Building its own tradition
Notre Dame College often confused with the Fighting Irish
When the Notre Dame football coach came under fire earlier this season for his sideline demeanor, you can bet the Notre Dame head coach heard about it.
Those nasty letters. Those pointed emails.
Except for one thing: They were sent not to Brian Kelly, the coach at the University of Notre Dame, but instead to Adam Howard, the head coach at Notre Dame College.
Or, as sports information director Skip Snow jokingly calls it, ’Nuther Dame.
Snow said it happens as least twice a week that he hears from someone who ought to know better when they make some kind of request of the Fighting Irish sports information department.
But these are the Falcons, a Division II school in South Euclid, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb and proud to be competing in their second season of football.
What’s more, when they beat Central State 34-16 on Oct. 1, they had a winning record (3-2) for the first time in their brief history.
Which is a far cry from three years ago when Howard – not Kelly – sat on a cooler making recruiting calls from his office, which was basically a closet.
“I could write a book,” Howard said with a laugh. “Yeah, I could write a book. It’s come a long way.”
Howard, now 37, is an Ohio football guy through and through. He’s from New Carlisle and played at Wilmington College, north of Cincinnati. His coaching career included stops at Dayton, Wilmington and Baldwin-Wallace, where he was the defensive coordinator from 2002 to 2008. And then Notre Dame decided to start football.
“This opportunity came about and it was an easy move,” Howard said. “It’s not too often that when you change jobs as a football coach you don’t have to move out of the city that you’re living in.”
But on the other hand, it wasn’t like he was inheriting a juggernaut.
“That was the best part about it, to be honest with you,” Howard said. “I wanted to be a head coach. I didn’t really plan on starting a football program. I always had thoughts about how I was going to establish a program and do it how I wanted. But having a blank canvas was not what I expected. I’m not sure anyone knew what to expect.”
He got the job in late January 2009, not long after finishing his recruiting for Baldwin-Wallace, a Division III school. Howard admitted he never really paid attention to NDC because it didn’t have football. The school was in the NAIA at the time with the intention of joining the NCAA’s Division II.
“I got this job and started the whole process all over again. It was the longest recruiting season I’ve ever been apart of,” said Howard, who started pursuing players before hiring staff.
“I ended up attracting 128 kids in just a short period of time to start our first year.”
It probably didn’t hurt that Notre Dame College is the only scholarship program in northeast Ohio, a hotbed for high school football.
“I didn’t care about anything else but being on the phone and then I would spend my days with recruits, and that was like that almost every day until mid-summer,” Howard said.
“The little bit of free time I had I was trying to order equipment and do some things we needed.”
The pitch was simple: Come be a part of something that hasn’t been done before.
“That was a big attraction that first year,” Howard said. “You were going to pave the way.”
That was also the challenge.
“They knew they wanted to start football, but they thought they’d start with the coach, start with people. I thought that’s how you win, you win with people.”
But people need a place to work.
|Notre Dame vs. Notre Dame College|
|Location||South Bend, Ind.||South Euclid, Ohio|
|Number of head coaches||31||1|
“I actually got put in a storage room in admissions,” Howard recalled. “I didn’t really have my own chair. But they did give me a cell phone. I didn’t know my office phone number. I sat on a cooler with no desk and had a cell phone. That’s all I had.
“So I started dialing up numbers and got them to come in and tried to sell them on something that wasn’t quite there yet. It was just me, I was the football program at first.”
He had no weight room – does now – had no assistants – he now has a staff of six full-time assistants and four grad assistants – and no locker room – and now has a nice one.
Understand that Notre Dame College was an all-girls school until 10 years ago. It was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame as a four-year liberal arts college. In 2001, the 875 women students were joined by three men. Now, its overall enrollment is just less than 2,000 with about 1,100 undergrads. That means almost 10 percent of the regular student body plays football.
NDC actually fielded a team in 2009, playing club and junior varsity teams. The games did not count but the players who were there at the time, and many are still are, burned a year of eligibility. But it gave the young Falcons a chance to experience a college season. Howard’s recruiting never let up and he’s signed a few players who had Division I offers.
“We’re the only scholarship program in Cleveland, so if you want to stay home,” he offered.
That, for example, was the hook for freshman Ray J. Brown, a big tight end from nearby Brunswick who was recruited heavily by other Division II schools.
“They were the first one to offer me from the beginning when I came to their camp last year,” Brown said. “And ever since they did offer me, every time they called – my recruiting coach was coach Ty [Stillman, defensive backs and strength coach] – I felt like I could relate to them really well. It was like talking to one of my family members.
“So it was close to home and I feel like I’m living here with my family, even though it’s at school and I’m with my teammates, but it feels like home.”
And how about this? “It’s funny, too, because growing up I was the biggest Notre Dame fan,” Brown said. “I’ve been to a lot of Notre Dame games, including the one when Reggie Bush [of Southern Cal] pushed Matt Leinhart [into the end zone]. I was a diehard fan and have been to a lot of their games.”
In 2010, NDC won its second game of the season, beating NAIA Lindsey Wilson of Kentucky 14-10 in what was Lindsey Wilson’s first game since reviving its program. NDC had a goal-line stand and blocked a punt. Later on, NDC won its first Division II game by beating Central State 16-13.
“Last year was tough in terms of wins and losses,” said Howard, whose Falcons finished 2-9, “but we made progress.” He admitted there were a lot of issues to deal with off the field, “babysitting” as he called it, “but this year we have a football program.”
Through last spring, the football team had a 3.0 grade-point average. Now at the season's midway point, the Falcons have a 4-2 record. They opened with a 24-23 overtime loss to Mercyhurst, beat Walsh in overtime 20-17, lost badly to Marian 38-0, but bounced back by thumping Siena Heights 30-6, then knocked off in-state rival Central State, and rolled past St. Joeseph (Ill.) 45-14 this weekend.
By the way, Howard did get to meet the other Notre Dame head coach.
“I get Brian Kelly’s mail sometimes and emails. When all that happened on the sideline [Kelly yelling at players] a while back I got an email about that and how we were an embarrassment to the institution,” Howard said laughing.
“I met him last year and told him, ‘You should put me on your payroll as your secretary. I forward your mail, take your phone calls.’
“We make jokes about that all the time,” Howard said. “But the name recognition doesn’t hurt.”
And that’s not lost on the players.
“I know how much people show that school respect and how much they’re starting to show us respect,” NDC’s Brown said, “because of the way we do things around here and how classy we are and how we’re producing.”