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Notre Dame v Michigan

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Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist: Notre Dame football’s “What If?” of the Decade

Might we have never known Reesus?

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Imagine it’s 2010 (I was sixteen; this is as painful an exercise for me as it is for you). A DeLorean skids into your driveway and a time traveler from a decade later gets out. He hands you a piece of paper, then walks away. On that piece of paper is a list of names; names of people who will be the longest-tenured and most influential players in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program over the coming decade.

You are not surprised to see the names of Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly at the top, but the third down the list is a mystery.

“Who,” you inquire, “is Thomas Kevin Rees?”

Michigan v Notre Dame

The rise of Reesus over the span of ten years was a journey that had to be seen to be believed. He was once a three-star prospect expected to be a career backup; he became a multi-year starter. He was once a graduate assistant at a non-power program; he became the offensive coordinator at his alma mater. Despite a mountain of challenges and setbacks, Tommy’s heart and perseverance have made him one of the most integral contributors to the Irish program.

He helped prevent Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame from being strangled in its crib, leading the Irish on a 4-0 run to end the 2010 season. He persevered through shameful treatment by fans who should have known better, who unconscionably booed and heckled him on multiple occasions when he entered games. He played key roles - first as a player, then as a coach - in each of Notre Dame’s two championship bids in the last decade. He was there for Coach Kelly and Notre Dame as a leader on the field, ready to step in when other quarterbacks couldn’t or wouldn’t; and on the sideline, returning to his coach and school when their need was dire and helping engineer a historic turnaround.

And all of that began with one nasty injury to another player, on a disastrous day in the fall of 2010. Today, we ask: what if that injury never happened? What if Dayne Crist never ruptured his patella tendon in Notre Dame’s stunning upset loss to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, and Tommy was never forced into the limelight? What if the reign of Reesus never came to pass?

The Pre-Injury Status Quo

Dayne Crist entered 2010 as the presumed starter at quarterback. Despite having been recruited for Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense, the former five-star recruit showed promise in Brian Kelly’s spread attack, throwing for 2,033 yards and and 15 touchdowns through eight games. There were growing pains - Crist threw seven interceptions and had a completion percentage under sixty percent - but that is to be expected for a first-year starter.

Michigan v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Crist also looked like Jesus Christ compared to the other quarterbacks - including, crucially for the purposes of this thought experiment, Tommy Rees - who played in his stead when he was injured in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines. In other words: there is no reason to believe Crist would have been benched without his injury occurring. With that established, let’s move on to the what-ifs.

Does Notre Dame Still Lose to Tulsa?

Crist had attempted two passes in the Tulsa game when he was pushed out of bounds on a 29-yard scramble and ruptured his patella. It was gut-wrenching for a guy who had already suffered an ACL tear the previous year, and it changed the trajectory of Crist’s career forever. Into the game came another man whose career was about to change forever: Tommy Rees. You know the rest of the story: an interception thrown in range of a game-winning field goal, “get used to it,” etc. Coming only days after the tragic death of Declan Sullivan, this was one of the darkest moments in the history of Notre Dame football.

Would it have happened if Crist had not been hurt? That’s an open question. Rees’ stat line for the day was classic Rees: on one hand, 334 yards and four touchdowns. On the other? Three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown and another of which ended the game. It was a performance that set the tone for years to come, as Rees simultaneously kept the Irish in the game with his valiant effort and kept Tulsa in it with a handful of momentum-killing miscues.

Mitigating factors for Rees include the sheer amount of college football upset weirdness that attacked the Irish that day - Tulsa blocked an extra point and returned it for two, and also took a punt to the house - and coaching, which let Rees down not only by asking him to throw that fateful pass when it wasn’t necessary, but in general by putting far too much of the game plan in his hands (Rees attempted 54 passes).

FBC-TULSA-NOTREDAME Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

All of that said, I still think if Dayne Crist gets up healthy from that sideline hit, he wins this game for the Irish. Rees did not do anything in that game that 2010 Crist could not have done, but he did make mistakes the junior starter likely would not have. I don’t think Crist throws Rees’ pick-six, and I don’t think, with his strong arm and penchant for overthrowing rather than underthrowing targets, that he throws that game-ending interception. More importantly, I don’t think the Irish would have found themselves in a position for that pick to happen, likely winning by a “meh” 10-20 point margin.

What happens in 2011?

