installed as the defensive coordinator at South Carolina. (Interestingly, Holtz and Minter go back even farther than the Notre Dame years. In 1978, Holtz picked Minter to be a graduate assistant at Arkansas, Minter's first big break in football). Lou clearly holds Minter in very high esteem ("Rick Minter is a winner; he'll be a great role model for our players and he'll provide outstanding leadership", said Lou upon hiring him at USC), and what better endorsement for Charlie's staff than from the last man to win a National Championship for the Irish.

Required Reading:

Minter profile

Holtz on Minter

Minter on Defense

Another hire with some Irish in his blood is new offensive coordinator Mike Haywood, a former wide receiver and defensive back for Notre Dame from 1983-86.

Michael HaywoodHaywood's been steadily moving up the coaching ranks, starting at Minnesota in 1988, with stops at Army, Ohio, Ball State, LSU, and now Texas. As befits a young coach on the rise, he's rotated among positions as he's climbed; along the way he's coached DBs, linebackers, special teams, receivers, and runningbacks. In 8 seasons at LSU he shone as the runningbacks coach, and was instrumental in developing ball carriers like Kevin Faulk (now with the Patriots), LaBrandon Toefield, and Domanick Davis. And as special teams coordinator, Haywood had LSU among the best in the SEC in nearly every statistical category.

But perhaps most important to Irish fans is Haywood's reputation as an outstanding recruiter; he's been a superstar on the recruiting trail for UT for a couple of years now, and in 2004 Haywood was tabbed by Mack Brown to be Texas's official Recruiting Coordinator. Over the past few seasons, Texas's recruiting classes have consistently ranked among the best in the country, and Haywood has a lot to do with that. That recruiting magic should translate seamlessly to ND; as a former Irish player, Haywood will be able to sell South Bend with a true passion and enthusiasm that was sorely lacking from Willingham's staff.

As Haywood himself put it:
"Really, the best reason why I'm taking the Notre Dame job is because of the opportunity to become an offensive coordinator at my alma mater, not to mention the opportunity to work with Charlie Weis and learn a new offense under him," said Texas RB coach/recruiting coordinator Michael Haywood regarding his decision to leave The University of Texas. "It's just a great opportunity for me and my family."
"Offensive Coordinator at Notre Dame" is yet another step up for Mike Haywood, and while I don't expect him to be calling the plays (I can't imagine Charlie Weis giving up those duties -- at least, not yet), the move back to his alma mater makes a lot of sense. While coaching runningbacks and designing gameplans for the Irish, Haywood will be able to learn at the feet of one of the best offensive coordinators in the game in Weis for a few years. And while Notre Dame is perhaps a stepping stone for Haywood, the Irish should greatly benefit from his recruiting and coaching acumen.

Mike Haywood bio

Most of David Cutcliffe's resume has been rehashed over the last few weeks, as his name was among the first to leak as one of Charlie's assistants.

Although he was just fired out of Ole Miss for going 4-7, don't let that worry you: Ole Miss enjoyed great success under Cutcliffe. He was the only coach in the school's history to win at least 7 games in his first five seasons, he went 44-29 in his Ole Miss career, and was fired just a year after going 10-3 and winning the Cotton Bowl.

But more important than his record at Mississippi, Cutcliffe is widely known as one of the best offensive minds in college football, and a tremendous developer of quarterbacks. He served 17 years as an assistant at Tennessee (much of that as the offensive coordinator), during which time Tennessee had one of the best offenses in the SEC (the Vols led the SEC in total offense three times, rushing offense three times, and scoring offense once). At Ole Miss he broke many school scoring records, including the most points scored in a season (391 in 2001), most touchdowns, most total offense, most rushing yards, most passing yards, and most first downs.

