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A history of success, a mission to improve

Bobby Griffin | Saturday, April 22, 2006

It was an unforgettable moment in a season where Notre Dame reestablished itself as a national power. Leading 27-20 with 1:46 remaining, Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith handed off to running back Antonio Pittman – hoping to kill time and keep the ball away from an Irish offense that found its groove late in the game. Instead, Pittman found a seam, took the ball outside, sprinted down the sideline and scored the game-sealing touchdown.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel celebrated on the sideline with his team’s second Fiesta Bowl win in two years a virtual lock. His quarterback, Smith, had put his name on the list of players to watch for the upcoming season and his defense had manhandled the Irish offensive line.

But on the other sideline a far less cheerful figure loomed. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter had seen his team give up its fourth big play of the game, and subsequently, its fourth touchdown. It was a reality, and a problem, that haunted Minter’s unit all year.

On many occasions during the regular season, the Irish were able to compensate for a defensive lapse by forcing a turnover or outscoring opponents with their explosive offense.

But when the problem reared its ugly head one final time on Notre Dame’s biggest stage of the year, the Irish never had a chance to cover it up. The numbers 85, 68, 56 and 60 were not those visible across either team’s offensive line. Instead, they were the yardage on each Ohio State touchdown.

The game reaffirmed a pressing issue Minter had addressed all season – eliminate the big plays. His defense excelled in stopping opposing offenses and limiting them to small gains. But it would also allow 20-plus yard plays that kept games painfully close.

In Notre Dame’s two regular season losses to Michigan State and Southern California, the defense gave up 11 touchdowns – six went for more than 20 yards.

Minter was accountable as the team’s defensive coordinator. Irish head coach Charlie Weis spent much of his first season at Notre Dame working with the offense, creating a unit that set dozens of school records. Much of the defensive work rested on the new coordinator’s shoulders. And when the defense struggled as it did against Ohio State, Minter grew frustrated.

After all, allowing opposing teams to exploit his defense was not on Minter’s résumé. The coach was brought up under former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin – and alongside Southern California coach Pete Carroll and Syracuse coach Greg Robinson.

Minter was responsible for taking Cincinnati, a program known more for its round ball than football, and leading the team to a Humanitarian Bowl victory in 1997. The Bearcats also played in the Motor City Bowl in both 2000 and 2001 and the New Orleans Bowl in 2002.

What’s more, Minter sent 18 players from his 1992-93 Notre Dame defenses to the NFL after finding success as a defensive coordinator at Ball State in the 80s (his team played in the Raisin Bowl in 1989).

But with last season’s defensive struggles, which were showcased in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Minter’s biggest task is still in front of him. Weis has taken care of the offense and all that remains for the Irish is a top caliber defense. And those who know Minter are confident he is the right man to lead this process.

Minter philosophy 101

Talking defense with Minter is much more complicated than Xs and Os. Minter has football insight that goes beyond play calling and he understands the game on a level that inspires his fellow coaching staff and players.

It’s a relatively simple philosophy from a football standpoint. Minter said in order for a team to be successful, a defense has to take away what its opposition does best. It has to force its opponent to move away from where it’s comfortable in order to create the most problems.

But implementing this idea goes beyond physical execution. Minter called it a “cerebral” process. A defensive unit has to be equally present mentally as it is physically to maximize its potential.

“The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what I know, it’s what I get them to execute,” Minter said.

Minter stresses the importance of working with his group on a daily basis. He likes the constant interaction with his team, especially his linebackers – given his secondary role as linebacker coach.

That one-on-one aspect has paid off so far in cases like sophomore linebacker Maurice Crum’s development. Crum earned a starting role last year as a redshirt freshman, and is now the leader of the unit that lost seniors Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays to graduation.

“He’s a great coach and he always prepares us well, and tries to put us in the right position to make plays,” Crum said. “He’s always teaching. … He always has some bit of information.”

His teaching ability isn’t much of a surprise. After coaching for nearly 30 years at the college level, that is to be expected. Minter is used to spending time working with kids, helping them excel and pushing them to higher levels.

