Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct.10, 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 16 of 55 OCT. 10, 2016 17 BY MATT JONES W hile the Notre Dame foot‑ ball team limped to a 1‑3 start, it became increasingly clear there was a major change that needed to be made. Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly wasted no time after his team's 38‑35 loss to Duke Sept. 24, firing third‑year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder less than 18 hours after the embarrassing defeat at Notre Dame Stadium. "At the end of the day I made a change because we certainly weren't playing the kind of football that is necessary at this level," Kelly said. "Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame. "He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn't working. … The fact remains that at the end of the day, I've got to find a way to get our defense to play at a higher level, and they certainly weren't." Kelly's relationship with Van‑ Gorder made it even more awkward. The two are longtime friends and col‑ leagues, and VanGorder worked with Kelly more than two decades ago at Grand Valley State, where he served as the Lakers' defensive coordinator. But the team's glaring defensive weaknesses and inability to execute in critical situations forced Kelly's hand. The statistics paint the picture of the defense led by the 57‑year‑old VanGorder, who was born in Jackson, Mich., and grew up in metro Detroit. Through four games, Notre Dame was tied for last among 128 FBS schools in sacks (one), 108th in tack‑ les for a loss (17), 104th in yards per play allowed (6.18), 101st in scoring defense (33.5 points per game), 93rd in red zone touchdown rate (68.75 percent) and 89th in forced turnovers (four), among other underwhelming statistics. To many observers on the outside, it was an easy call to fire VanGorder. For Kelly, letting him go wasn't a cut‑ and‑dry move. "Nobody wants to see anybody lose their job," Kelly said. "This is real. He bought a home and has a family. This isn't fairytale. This isn't reality TV. Somebody lost their job. He's a friend of mine, and this is real. It's not pretend." Despite what he said publicly, Kelly was plenty involved in the de‑ fensive practices in the week leading up to the Duke game. He revealed that fact during his media telecon‑ ference shortly after announcing the firing of VanGorder. Observing practices, Kelly said, was a strategic move to get a "pulse" of the defense and discover what the concerns were that led to Notre Dame's poor start to the season. Those findings led to his decision to fire VanGorder, who lasted less than three years with the Irish. "I knew what I needed to do," Kelly said of the firing. VanGorder was a former standout linebacker at Wayne State Univer‑ sity. He spent several years coaching defense in college — most notably a four‑year stint at the University of Georgia from 2001‑04, where he won the Frank Boyles Award as the na‑ tion's top assistant — and then in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets. VanGorder's son, Montgomery, is a reserve quarterback for the Irish. He serves as the holder for extra points and field goals. Kelly said he had a conversation with Montgomery right away. "We dealt with it professionally," Kelly said. "We dealt with it like any family would. Anytime there's dif‑ ficult times, you deal with them man to man, and you do it up front within the family and you move on." Though he did not criticize Van‑ Gorder after the loss to Duke, Kelly said he evaluated the situation that night after the game. The Irish had just surrendered 498 yards to the Blue Devils, a team predicted to fin‑ ish fifth in the Atlantic Coast Con‑ ference's Coastal Division and with losses this season to Wake Forest and Northwestern. Overall, the Irish had a 19‑11 record in the 30 games in which VanGorder led the defense. Even with linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive lineman Shel‑ don Day and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, all high NFL Draft picks, on the roster last season, VanGorder 's defense gave up points (24.1 per game, 39th in the country) and yards (372.7, 45th) at an alarming rate. "There's not enough time to go into all the details of it, but the fact remains at the end of the day I have to find a way to get our defense to play at a higher level," Kelly said. "This certainly warrants it. Making the change in my estimation was the best way to get everybody back to the point where we can look forward to putting this defense back in a posi‑ tion to succeed." Kelly said there was "no consid‑ eration" in a coordinator change fol‑ lowing last season. He pointed to Notre Dame's 10‑3 finish in 2015 and narrowly missing the College Foot‑ ball Playoff. When he decided he wanted to make a change last week, Kelly asked athletic director Jack Swarbrick for permission. "I'm reacting to a place where I did TIME FOR A CHANGE Notre Dame dismisses struggling defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder The Irish had a 19‑11 record in the 30 games in which VanGorder led the defense. This fall, his unit surrendered 33.5 points and 454.0 yards per game during the team's 1‑3 start. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS "NOBODY WANTS TO SEE ANYBODY LOSE THEIR JOB. THIS IS REAL. HE BOUGHT A HOME AND HAS A FAMILY. THIS ISN'T FAIRYTALE. THIS ISN'T REALITY TV. SOMEBODY LOST THEIR JOB. HE'S A FRIEND OF MINE, AND THIS IS REAL. IT'S NOT PRETEND." HEAD COACH BRIAN KELLY ON FIRING VANGORDER

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