Cutcliffe has described his offensive philosophy thusly: examine his personnel and fit the scheme to their strengths (sound familiar?). Here's Cut on offense:
When I talk about balance - and this is where not everybody understands what that means - I'm not referring to 50/50 run and pass," Cutcliffe said. "What balance is is maintaining the ability to run and throw on any down that you choose to do so."
Coach Cut reportedly comes to us as the quarterbacks coach and an assistant head coach, and there's no doubt guys like Quinn, Wolke and Sharpley are eagerly awaiting his tutelage: he's developed the likes of Peyton and Eli Manning, Heath Schuler, Tee Martin, and Todd Helton during his career. According to Peyton:
"I was sure when he was my quarterback coach and offensive coordinator that he was sure to be a head coach one day," Peyton said. "I am glad it did not come until I had finished my college career. I am pleased that my brother Eli has had the same direction coach Cutcliffe awarded me. I know Eli and Ole Miss are benefitting from his leadership and knowledge."
The only potential downside (for us) is it looks like Notre Dame's a stepping-stone move for Cutcliffe. I'm guessing he'll bide his time for three or four years under Charlie and find another college head coaching position in relatively short order.

Required reading:

Cutcliffe bio

Cutcliffe shines in fifth year

Those who follow recruiting are overjoyed to see Mike Haywood's name among the ranks of newly hired Irish assistants. But there's another name less known but equally if not more important - Rob Ianello.

Who is Rob Ianello? Wisconsin's TE coach and recruiting coordinator. Big deal, right?

Actually, Ianello is one of the top recruiters in the country. Not only does he have experience in the SEC (Alabama), the Big-10 (two tours of duty at Wisconsin) and the Pac-10 (Arizona), but he has a reputation for recruiting success at each stop. In one article, Tom Lemming named him one of the best recruiters in the country (circa 1999). Be sure to check it out; there's also a nice little press clipping for Greg Mattison being on the wish list of ADs looking for a new head coach...okay, so some things don't always pan out.

Ianello's base is Houston. He brought kids to Arizona when he worked for Dick Tomey and John Mackovic, and now he does the same for Barry Alvarez. Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see that Ianello is even recruiting Notre Dame's current verbal Kevin Washington.

Ianello is smart; "I'm not going to go into Texas against the University of Texas," Ianello said in a 1999 CNN/SI article. He knows that teams like Arizona and Wisconsin won't be able to beat out Texas for the state's best prospects, so he has been able to make a living on scouting - and landing - the talented kids whom Texas doesn't offer. And to a large extent, it has worked. But now that he's at Notre Dame, and now that he can team up with ex-Longhorn assistant Mike Haywood to recruit the best prospects in Texas, it's open season on Mack Brown.

With quality experience in the SEC, Pac-10 and Big-10, Ianello has the perfect resume for being the recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame. It won't take long until the verbals start pouring in...let's just hope there are some cornerbacks among them.

Required Reading:

The Daily Cardinal, 11/9/2004, "Badgers' Ianello Plans for Future"

CNN/SI, 8/11/1999, 1999 College Football Preview - Top 25 - Arizona

He's no Joe Moore, but Irish fans will love John Latina, the new OL coach.

Latina's bio looks great. Stops at Kansas State, Clemson and Ole Miss, and even before that, he developed a good rushing game and OL talent at Temple. It's worth reading twice. Especially that part about Temple. When Latina was there, they had two winning seasons. They've had only one since (in 1990).

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Additionally, it's not as though Ole Miss is bringing in lots of OL talent every year, but somehow they have managed to put together some dynamite offensive lines. Injuries and youth have not slowed them down, as evidenced in their game against Florida in '03. Wouldn't it be nice to hear this from one of our OL?
"I looked at Tre (left tackle) and said 'The ball is going over us,' " said Buckles, who plays left guard. "I told him this is where the men are made. No disrespect to Florida, but we mauled their guys."
Now, I can't withhold some evidence...namely, that Latina has been able to bring in JUCOs at Ole Miss and Kansas State (at least). But if there is one position where Notre Dame has little trouble attracting top talent, it's OL. And while Latina is not known for being a great recruiter, he doesn't need to be. From what I have read, players and families see him as a father figure, not a salesman. Given the other assistants on this staff, Latina won't be asked to be a big-time recruiter. There are other guys who can do that. In the years to come, all he needs to do is evaluate OL talent and land 3 or 4 OL in each class.

