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Notre Dame Football: On Tommy Rees the Coach, Who Many Couldn’t Separate From the Player

A bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation in the minds of many

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t know Tommy Rees as a player at Notre Dame because I didn’t follow the program until 2017. I’ve only known Rees as a quarterbacks coach and a sometimes-beleaguered, sometimes-brilliant offensive coordinator. That means my opinion of Rees isn’t corrupted by his athletic limitations that (so I’ve gathered) drove fans nuts.

Regardless, I imagine the treatment of Ian Book and Drew Pyne was very similar to what Rees experienced as a player. But since I’ve only seen the former two in action, I can only judge Rees by what he did coaching them. From that perspective, the general consensus among reasonable minds seems to be that Rees got as much as he could out of Book and Pyne.

Also from my perspective, the operative word in the previous sentence is “he.” Tommy Rees got as much as he, Tommy Rees, could get out of Book and Pyne. I’m sure Rees got more out of them (especially Book) than a lot of other coaches could have, but I also think it’s conceivable that someone else could have gotten more out of them. Is there a reason that Book was persistently averse to throwing the ball into tight spaces or that yelling at Pyne to “do your f***ing job” didn’t turn him into the next Drew Brees?

Syndication: Notre Dame Insider Robert Franklin / USA TODAY NETWORK
NCAA Football: Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

All that’s to say that Rees isn’t perfect as a coach, to be sure, but it isn’t intended as a slight against him. Because the truth is I’d be glad if he stayed as offensive coordinator for the 2023 season, especially since we saw in 2021 what he can do with a graduate transfer quarterback (once that quarterback has a competent offensive line in front of him, that is). I’m sure many people agree, but a great many others seem to be saying “good riddance” when they really should take a step back and look at this objectively.

Opinions on Rees as a coach don’t need to be binary, nor should they be. We should recognize that Rees has his strengths — e.g., play design and ingenious use of personnel — as well as his weaknesses — e.g., recognizing the capabilities of his personnel and preparing them to execute his schemes.

Beyond the irrelevant opinions on Tommy Rees the player which cloud the opinions on Tommy Rees the coach, there’s a reason that Rees’ peers view him in much higher regard than fans or even certain media.

Well, Stew, let’s dissect your opinion. From 2020 through 2022 (Rees’ three years as offensive coordinator) Notre Dame was 42nd, 19th and 30th in the FBS in points per game, respectively. In that same span the Irish were: 25th, 84th and 35th in rushing yards per game; 58th, 20th and 98th in passing yards per game; and 26th, 46th and 60th in total yards per game, also respectively.

That’s a lot of unbalanced offenses. Granted, context matters. 2020 was the COVID year and Notre Dame leaned on a stellar defense and bruising run game to take care of business. In 2021, Notre Dame’s offensive line was inconceivably atrocious for half of the season. And, in 2022, Rees lost his starting quarterback for the year and had to perform triage with a backup the final 10 games of the regular season.

But those aren’t excuses. Sure, Rees never had a full roster of players he recruited as the offensive coordinator, but he had three years to diagnose roster problems and address them through recruiting, development and the transfer portal. Sometimes he succeeded and other times he failed.

So yes, Rees’ offenses were rarely impressive … if you just look at the stats after the fact.

But if you actually watch Notre Dame’s games, you’ll see why other coaches respect Rees’ tactical mind. Dan Orlovsky can explain it better than me.

I said the following three months ago when giving midseason grades to Notre Dame’s coaches and position groups:

“Mark my words: one day Tommy Rees will make a quality NFL position coach and/or offensive coordinator. He can’t prepare college players worth a damn, but his ingenious playcalling might actually work if he has NFL talent with which to run it.”

Was I a bit salty following losses to Marshall and Stanford when I wrote that? Yes I was. But the point remains that Rees’ brilliance shines through when he has players whose natural abilities can make up for less preparation or development. He’ll have that Alabama, so I’m confident he’ll be a success there.

And no, I don’t blame Rees for leaving now, even in light of his “This is where my heart is” speech, the one he made to the Irish roster when he turned down the LSU offensive coordinator job last offseason.

At this point, it’s just petty to pull out the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” arguments. Yes, Rees defected to the team that handed him and Notre Dame two crushing losses in the postseason. But Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach ever. It would take some massive cojones to turn him down — although boldness isn’t something Rees is short on.

I mean, how long do you want this guy to dedicate himself to a fanbase of which a very vocal minority constantly berate him? And to live year-round in miserable South Bend, Ind., while he deals with that no less?

Tommy Rees is a good-to-very-good offensive coordinator who Saban must have wanted for a reason. And Rees made a move that most fans, if they were to be honest with themselves, would also make if they were in his position.

Forget Tommy Rees the player and focus on Tommy Rees the coach. His departure is a loss for Notre Dame. Don’t let anyone tell you different.