Five years ago, Mike Denbrock didn't expect to be the Irish's newest offensive coordinator. Not after he just took a job at Indiana State.
Terre Haute, Indiana may be just 200 miles away from South Bend, but it feels a world away from Notre Dame. But that's where Denbrock was coaching, latching on to Trent Miles' Sycamores staff as associate head coach and special teams coordinator before the 2009 season.
Denbrock had just gone down with the ship in Seattle, part of Ty Willingham's ignominious, 0-12 Washington Huskies. So Denbrock's coaching career had proverbially washed ashore in southern Indiana after jobs at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
After coaching on some of the biggest stages in college football, the veteran assistant found himself celebrating a program-changing win over Western Illinois, Indiana State's first victory in 33 games, cheered on by a reported crowd of 6,000 fans.
But Brian Kelly's move to Notre Dame set in motion a reunion that few saw coming. And if most Irish fans are honest with themselves, Denbrock's return to South Bend was met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Kelly named Denbrock as his tight ends coach, reuniting the two after they began their coaching careers together at Grand Valley State. Kelly also tasked Denbrock with recruiting on the West Coast. Assigning him such a fertile battleground showed a great deal of faith in a former assistant who hadn't worked with Kelly in over a decade and had recruited for Willingham, a reputation not exactly embraced by ND Nation.
"Mike Denbrock will coach our tight ends which is a great fit because he played the position in college and has a familiarity with our offense," Kelly told reporters back in 2010:
Combining that with the knowledge he gained of my offensive system as a coordinator for me in the past will help make him a great coach for us.
Where he could really pay dividends for Notre Dame is on the recruiting trail. Mike will be our lead West Coast recruiter and that fits him well considering he has recently spent five years at schools in the Pac-10 developing relationships with high school programs. That is a competitive part of the country when it comes to recruiting and I'm excited to see him represent us out there.
Kelly showed a great deal of faith in Denbrock, taking him out of college football's Siberia and bringing him back to one of the flagship programs in the sport. And it was easy to understand why Denbrock was grateful.
"It's hard to put into words how grateful I am for an opportunity to come back and be part of this University," Denbrock said to the media:
My wife Dianne and I feel very blessed to have this opportunity. We loved our time when we were here before and to get a second opportunity to come back to such a great place is a dream come true. I just feel very fortunate that Brian Kelly has called upon me to come back and play a small part in what will be a very successful run.
Kelly's leap of faith has more than been rewarded by Denbrock. Serving as one of Kelly's most trusted assistants these past four seasons, Denbrock has more than held his own on the recruiting trail while also serving as one of the program's most valued—and versatile—assistants.
Denbrock can help with the offensive line, as he coached there at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington. He's worked as Kelly's offensive and defensive coordinator at Grand Valley. He even served as a medical replacement at defensive-line coach in 2010, when Mike Elston's serious illness forced Denbrock to coach Notre Dame's young defensive front for a few weeks.
Denbrock received a promotion before the 2012 season, moving to outside-receivers coach and adding the responsibilities of passing-game coordinator. And after Chuck Martin took the head coaching job at Miami, Kelly kicked the tires on a few national candidates before eventually giving Denbrock the chance to coordinate the offense after serving as interim coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl.
"He brings a great deal of experience as a football coach, he's a great developer of football players at all positions, he's coached virtually all the positions for me, a great understanding of the offense that we want to run, and certainly has my trust in putting together the offense on a day‑to‑day basis for us," Kelly said upon making the choice at the end of January.
"He will lead the offense and put it together on a day‑to‑day basis for us, so I'm really excited about having Mike lead the offense as our offensive coordinator."
After handing the play-calling duties over to Martin the past two seasons, Kelly will return to that job. But even without the play sheet in his hands, Denbrock's been tasked with quite a responsibility, as Notre Dame returns to the spread attack that Kelly ran successfully at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
That meant a spring spent opening up the attack, showing quarterback Everett Golson plays (and a few chapters) that the returning quarterback didn't know existed. But it's all part of a transition that's easier now with a dual-threat quarterback under center and a variety of weapons at their disposal.
"With the athletes that we have, we feel like we're in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like," Denbrock said this spring. "One that's dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently."
With camp opening next week, that hoists quite a bit of responsibility on Denbrock's shoulders. For the first time since Kelly made Denbrock his offensive coordinator over 20 years ago at D-II Grand Valley, he's the leader of the offense.
That means continued installation of an offense most of the personnel hasn't played. It means coordinating reps in a unlikely quarterback battle between Golson and Malik Zaire. It also means making sure that Notre Dame's scoring attack is ready from day one, especially as Brian VanGorder's defense will likely go through some growing pains.
No, Denbrock's not calling plays. But that doesn't mean he's not in charge of the offense.
"I think moving into this role, I move into that seat a little bit more where with the help of a very talented offensive staff it's my responsibility to really make sure this thing looks the way Coach Kelly wants it to look," Denbrock said.
"Have the menu, if you will, available to him that he feels like he needs on Saturday for us to be successful offensively, so that the game runs smooth and his play-calling runs smoothly and our offense runs smoothly."
After spending most of his 28 years coaching in a mostly behind-the-scenes role, Denbrock is out of the shadows. And it's not hard to connect the dots and realize that Kelly's last three coordinators at Notre Dame all left for head coaching jobs.
That hardly feels like reality for a coach who just five years ago was at Indiana State. But if Denbrock helps the Irish offense finally take flight, a program of his own might be a worthy reward.
Sure, it's a dream scenario. But five years ago, just getting here was an even bigger long shot.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter for more coverage on Notre Dame football.
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