Latina will end up coaching nearly half of the offense - 5 out of 11 starters. It's a heavy burden, and Notre Dame is in very good hands with Latina. The OL on the team should be excited about playing for a coach who has experienced success wherever he's gone and possesses a track record of sending so many kids to the NFL.

Final tidbit...if you noticed, Latina coached the TEs at Pitt in 1982. Guess who was the OL coach for the Panthers that year?

Required Reading:, 12/6/2004, Inside the Huddle: New Coach John Latina

Rich Bisaccia looks like the pick for special teams coach. Quick, what are the three pillars of football? Offense, defense and special teams, right?

Not according to Tyrone Willingham, who never placed an emphasis on special teams -- despite whatever lip service he'd spout in press conferences.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Willingham's special teams at Stanford were average at best. Some years they'd block a few kicks, some years they'd return a few kicks for scores. But they were never consistently good, and when Willingham took the ND job, his special teams coach Phil Zacharias left for a position with the Baltimore Ravens. A golden opportunity existed to land a premier special teams assistant, and how did Willingham respond?

He hired Buzz Preston. For the last three years, Buzz Preston has coached special teams for the Irish. At least, that's what I thought. I haven't really seen results on the field to believe the players are actually being coached in the phases of special teams, and when I journeyed over to the ND athletic site, I didn't even see special teams listed as one of Preston's duties in his bio.

All that will change with Charlie Weis. All that will change with Rich Bisaccia, the new special teams assistant coach who is coming from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although Bisaccia and his charges won a Super Bowl ring in 2002, Tampa Bay's special teams sucked last year and many fans were calling for Bisaccia's head. And yet, Jon Gruden still offered Bisaccia a contract extension. In fact, Gruden had this to say in May 2003:
"Rich Bisaccia is an excellent football coach, who I really enjoy working with. He is a hard worker, extremely detail oriented and has a vast knowledge of the game. He has played a tremendous role in this organization's success."
In another article, Gruden blames personnel and attitude, not Bisaccia's schemes. In the 2003 off-season, Tampa Bay spent some money on free agents specifically to help shore up special teams, and it has apparently helped.

Last year they were 29th in punt return coverage (12.5) and 28th in kick-off return coverage (23.6). This year they are 17th in punt return coverage (8.4) and 23rd in kick-off return coverage (22.8). On the flip side, last year they were dead last in kick-off returns (18.9) and 26th in punt returns (6.9). This year, they are 6th in kick-off returns (23.6) and 24th in punt returns (7.3). While it may not be the earth-shattering numbers that Irish fans would want or expect from an incoming special teams coach, I'd strongly urge reading his bio on his special teams accomplishments from Ole Miss and Clemson. There's a reason that Jon Gruden hired him in the first place.

On top of that, do you ever think you'd hear this coming out of Buzz Preston's mouth?
"There is so much scheming (game planning) going on where other teams are looking at your punt team, your kickoff team, your extra point team..."
My favorite part of that passage from this article includes this tag regarding Bisaccia: "known for his innovative kick return blocking formations."

We're allowed to be innovative on kick returns? We're allowed to gameplan? That's shocking, since rumors on some ND message boards earlier in the year said that the players thought the special teams meetings were "a joke."

Bisaccia is an excellent hire. He has ties to Cutcliffe (Ole Miss), Latina (Ole Miss & Clemson) and Weis (South Carolina). His Ole Miss bio speaks for itself.

As far as recruiting, not much is known. He was the recruiting coordinator at Clemson, which was certainly great experience, but with recruiters like Haywood and Ianello on the staff, Bisaccia is gravy.

