Once upon a time, Notre Dame was the titan of the Midwest.
Notre Dame used to be the most prestigious program in the country. With 13 national titles, seven Heisman winners and a feature film extolling the school's greatness, Notre Dame used to be able to get any coach it wanted.
Things sure have changed over the last decade. He may not have dotted the i's and crossed the t's yet, but Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford has come to an agreement with Ohio State to join its coaching staff. If he does, Alford would be the third assistant coach(along with Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton) whom Urban Meyer has hired away from Notre Dame since 2012.
What is it about Notre Dame that has made it an nursery for Ohio State assistant coaches?
IT'S ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIPS
How is this for the obvious: it helps to have good relationships with people. Urban Meyer spent five year at Notre Dame in the late 1990s as a receivers coach, building a strong social network. A decade later it provided easier connections with coaches like Hinton, who was a graduate assistant at Ohio State at the same time as Meyer, and Warinner, with whom Meyer had never directly worked.
By contrast, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is relatively new to the university. He has coached there for five years, like Meyer, but his coaching stops before then were at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Kelly's coaching tree is modest, unlike Meyer's.
Kelly has coached his whole career in the Great Lakes region, which might have been a disadvantage with Alford. Meyer and Alford have coached in the same city before (Meyer coached at Colorado State from 1990-1995 while Alford was the head coach at Fort Collins High School), giving them some common experience.
Did Alford decide to leave Notre Dame because of one year spent coaching in Colorado? Not likely, but it didn't hurt. Not like Brian Kelly's apoplexy, anyway.
SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS
It's risky to be an assistant coach at a powerhouse program. When the school does well, it can lead to job offers; when it's struggling, the assistants can be fired through no fault of their own.
When Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton left Notre Dame in 2011, the Irish were in the middle of a slump. Once Charlie Weis was fired in 2009, expectations were sky-high for Kelly. But in 2010 and 2011, Notre Dame underperformed, going 16-10. Even though Ohio State went 6-7 in 2011, leaving for Columbus made sense.
Notre Dame did quite a bit better the next year: it finished 2012 undefeated, top-ranked and one win away from a national championship. Since then, the Irish are 17-10. Those aren't the results any powerhouse wants, especially one roundly mocked for its fans' desire to return to glory.
Warinner and Hinton, have seen their stocks rise enormously with the national championship in 2014. Ohio State's former offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, is the coach at Houston, and all Warinner has to do to be a head coach next year is snap his fingers.
If Alford want to be a head coach someday, and Irish fans thought he did, being an assistant for a coach (Kelly) who is perhaps two bad years from being fired would have been risky. Better to be an assistant for a winning coach and parlay success into a job offer.
Stan Drayton recruited six players to Ohio State's 2015 recruiting class: Jerome Baker, Dre'Mont Jones, Denzel Ward, Alex Stump, Rashod Berry and Mike Weber. He was the top recruiter in the Big Ten, and Drayton's departure left the Buckeyes needing an ace recruiter.
Tony Alford is close behind. Five of his 2015 recruits signed with the Irish, including four-star backs Dexter Williams and Josh Adams. Though the Buckeyes have Kareem Walker in the fold for 2016, the Buckeyes need him for more than running backs.
Historically, Notre Dame has been a landing spot for Catholic football players across the United States. In southwestern Ohio, its pull is just as strong as Ohio State's. It doesn't need to recruit a particular region: it is a national recruiter. Tony Alford's expertise in Florida is helpful, but not essential to Notre Dame's recruiting strategy.
By contrast, Ohio State needs a Florida recruiter badly. The Buckeyes signed four players from Florida in the 2015 class, and only Ohio has provided more Buckeye signees since 2000.
When Ohio State lost Drayton to the Chicago Bears, it lost one of its best Florida recruiters. That increased Alford's value to Ohio State relative to Alford's value to Notre Dame.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Personal relationships and advancement opportunities aside, one thing is a universal motivator: money. Without a doubt, Alford will be making more of it at Ohio State than Notre Dame.
It would be easier to prove this if Notre Dame were a public school. Because Notre Dame is a private school, it doesn't have to disclose its coach salaries. Instead, we can rely on induction. If two coaches leave a school in the span of a week, odds are they were made offers they couldn't refuse. Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame's secondary coach, vamoosed to Oklahoma just before National Signing Day, and Alford is the second.
Notre Dame is a tier behind Ohio State and Oklahoma in football spending, and it pays Brian Kelly a comparable salary to Meyer and Bob Stoops. Notre Dame has to put more of its budget into recruiting, leaving less for assistants. None of the last five assistant coaches to leave Ohio State has left to be an assistant at another school, suggesting that Ohio State pays top dollar to keep its assistants; it's safe to say that Alford will be making more than Drayton's $295,000 base salary.
Whatever the reason for Alford (and Warinner and Hinton before him) leaving Notre Dame for Ohio State, the hires have worked out well for the Buckeyes. It might not thrill Irish fans to keep losing good assistant coaches to a rival, but that's why the coaching side of college football is a cutthroat business.