"Who the heck is this kid?"
That seemed to be the reaction of many Notre Dame fans when they heard Brian Polian's name alongside the rest of Charlie Weis's first coaching staff at Notre Dame. Compared to guys like Minter, Lewis, and Cutcliffe, Polian was a complete unknown. He'd never been a head coach at any level, never been an assistant coach at a big program, never played football above Division III, and didn't have any obvious connections to Charlie Weis or Notre Dame. So how did this baby-faced kid, a good seven years younger than any of the other assistants, end up on what many would consider one of the best coaching staffs in college football?
The initial answer that most folks came up with was fairly obvious: family connections. Brian is the son of Bill Polian, President of Football Operations for the Indianapolis Colts (profile, page 4) and one of the most respected men in all of pro football. Brian's brother Chris also works in the front office for the Colts, and Chris even shares the same agent as Charlie. Aha! That must be it. But the connections that Polian had to Weis were actually much more layered than that.
For one thing, Polian was teammates with two of the assistant offensive coaches that worked under Weis with the New England Patriots. Polian went to St. Francis High School in Buffalo with Patriots WR coach Brian Daboll, and went to college at John Carroll University with Patriots QB coach Josh McDaniels.
But wait - there's more! All three of these young coaches got their big breaks in coaching at the same place, as graduate assistants for Nick Saban at Michigan State. Polian went first, serving under Saban during the 1997 season. Daboll followed in 1998 and stayed on through 1999. McDaniels arrived in 1999. Now, it's well-documented that Nick Saban is one of the people in the coaching world that Bill Belichick respects the most. So having his name on your resume seems to be a big help with Belichick. And perhaps by extension, with Weis as well.
(Speaking of John Carroll, one of the greatest pro football coaches of all time went there: Don Shula. Johnny Ray, Ara Parseghian's defensive architect, came to ND from John Carroll. Iowa's current offensive coordinator, Ken O'Keefe, is a graduate of John Carroll. And in a final testament to my OCD, O'Keefe worked under and replaced Peter Vaas as head coach at Alleghany College. If you haven't guessed it by now, I am really good at playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon".)
But getting back to Polian. Irish fans should take note of the title that Polian holds on this coaching staff. In addition to being the assistant defensive backs coach, Weis recently named Polian the Head Special Teams Coach. Consider that this is the role that Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Weis, and Eric Mangini (new defensive coordinator for the Patriots) all filled when they first got their start in the NFL.
Weis has said that special teams is going to be a vital part of his program; for background, one need only remember that three of the five Super Bowls that Weis coached in were decided by a last-second field goals. Weis's mentor, Belichick, is such a believer in special teams that he's on record saying that special teams coordinators should be considered for head coaching jobs more often, since special teams truly are one third of the game.
So what was it Weis saw that would make him think Polian could handle such an important role in his organization? Although Polian was not listed as one of the special teams coaches while at Central Florida, Polian has coached special teams in five of his eight seasons as a coach. Another feather in Polian's special teams cap is the fact that he was invited to write a chapter in the AFCA's (American Football Coaches Association) 2004-05 "Complete Guide to Special Teams" manual. Other contributing coaches included Virginia Tech special teams guru Bud Foster, special teams coach of the Philadelphia Eagles John Harbaugh, and Urban Meyer, among others. So Polian's got the basic knowledge down pat, and enough coaching experience to springboard him to the next level up. He's ready.
In the years to come it will be interesting to see what direction Polian's career takes. Polian, as a young kid growing up in Buffalo, had the great fortune to get to know Marv Levy, whom he cites as his greatest influence in coaching thus far. Now he finds himself at the reins of Notre Dame's special teams, as well as learning more about coaching defense from Bill Lewis and Rick Minter. Polian is a young up-and-comer that has a similar pedigree to coaches that were selected and groomed as practitioners of the "Patriot Way". Polian, it would seem, will be groomed in the "Notre Dame Way". Hopefully someday Brian Polian will be discussing his time at Notre Dame in the same way that Weis describes his time under Belichick and Parcells.
As for now, he's excited to be in South Bend.
"Short, chubby Irish guys shouldn't be living in Orlando, Florida," he said. "I was putting on sunscreen in late November. I belong up here in the Midwest... This is the first time in a decade that I've lived within driving range of (my family) and that has been wonderful. Getting the job here ... I don't know if there was anybody happier. Besides me, I think my dad was the next happiest."(To read more on Polian, check out his interviews on BGI, Irish Eyes, and the SBT).