Our new DL coach, Jerome "Jappy" Oliver (see bio), may not be the most recognizable name in the list of new Irish assistant coaches, but he's got some impressive pedigree.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Some very good coaches have hired him throughout his career. Fisher DeBerry had him on his staff for eight seasons at Air Force. Then Lou Holtz hired him at South Carolina. Finally, after two years in Columbia he found himself without a job, and Rick Minter, who coached with him for only one year, was impressed enough to bring him to Notre Dame this year. Minter didn't have to do that, and Weis didn't have to agree to it. So Oliver must be a prety good coach. Minter went through more than a few assistant coaches (40+) during his tenure at Cincinnati so he knows a good one when he sees one...the Bearcats were a temporary stay for many an assistant on his way up the coaching ladder.

Oliver didn't have much talent to work with at Air Force, but he made the most of it. Here's a few quotes from one of his pupils, Bryce Fisher, an NFL DE who has some nice things to say about Oliver as his DL coach. In this article, Holtz echoes Fisher's sentiments when it comes to Oliver's coaching:
"I've watched Jappy coach and I want to tell you he is one of the most fundamentally sound coaches I have seen in a long long time. It is a joy to watch him with the players."
Outside of that, there really isn't much out on there on Oliver. Eight years at Air Force and four more at Vanderbilt tend to cloud your career in one of relative obscurity. Even the defensive rushing stats at South Carolina and Air Force before/during/after Oliver's time at those schools are relatively inconclusive.

As far as recruiting, Oliver's potential impact is unclear. He wasn't known as one of South Carolina's strongest recruiters, and his experience recruiting at Vanderbilt and Air Force wouldn't prepare him very well for what he'll face at Notre Dame - going up against the Miamis, Oklahomas and Michigans of college football for DL prospects. This article/bio on Oliver briefly mentions him as a "dynamic recruiter", but how much of that is South Carolina spin? His players do seem to really like him a lot, and we may not need much from a DL coach than a guy whose players love him and, more importantly, show good fundamentals.

One hire I don't get is Bill Lewis, the new DB coach. Here's his bio.

Lewis' name has been in the news of late because of the Saban hire. Apparently one of Saban's assistants called Lewis to inquire about the Dolphins' talent; the assistant was the son of Vince Dooley, who hired Lewis as defensive coordinator/DB coach in the early 80s. Lewis was not pleased to receive that phone call.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Without question, Lewis has some positives. He has nine years' worth of coaching experience in the NFL. The Dolphins have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, due at least in part to Lewis's expertise. He likely has recruiting ties in Georgia since he was the head coach of Georgia Tech for three years and was the defensive coordinator at Georgia for eight or nine years under Dooley. It would appear as though he could be a valuable resource as a game-planner.

But there are also negatives. He's not even the secondary coach for the Dolphins; he's the nickel DB coach. And he has either held that title for nine years, since Jimmy Johnson hired him, or he was demoted at some point during his stay in Miami. All this time, no college teams have tried to lure him out of the NFL with defensive coordinator positions. I did read that he is supposedly one of the candidates for the Arkansas DC job, but how much of that is a result of not having a job next year because Dave Wannstedt was fired?

As far as recruiting, he's 65 years old and Georgia kids may not remember him, and if they do, they probably remember his embarrassing three year stint with the Yellow Jackets that ultimately resulted in his resignation (1-8) before George O'Leary took over.

The more I read about Bill Lewis, the less I think he'd be a great fit for Notre Dame. We need a young, hungry assistant for the secondary on the upside of his career, and Bill Lewis seems to be a guy who has stuck around because of the good 'ol boys network.

Get to know Bill Lewis:

Q&A from his GaTech days

Article on GaTech hiring

ECU Memories: Bill Lewis

(Finally, how about this modern innovation known as the Internet? I can't believe I was able to find those articles on Lewis. I was actually able to find a web page that contained Lewis' first ECU recruiting class in 1989. Could it be because a certain southerner invented the internet?)

