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Baer leaves with class, emotion

Matt Lozar | Wednesday, January 12, 2005

PHOENIX – The question wasn’t even supposed to be asked.

An Insight Bowl official said two more questions for Irish interim head coach Kent Baer, but a third one snuck in there.

A reporter asked Baer about whether there was a sense of relief or sadness after the turmoil during the four weeks leading up to the Dec. 28 Insight Bowl.

Not exactly a surprising question, and the first part of Baer’s answer was as straightforward as one would expect.

“There is a sense of relief, but there’s also some sadness involved,” Baer said. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again just to have the opportunity in one time in my career to walk in Notre Dame Stadium and having coached against Notre Dame was special to me.”

But then the second part of his answer revealed a side of Baer not seen by the media.

“It’s been such a tremendous experience for me and I’m thankful for that,” Baer said. “When you look at Notre Dame before I ever got there and you wonder what it’s all about and it’s everything that you ever thought it was and much more.

“I’m proud to say that I coached there and someday will say those guys did it with a lot of class and a lot of character.”

It wasn’t what Baer said that was surprising.

It was the way he said it.

Baer emphasized the word tremendous. He showed feeling when he said “everything that you ever thought,” stressing each word. He trailed off when talking about class and character knowing he was part of a staff that ultimately didn’t do what it was asked to when hired three years ago and handed the opportunity of a lifetime.

All of that emotion about a coaching job where so much controversy hung over the Nov. 30 firing of Tyrone Willingham.

Notre Dame fans knew about defensive line coach Greg Mattison’s love for this University. Hearing him mention it on bowl media day when talking about coaching at the University of Florida next season wasn’t eye-opening.

For someone like Baer, it wasn’t as obvious.

When Baer came along with Willingham to South Bend in 2002, he didn’t have the friendliest personality on the coaching staff. A running joke was that he lit up for reporters only when the television cameras showed up after practice.

He was the same way on the field. In his book, “Return to Glory,” detailing Willingham’s first year at Notre Dame, Alan Grant wrote, “Every team has that one coach of whom the players are a little afraid, who intimidates in that tough-love sort of way, and for Notre Dame, Kent Baer was him.”

But that wasn’t the Kent Baer seen after the Insight Bowl.

Baer was hugging sports information directors. He was thanking the football beat writers. He was wandering in front of the Notre Dame locker room in the tunnels of Bank One Ballpark looking like he didn’t want to leave.

Maybe it was Baer changing since he was now the spokesman, at least for one game, of the Notre Dame football program.

Maybe it was Baer taking his time since he didn’t take that extra time on Nov. 13 – when he unknowingly walked off the Irish sideline for the last time.

Maybe it was Baer just being honest.

“I know there’s a championship team in that room,” Baer said, “and I’m looking forward to watching them next year.”

Just like his boss, Baer did go out with class and character.

Ask his players.

Fifth-year senior defensive end Kyle Budinscak, as honest a player as there is on this team, was talking about the coaching staff after the game coaching the players the same way they did before having lame-duck status.

“We had a bunch of coaches [doing that] and I can’t even fathom how they did that under those circumstances,” Budinscak said. “I’m grateful for that.”

When he said that, he looked directly at one person in the room.

He looked at Baer.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not of The Observer. Contact Matt Lozar at mlozar@nd.edu