Moving on from that Tulsa game, let’s assume the rest of the 2010 season unfolds more or less the same way it did in real life, but with Crist as the starter.* The Irish still mount a stirring upset of the Utah Utes, roll the Army Black Knights in Yankee Stadium and score emotionally resonant wins over vulnerable rivals in the USC Trojans and Miami Hurricanes.

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

*Some might question this, saying Crist’s injury forced changes to the Irish game plan that led to their success. However, considering it was the defense that led the way in these games and their play would have likely been unaffected, I don’t think it makes a great deal of difference.

The Irish finish 2010 9-4 instead of 8-5. All the goodwill Rees won through his inspiring four-game streak now belongs to Crist. That quarterback competition that consumed the 2011 offseason? It doesn’t happen. Crist is seen as a rising star and the only other options are Rees, who has seen little game action and not impressed during it; Andrew Hendrix, who has not played a down; and true freshman Everett Golson, an extremely raw prospect almost certain to take a redshirt year.

So alt-Crist goes into 2011 an unquestioned starter, rather than a precarious one with a proven winner waiting in the wings. He’s confident and feted, likely on the cover of a few magazines and discussed as a dark-horse Heisman candidate. Of course, it’s all fun and games until your running back fumbles on the goal line and the other team takes it back for a touchdown.

South Florida v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If we’re going to give Crist the benefit of the doubt and assume the Irish win the games he would have started in 2010, we have to apply the same standards and say that yes, Jonas Gray’s infamous goal-line miscue in the 2011 opener against the South Florida Bulls still happens. Crist’s own first-half meltdown - which seemed to come out of nowhere after a flawless first drive - still happens as well.

The question is: does alt-Crist still get benched in favor of Rees at halftime, having gone 7/15 for 95 yards with no touchdowns and one (hideous) interception? Remember, we are talking about a world where we never saw Tommy’s gutsy 2010 effort and there was never a competition between the two in camp. While we now know that for all his flaws, Tommy was the better option in 2011, that wouldn’t have been possible to know at the time. The substitution that was an easy call in real life is instead a massive gamble, with no logical reason it should work or be a good decision. And this is Brian Kelly 1.0 we’re talking about, so I’m going to say it doesn’t happen. Crist stays.

However, unlike in the Tulsa game, I don’t think this changes the outcome. Based on the way Crist had been playing, the game likely goes the same way it did with Rees at the helm. The Irish offense moves in fits and starts, gradually getting back into the game while constantly shooting itself in the foot, and comes up short.

The Irish go from one legendarily painful loss to another the next week, taking on Michigan in Ann Arbor. Who is your starter? Likely still Crist, who despite a poor performance in the previous week is still the only proven option on the roster. Given the inconsistent and turnover-prone play he and the rest of the Irish offense had shown, I think that game goes much the same way it did in real life.

Extrapolating from Crist’s limited action in 2011, we see a season very similar to the one we experienced - the Irish rally and string together some wins but still lose the games that matter most, likely with the same 8-5 finish. However, it still unlikely that Crist gets benched in favor of Rees at any point during this season. If his play remained ineffective Brian Kelly may have considered other options, but it would have more likely been Andrew Hendrix (at the time regarded as a potential quarterback of the future) who stepped in, as indeed he did for Rees at the end of the real-life 2011 season. In choosing between two equally unproven players there would be little sense in going with Rees, who had less raw physical ability than Hendrix.

Notre Dame v Stanford

So in this version of 2011, Crist likely remains your starter for most of the season, with Hendrix getting some action as well. Tommy Rees plays the role of an invaluable scout-team quarterback, developing a mastery of the playbook that will help him later on, but does not see the field. Neither “Turnover Tommy” nor “Touchdown Tommy” catches on and the bond between Rees and Brian Kelly, forged in the flames of trial in 2010 and 2011, does not emerge.

What Happens in 2012?

In a lot of time-travel stories, a recurring theme is that changing the past doesn’t necessarily change the future. Despite all the different possibilities opened up by changes in details in the past, the new timeline can sometimes still converge with the old one at certain moments.

Case in point: if Dayne Crist, rather than Tommy Rees, fails to progress and leads the Irish to an underwhelming 8-5 season in 2011, the situation going into 2012 is likely still the same as it was in our timeline. Crist, who has not played well enough to keep his job or enter the NFL Draft, seeks a graduate transfer, and who better than his old friend Charlie Weis and the Kansas Jayhawks?

