Former Irish DC Brian VanGorder makes first return to South Bend since firing
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - As Bowling Green walks into Notre Dame Stadium, it'll be a first-time experience for the vast majority of its players. But the Falcon's first-year defensive coordinator has his own history in South Bend.
“You know, my son played there and graduated from there, and I consider a number of the guys on their staff really good friends,” Brian VanGorder said after a Wednesday practice at Perry Stadium in Ohio.
VanGorder served as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator from 2014 until his firing midway through the 2016 season. As much as he'd like to remember the positives, it's hard to imagine VanGorder's lasting memories of Notre Dame not including, in some form or fashion, the way it ended – with the students chanting "Fire VanGorder" during a loss to Duke.
“It’s a special place and it’ll be a great environment for our kids to play football in," he said. "I view it all as positive, but going back, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit different.”
Since leaving South Bend three years ago, VanGorder's career has taken him to several stops across the country. He caught on as a defensive analyst at Georgia to finish 2016, took the same position at Oklahoma for 2017, and then was named defensive coordinator at Louisville in 2018.
But when Bobby Petrino's staff was ousted at UL, VanGorder landed outside the Power Five with a chance to help the rebuilding process at Bowling Green.
“We’re trained as coaches to teach and improve and get people better," he said of his approach to the change in talent level. "It doesn’t matter what level you’re coaching, the standards of coaching are the same.”
Through those moves, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said this week that he and VanGorder haven't been able to stay in touch despite "a good personal relationship."
“He's had obviously a busy career in terms of moving around a little bit," Kelly said, before offering some praise for his former coordinator's ability.
"Going against Brian is always a challenge because he's multiple defensively," he continued. "You're going to get a lot of different looks. So you have to be prepared for a lot different things.”
But on some level, how "multiple" VanGorder's defense was may have proven the biggest issue during his time at Notre Dame. In part, that issue was one that caused Kelly to change course when hiring Mike Elko as VanGorder's replacement, and ultimately to stay with current coordinator Clark Lea after Elko's departure.
“Without getting into too many details, I think it was the teaching," Kelly said. "I was looking for a change in the way the defense was being taught.”
Though it didn't work in South Bend, VanGorder's style was exactly what Bowling Green coach Scot Loeffler wanted for his rebuild.
“He's a great football coach," Loeffler said of VanGorder. "You go from a Broyles Award to a guy who can’t do it? Well, that’s all baloney. That’s our profession though. It takes time to build what you want to build, generally. Sometimes you get the time and sometimes you don’t.”
But that's the profession.
So this week, while the memories and the noise that surrounded his Notre Dame exit will be impossible to ignore, VanGorder says he'll try to view it as a chance to continue his new program's development.
“I haven’t changed wherever I am, but it’s been interesting. Very challenging," VanGorder said. "I just have to trust that it’s my fate and it’s where I am and where I’m supposed to be in my journey. I want to be good for players every day and that’s my responsibility to them. They’re most important to me.”