The weird career of Brian VanGorder (gone from Notre Dame)

Update: This was written a year ago. Brian VanGorder was fired today by Notre Dame. Another job awaits!

Paul Johnson may or may not hate Brian VanGorder's guts -- the Georgia Tech coach says he doesn't , though I'm guessing that's a fib -- but this much is certain: VanGorder, lately the defensive of coordinator at Notre Dame, has had the strangest coaching career since Larry Brown. And Brown, for all his stops, is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The only Hall of Fame BVG is apt to grace is Century 21's.

Actually, that's not true. He's in the Wayne State Hall of Fame. He played linebacker for the Tartars and was the head coach there from 1992 through 1994. (The team went 4-7, 6-5 and 6-5.) His coaching career began in 1981 at West Bloomfield (Mich.) High. He would work at three more high schools, all in Florida, over the next seven years. In 1989 he moved to college: Grand Valley State (three years), then Wayne State, then Central Florida (three more), Central Michigan (two) and Western Illinois (one). Then the new man in Athens, Ga., called, and away we go:

Georgia, 2001-2004: Lots of folks wondered why Mark Richt was hiring a defensive coordinator from Western Illinois, but BVG had worked alongside Willie Martinez -- Richt's Miami teammate and roommate -- at Central Florida and Central Michigan. (Richt also hired Martinez to coach Georgia's secondary, as we know.) In 2002, VanGorder's stout defense -- David Pollack was the biggest name but not nearly a lone star -- helped lift the Bulldogs to their first SEC title in two decades. After a 30-0 win at Clemson in the 2003 opener, this correspondent wrote that the Tigers should fire Tommy Bowden as head coach and hire BVG instead. The man has made many stops since, but those four years in Athens stand as VanGorder's greatest work.

Jacksonville Jaguars, 2005: Here's where things got odd. Georgia had gone 34-6 over three seasons, whereupon BVG upped and left for the NFL -- and not to be somebody's defensive coordinator. To coach the Jags' linebackers. Whoa, Nellie. But those linebackers were apparently pretty good. Jacksonville ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense.

Georgia Southern, 2006: Here's where things turned ugly. BVG left the Jags after one season to become the Eagles' head coach. Among his first move was to junk the spread option that Johnson had invented back in the '80s when he was the offensive coordinator under Georgia Southern patriarch (and former Georgia defensive coordinator) Erk Russell and with which Johnson himself had won two Division I-AA championships as the Eagles' head coach. Johnson recalls VanGorder saying he wanted to bring Georgia Southern "into the 21st Century." Dan Wolken of USA Today reported last year that Johnson, then at Navy, was so steamed he called his old pal Roger Inman in Statesboro .

Wrote Wolken:

"VanGorder had made some comments that he didn't think too highly of the offense, and Paul called me up and said, 'I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,'" Inman said. "I said, 'Why do you want to play us?' And he said, 'Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.' "

The game never came off. VanGorder left after one 3-8 season in which he became despised, as opposed to merely disliked, by Georgia Southern fans. (The Eagles averaged under 22 points under BVG; they'd averaged 38 the previous season using the spread option.) Donald Heath of the Savannah Morning News interviewed the exiting VanGorder and wrote this :

"The media reported on things they didn't know anything about," VanGorder said. "But anyone who knows, if they walked in here (last year), a year later they'd see all the incredible things we've accomplished."

And this:

"I had a vision at Georgia Southern, and in one year I thought we were accomplishing a lot," VanGorder said. "But that vision wasn't seen by everyone. ... I think I'm ready to be a head coach. I've never been more sure. This just might not have been the right situation."

VanGorder would have many more jobs; he hasn't been a head coach since.

Atlanta Falcons, 2007: He left Georgia Southern, apparently just ahead of the posse, to coach linebackers for the team that had just hired Bobby Petrino as its head coach. (Mike Zimmer, who's now the Minnesota Vikings' head coach, was the defensive coordinator.) Petrino left after 13 games. BVG had his own exit strategy.