Can someone please tell me why Brian Polian as LB coach is a good hire? Quickly peruse his bio (short on accomplishments, it won't take very long).

Because of his recruiting ties in Florida? Not so sure. He's only been there for one year and he's such a young coach that he doesn't have much of a reputation (of his own) yet.

Because of his coaching experience? Eh, not entirely impressed. He coached outside LBs at Baylor and coached RBs at Buffalo for three years before moving to Central Florida to join George O'Leary's staff. How many kids has Polian sent to the NFL? Can Polian really coach LBs better than someone like Bob Simmons, who had a lot more experience?

Because of genetics? Because his father and brother are fantastic player personnel guys in the NFL? How exactly are we certain that this skill got passed down to Brian? There's absolutely no way to know one way or the other, and if Polian were hired by Tyrone Willingham, many would seriously question the hire.

Now, all that said, I like Polian as a member of this staff. There are certainly some question marks that I have about him, but I actually like him a lot. Here's why.

Brian's an up-and-comer: he's young, hungry and aggressive. Taking a wild guess, he could have easily settled for a cushy scouting position in his father's organization, but instead, he decided to establish his own name out there and do something else. With Rick Minter and Bill Lewis, the defensive staff could definitely use someone with his youthful intensity and hunger, not just for recruiting's sake but also in gameplanning. On a staff full of established professionals, my guess is that Polian is going to tirelessly work his ass off to impress his peers and hopefully move up the coaching ladder, and there's no better shortcut to promotion than plain 'ol hard work.

I'm a little concerned about his lack of experience as a LB coach, but that's where Rick Minter can really help Polian out. Not only can Minter help him coach the LBs, but Polian can also serve as an apprentice to Minter and improve his LB coaching under him. It's a win-win situation.

As briefly mentioned above, where Polian will really help out is with recruiting. The offensive staff is littered with great recruiters, but Lewis, Minter and even Oliver aren't known nor expected to be great salesmen. One has to imagine the burden of recruiting will fall heavily on Polian, who has extensive experience at Central Florida and Buffalo as the recruiting coordinator.

Polian could be a risky hire, but if this staff were a jigsaw puzzle, I see Polian as a potential missing piece. He can complement the rest of the staff - especially the defensive staff - quite nicely. He works hard and from what I've read, his attitude will jibe with the rest of the incoming staff.

Here's my favorite Polian quote, from an article linked below.
"Coaches don't decide whether or not players redshirt. Players decide whether or not they're going to redshirt. If a guy is good enough to play, most often he'll play."
There's not much out there on the internet as far as Polian goes, but here are two question & answer articles with Polian about UCF recruiting from Rivals:

February 10, 2004

August 9, 2004

In sizing everything up, I'd say Charlie's assembled a top-notch group, and what really strikes me is the breadth and diversity of their collective experience. I mean, we've got former head coaches (Cutcliffe, Minter, Lewis), young up-and-comers (Haywood, Polian), Irish legacies (Minter, Haywood), NFL warriors (Biasiccia, Lewis), recruiting wizards (Ianello, Haywood), unsung yeoman technicians (Latina, Oliver), offensive swamis (Cutcliffe, Haywood), defensive chessmasters (Minter, Lewis) and years and years of aggregate football success at all levels of the game. On any of the program prerequisites you'd like to offer up -- recruiting expertise, X's and O's, youthful energy, elderly wisdom -- it's an incredibly balanced group. All this built-in synchronicity is wonderful, and augurs well for the future.

Charlie's done well to get some coaches with long histories in the college game, and he'll be able to lean on guys like Cutcliffe and Minter as he sorts out the new challenges of moving from the NFL to the NCAA, from offensive coordinator to head coach. It looks like all facets of the football program -- offense, defense, special teams, recruiting -- are about to get a much-needed blast of fresh air.