What can’t be taken for granted, however, is Minter’s exceptional football intelligence. Irish defensive backs coach Bill Lewis spent nine seasons with the Miami Dolphins. And with all the experience he has working with talented personnel – he still views Minter’s as one of the best minds in the business.

“Rick is as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Lewis said. “He’s a brilliant individual and he’s got a great understanding of the game of football, and he’s got a great understanding of defensive football.

“He is so devoted and so dedicated to the game and to the defensive side of the ball … it has been a pleasure for me to work with him.”

But instilling a new defense in one season is a difficult job regardless of a coach’s experience or intelligence. Minter was responsible for picking up the pieces of a 6-6 football team that gave up 37 or more points three times, and teaching it a new system.

“We all want the same thing … in our case, defensive excellence at all times,” Minter said.

Minter’s development as a defensive coordinator did not take place over night. And in order to understand the improvement Notre Dame needs to make next season, and why Minter is capable of the task, it is also critical to understand the coach’s roots.

Bright eyes to Golden Dome

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin met a 24-year old Minter when he was a graduate assistant at Arkansas. Kiffin quickly learned he was in the presence of a talented, hard-working football coach with loads of potential.

The 1978 Arkansas team, ranked No. 11 at season’s end, went 9-2-1 and played in the Fiesta Bowl. Kiffin was the Razorbacks defensive coordinator, and when he took over at North Carolina State in 1980 he hired Minter as an assistant coach.

“He was so sharp,” Kiffin said. “I could tell when he was a GA how sharp he was. He would sit in the back of a room and I would ask questions and boom, he was on it right away. It didn’t take him very long to pick up a scheme.”

The group Kiffin put together at North Carolina State was a role call of now well-known, astute defensive personalities. Minter was assigned to coach linebackers under Carroll (defensive coordinator). Robinson was also on this staff.

Things came full circle in the 2005 Notre Dame season as Minter coached against both Carroll and Robinson – losing to USC 34-31 and defeating Syracuse 34-10.

In hindsight, Minter had no idea as to what extent Kiffin would progress in football. He knew Kiffin was a good coach at the time but he could not have guessed his mentor would become a future Super Bowl defensive coordinator.

“Little did I know 25 years ago I was around what is now turned out to be one of the best defensive guys going in our business, which is Monte Kiffin,” Minter said. “He just taught me a fundamental technique – a sound [way] of looking at how you defend.”

Over the next decade, Minter combined his innate football sense with lessons he learned as Kiffin’s assistant and began pursuing bigger jobs with more responsibility. In 1984, he took a spot at New Mexico coaching linebackers. From there, he accepted the defensive coordinator position at Ball State (Muncie, Ind.) from 1985-91.

“[North Carolina State was] probably where I gained my initial cutting edge of what I like to do, but nothing was better than becoming a coordinator on my own at 30 years old down at Ball State University,” Minter said. “I had a chance for seven years to develop basically my own philosophy as a culmination of what I did over the past the six or eight years prior to that.”

Minter did well enough at Ball State that he caught another prominent coach’s eye further north in Indiana. Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz hired Minter as a defensive coordinator and inside linebacker coach in 1992.

“He was defensive coordinator at Ball State at this time, and when you go back and look at his track record, and … if you look at the improvement his defenses make every single year, that’s what sold me,” Holtz said. “I thought he’d be a great representative for Notre Dame. … There wasn’t anything negative [about him].”

The Irish went 10-1-1 in 1992, beating Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and finishing No. 4 in the country. The following season Notre Dame finished 11-1 and again defeated Texas A&M in the same bowl. This time, though, Notre Dame finished runner up to Florida State for the national championship.

Minter is careful not to take too much credit for his success at Notre Dame in the early 90s. He complimented Notre Dame’s ability to recruit during that time period and placed more emphasis on the Irish playmakers than his coaching.

“We were getting very good players here during Lou’s tenure,” Minter said. “We had good players to work with.”

Impact of Lou

But regardless of whether or not Minter takes any credit for Notre Dame’s success while he was a defensive coordinator from 1992-93, he learned valuable lessons from Holtz that catalyzed his development as a coach.

Holtz is widely regarded as one of the best program builders in college football history. Not only did he become the face of Notre Dame football in the late 1980s and early 90s, he rebuilt several programs and turned them into bowl-caliber teams.