Meanwhile, the same four-man competition that we saw in real life unfolds in the spring and summer at Notre Dame. Considering Everett Golson won the job over Rees, Hendrix and Gunner Kiel based on his upside and practice performance without a minute of game experience, he likely still wins it now.

Notre Dame v Navy Photo by Barry Cronin/Getty Images

And when Golson is injured and/or has some “freshman moments” that require him to be spelled for a time, who does Kelly turn to? Probably Rees, who by now is a junior and a known quantity who can be counted on to act as a competent game manager (remember, we have seen Hendrix in action in this reality in the same way we did in 2011, and therefore know he is not the right choice for such a role).

With the winning Golson/Rees combination in place, the Irish go on to the same incredible undefeated regular season and horrifying BCS Championship loss.

What Happens in 2013?

Gunner Kiel’s transfer still happens in this universe, as Golson and the younger, talented quarterbacks on the roster are still threats to his future playing time. Golson’s prudence regarding academic shenanigans is a variable unaffected by the health of Dayne Crist’s knee two years prior, so he still gets suspended and the Irish still have yet another quarterback vacancy going into 2013.

The question is: who fills it? Rees is certainly a candidate, having seen significant action in 2012. However, to this point he has not shown that he can carry the team as a starter. Does Kelly still hand him the reins? Or does he give an opportunity to a better athlete in Hendrix, or take a chance on the highly touted true freshman Malik Zaire?

My gut tells me Rees is your starter in 2013. As the only thing close to a proven winner among the group, Touchdown Tommy finally gets the chance to show what he can do.

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Rees might be on a shorter leash and see himself benched in favor Andrew Hendrix more often than in the real 2013, but with what we saw of Hendrix’s performance that season I don’t think it ever becomes permanent. The 2013 season in this reality is essential the same as the one we saw in real life.

Rees still exits after starting his senior year at Notre Dame, but his reputation is profoundly different. “Turnover Tommy” likely never catches on among Notre Dame fans; but then neither does his alter ego “Touchdown Tommy,” or my personal favorite, Reesus. Rather than the controversial antihero legend he crafted over four years, Rees is remembered in more or less the same way as Matt LoVecchio or Pat Dillingham, as a capable stopgap who only had to play due to extenuating circumstances beyond his control and did the best he could despite serious limitations.

What Is Rees Now?

Tommy Rees is a football professional through and through; there’s no doubt in my mind he would have continued working in the sport after he graduated regardless of his college experience. And as a former starter at Notre Dame even for one year, he would have almost certainly found work as a graduate assistant at some program or another.

But would he now be Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator? I don’t think so. Rees’ quick rise through the coaching ranks was a product of his close bond with Brian Kelly. Over the course of Rees’ four years, the two went through a baptism by fire together, protected each other, and built a powerful connection.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

So when Kelly, desperate to keep his job after 2016, had to hire a new quarterbacks coach, he turned to a man he knew he could trust more than anyone, someone he knew could ensure creative and operational synergy and understood his offensive vision. And when he had find a new offensive coordinator last year, Rees, having proven himself a trusted partner on the sidelines as well as on the field, was the logical choice.

However, in this timeline, that baptism by fire never happens, and that bond is never forged, at least not to the same extent. So when Kelly is looking for a new quarterbacks coach in 2016, Rees is merely one choice among many rather than the obvious one, and Kelly - again, desperate to keep his job - likely goes with a more proven quantity. That’s not to say Rees never would have made it to South Bend, but it likely would not have happened when it did. Meaning: if Dayne Crist doesn’t rupture his patella tendon on October 27, 2010, there’s very little chance Tommy Rees is named Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator on January 14, 2020.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there’s one thing taking this alternate history journey has shown me, it’s that the smallest moments can have enduring consequences. One hit at one time in one game opens up a decade of possibilities - some tragic, some fortunate - and when one door closes, another opens. I feel for Dayne Crist, and I’m happy for Tommy Rees. There is no choosing one or the other; misfortune and opportunity are mingled together in this life and always will be. We must embrace both, taking the bad with the good. I’m remembering the closing lines of The Big Lebowski:

“It was a pretty good story. Don’t you think? It made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway. I didn’t like seein’ Donny go. But, then I happen to know that there’s a little Lebowski on the way. I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself down through the generations. Westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we - ah, look at me. I’m ramblin’ again.”

Take ‘er easy, dudes.

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