Regardless of what you might have heard, promoting Tom(my) Rees to offensive coordinator wasn’t an easy, haphazardly considered decision; the laziest possible take here is that ole Sleepy Brian Kelly took the easy way out and made an uninformed hire with no regard to the effects on future playoff aspirations. 2020 and the couple years that follow are, unmistakably, crunch time for Kelly’s legacy at Notre Dame. We’ll have a better idea of the endgame once his long-discussed contract extension is announced, but it’s hard to imagine the 58-year-old coaching through the middle of the decade. Kelly surely knows there’s a chance this is his final coordinator hire (please pray to whatever higher power you worship that this is the case, if only to keep that guy leading the defense for as long as we can). The sun isn’t yet setting, but it sure isn’t midday anymore.
Brian Kelly knew full well that turning the keys over to a 27-year-old quarterbacks coach would expose him once again to bountiful criticism and second-guessing. ~Crony hire! Small timey! Low effort!~ The insults write themselves at this point. He could have easily avoided these critiques by going out of house to hire a Joe Moorhead or Todd Monken, coaches who were recently relieved of their duties but are also much more traditionally credentialed. Admittedly, my preferred outcome was someone like Moorhead being willing to co-coordinate with Rees for a year or two and then hand over the reins, but it’s hard to know if that was even really on the table.
Whether those specific names were actually interested is another topic of discussion, but the point remains — Kelly could have smoothly evaded all the regular criticisms by picking an older body with a longer resume. He didn’t. This is a gamble! Like I said above, I remain somewhat skeptical, even if one stakeholder who’s set to benefit from continuity is the incumbent starting quarterback. The hiring manager has way more information than we do, but this isn’t a hard hire to condemn (thank you to the brave souls online who have done just that so, so forcefully. Heroes, the whole lot). He’s sticking his neck out, putting his reputation on the line, for Thomas Rees. That might not be enough for a lot of people, and trust me, I won’t hold it against you, but I respect the somewhat counter-intuitive gumption this decision took. Now it’s gotta, you know, work.
So I’m not here to specifically sell you on why this will all go according to plan, but there are worse people to listen to than Brady Quinn (in Pete Sampson’s very good piece on the hire). That article notes Rees wanting to build around the run more, which jives with what we saw in the bowl game, even if it took a while to (spectacularly) pay off. Will that actually be the case, especially with uncertainty at the tailback spot? Don’t know. It’s hard to know exactly how his offense will differ from Chip Long’s, and we won’t really know that until we see it in live action, but it rings true to me that it won’t just be business as usual. As Greg over at UHND put it in his bit of spot-on analysis, “let me tell you about these 27 year olds, they aren’t into stale and old ideas.” I’m 26, but can pretty confidently say, fact check: true.
Is all of this to say that Brian Kelly doesn’t have to defend the choice to bet on a first-time coordinator and in-house hire? Of course not. The official announcement notes that he undertook an “extensive national search” and, well, that had better be true! This hinges on the staff exploring options and being genuinely confident that Rees would be the guy to get it done, despite his glaring resume holes. It hinges on the program’s leader having good reasons to believe Rees’ inexperience can be fully mitigated by everything else he brings to the table. It hinges on Rees being a driving force behind the back half of Ian Book’s 2019, not a limiting factor who wasn’t up to the task during its first. But that’s for the staff to know and us to ponder (for now).
It’s unwise to stake too much confidence in a move like this on anecdotal evidence, but I’ll be damned if this story didn’t make me feel, like, 10% better. This is courtesy of Dan Orlovsky (and Sampson, in the piece linked above) from his time preparing for the bowl broadcast:
…he expected that Tommy would do well. You could tell because there was this smile on his face, and I don’t want to sound corny about this, but it was almost like how a parent talks about his child. He just smiled and said he knew Tommy would be good. He said, ‘He was born to do this.’
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental (who am I kidding)…having been a classmate of Tommy’s for his last three years at ND, having witnessed firsthand his super-sub performances that saved the 2012 season again and again, having watched him beat Southern Cal and Michigan and Sparty despite obvious limitations, and especially having attended 2013 home games with a good friend who literally dressed as Reesus himself for each and every one…man, we might as well ride with this.
Tommy will always be a folk hero for his accomplishments on the field, but this, right now, is the real deal. He’ll have to create his own ethos and personality as a coordinator essentially from scratch this offseason — coordinating an offense and calling plays is quite the jump from handling a single position group. I don’t know how he’ll handle the added responsibility, and neither do you. But he was always the smart guy on the field, reading the defense before the snap and making adjustments on the fly. Maybe he was born to do this after all.