He led William & Mary from 1969-71, North Carolina State from 1972-75, Arkansas from 1977-83, Minnesota from 1984-85, Notre Dame from 1986-96 and South Carolina from 1999-2004. Each of those teams played in at least one bowl game.

“He has a standard of excellence he wants to set the bar at,” Minter said. “That’s what drives the man. He has a way of envisioning his dream … and he doesn’t compromise what he wants that end result to be.”

In Minter’s eyes, this inability to compromise was one of Holtz’s most definable qualities. And it was also what made him a great motivator throughout his coaching career. Minter absorbed many of Holtz’s coaching techniques and added them to his already diverse background.

The limelight and success at Notre Dame didn’t hurt either. Following the 1993 season where he was the defensive coordinator of the No. 2 team in the nation, Minter left Notre Dame and accepted the head coaching position at Cincinnati.

With the job came another change. Minter was now in charge of more than defense for this first time in his career. He said he adopted more of a “CEO” role during his time at Cincinnati, delegating defensive responsibilities to other coaches and becoming more hands on with the offense.

And – for the first time in Minter’s career – he was learning defensive strategies from people working for him rather than people employing him.

“Really what it gave me a chance to do is, really up close and in person, learn that there really were a lot of ways to skin a cat,” Minter said. “So I learned from those guys who really worked under me watching them coach defense their way.”

The learning paid off. After coaching under Holtz – the man who made building teams his reputation – Minter was constructing his own program. Cincinnati became a recognizable name in college football in the late 1990s when the Bearcats went to three consecutive bowl games.

Minter became the winningest coach in school history during his 10 years at Cincinnati. In 2002, the Bearcats were co-champions of Conference USA and he led the team to four bowl games in six seasons. He produced an All-American in kicker Jonathon Ruffin and 26 first-team all-league players.

But like most things involving Minter, he is unwilling to accept full credit for his achievements, deferring his success to the quality of individuals he surrounded himself with over his career.

“I think today you’re just a culmination of all the people you’ve come in contact with along the way,” Minter said.

The year of the Irish?

With all Minter’s achievements throughout his career, he now has the opportunity to make his most significant coaching impact. The Irish are a legitimate national championship contender. And if Notre Dame wins its first title since 1988, Minter will receive much of the credit.

The Irish have the offense with quarterback Brady Quinn, running back Darius Walker, receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight and a virtually untouched returning offensive line.

The athletes on defense are there too. Safety Tom Zbikowski returns as a third team All-American and defensive end Victor Abiamiri has been studying Michael Strahan videos during the off-season.

What remains is how Minter will take a defense that struggled giving up big plays last season and turn it into a veteran unit that can be held in the same breath as its counterpart on offense. Weis thinks it’s a matter of making sure everyone is on the same page mentally.

“The one thing that [Minter] brings to the table is that he has an answer for most things that you could present,” Weis said. “Now, the problem is making sure the players can be thinking on the same level.”

Minter understands the pressure he will face come September. It’s part of the game. In order to win a title everything has to come together perfectly. And for a man who preaches execution, he knows strong defensive production is the end result of hard work and dedication.

His training and experience are unquestionable. A coach does not garner as much praise as Minter from his players, assistants and former coaches without having the built-in tools to put the pieces together. And maybe his biggest endorsement of all comes from the man who originally brought him to South Bend.

“As surprised as people were with the offense [last season] … I think the same will be true with Notre Dame’s defense [in 2006],” Holtz said. “I think Notre Dame is going to be an excellent football team.”

Minter is a believer that a team is only as good as its last game. He is eagerly anticipating taking the field against Georgia Tech on Sept. 2 – a game that will provide Notre Dame with its first chance to bounce back from its Fiesta Bowl loss.

It will also allow Minter to rinse his mouth of the bad taste left from that game and erase the memory of Ted Ginn accelerating on an end-around and Santonio Holmes stretching out for a long reception.

Because until that can happen, Minter will still be seeing red in the midst of his team’s blue and white practice jerseys and the golden shine of Notre Dame’s helmets, his own defensive brilliance and the team’s unmistakable potential.