South Carolina, Dec. 17, 2007-Jan. 24, 2008: Five days after Petrino bolted for Arkansas, VanGorder accepted Steve Spurrier's invitation to become South Carolina's defensive coordinator. Here's this from Pete Iacobelli of the Associated Press:

Spurrier said he got assurances from VanGorder -- who had worked four different jobs the past four years -- that he was ready to end his reputation as a coaching nomad. "I think at this point stability is very, very important to me and my family," he said. "The three-year contract is nice and I think that's a statement for everybody. My intentions are to be at South Carolina and to be there a long time."

Heh, heh, heh.

Atlanta Falcons, 2008-2011: Mike Smith, who'd been the DC in Jacksonville when BVG was coaching linebackers, was named Falcons head coach and reached out to his former colleague, who in the span of 38 days apparently decided that stability was very, very overrated. In four seasons as the Falcons' defensive coordinator, VanGorder was neither awful nor inspired. The defense did, however, get better as it went: From 24th in total yardage in 2008 to 21st in 2009 to 16th in 2010 to 12th in 2011. That latter number ranked as the best achieved by the Falcons' defense in Smith's seven seasons.

Smith probably wouldn't have fired VanGorder after the 2011 season, which saw the Falcons slump from 13-3 to 10-6 and lose to the Giants 24-2 in the wild card round. Smith probably would have fired offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, though. As it happened, both coordinators left for different jobs -- Mularkey to the Jaguars as head coach and BVG to Auburn as defensive coordinator. Both would last a year.

Auburn 2012: Two years removed from an unbeaten BCS championship, the Tigers went 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) and got Gene Chizik and all around him fired. VanGorder's defense was actually the better half of that astonishingly terrible team: It ranked 81st nationally. Scot Loeffler's offense ranked 115th (of 120). Loeffler is now the OC at Virginia Tech.

New York Jets 2013: Back to the NFL as a linebackers coach, this time for Rex Ryan. The Jets went 8-8. The defense ranked 13th. The Jets beat the Falcons 30-28 in the Georgia Dome on a Monday night with Geno Smith at quarterback.

Notre Dame, 2014- : Irish coach Brian Kelly and BVG worked together at Grand Valley State, first as fellow assistants, then for one season with Kelly as head coach and BVG as DC. (Remember Grand Valley State? For VanGorder, that was 13 jobs ago.) Kelly had an opening because Bob Diaco, the coordinator who'd helped power the 2012 run to the BCS title game, had exited to coach UConn. In Year 1 under VanGorder, the Irish defense ranked 71st nationally. It had ranked 31st under Diaco in 2013, seventh in 2012. Believe it or not, there was thought that VanGorder might leave Notre Dame after one season to join the Raiders -- and Jack Del Rio, who'd been BVG's boss with Jacksonville -- as defensive coordinator. (Him? Leave? Nah.) But that, for once, didn't happen.

Totals: In 34 years, VanGorder has had 18 different jobs -- at four high schools, 10 colleges (counting South Carolina) and four NFL teams (counting the Falcons twice). That's one posting every 1.9 years. Ten of those years were spent in Georgia. Twelve were spent in a state that borders Georgia -- plus the 5 1/2 weeks with South Carolina.

This long and winding road brings us to the present day. VanGorder's defense limited Texas to 163 yards (ouch!) and three points in Week 1. The Irish fared less well in Week 2, surrendering 416 yards and 27 points to Virginia, picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal. (To be fair, the Cavs do have Matt Johns, whom Georgia fans will know as the man who beat out Greyson Lambert. Johns completed 26 of 38 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns.)

And now Brian VanGorder's defense gets to face Paul Johnson's offense of the 20th, or perhaps 19th, Century. To quote a former Jets linebacker (though not one BVG coached): Can't wait.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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