Jan. 28, 2017
This is an exclusive interview with new Notre Dame quarterback coach Tom Rees who officially joined Brian Kelly’s staff Tuesday. Rees is a 2013 Notre Dame graduate who spent three years under Kelly as the Irish starting quarterback. He won 23 games as a starter and threw for 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns. He previously spent the 2015 season as a graduate offensive assistant coach at Northwestern and the 2016 campaign as an offensive assistant with the NFL San Diego Chargers.
I knew I wanted to get into coaching—that had been evident for a long time. I got to San Diego a year ago. That kind of came out of nowhere--I wasn’t expecting to get the interview. I talked to (Chargers head coach Mike) McCoy and flew out there and got the job and moved out there within a week of knowing I was going to interview. I spent a year at Northwestern as a graduate assistant and I could have stayed another year. But I kind of wanted to see what else was out there, knowing the NFL was a pretty great opportunity where I could learn a lot. I told (Northwestern head coach Pat) Fitzgerald after the season that that was something I was looking into. I had a great experience in San Diego, although we had an up and down year and we didn’t know how the coaching staff was going to play out.
I had stayed in touch with the program here kind of casually through (associate athletics director) Chad Klunder and he came to me with this opportunity from Coach (Brian) Kelly. Coming back to this place was something I had always wanted to do. I just did not know if or when it would happen. After talking for a couple of weeks it became more formal and they wanted me to come out here and talk to Coach Kelly and (new offensive coordinator) Coach (Chip) Long to see if it would be the right fit.
It had to be the right thing for me, too, in terms of the role and the responsibility. Everything checked out—the opportunity to be with the quarterbacks and be back here is something I wanted to do. At the end of the day the fulfillment of working with those guys day in and day out and leading that group was something I couldn’t pass up.
More than anything I learned how to coach at Northwestern. How to communicate with players, how to build relationships. I’d built relationships here, but I was their teammate. Now I was trying to aid them. The one thing I learned was that you have to prove you can help them--that you have value to make them better on and off the field and that your knowledge is something they can trust. They want to learn, they want to get better, they want to play well. So it’s about your credibility. If you prove you can help them, they will listen.
It was the same thing when I went to the NFL. As young as I was, it was the same challenge except at a higher level. I had to go in there and master what we were doing in order for those guys to trust me. I built a great relationship with the guys there.
At Northwestern I worked with the receivers and the quarterbacks. I worked hand in hand with the wide receiver coach, Dennis Springer, and the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, Mick McCall. They were typical graduate assistant duties except that during games I was with the quarterbacks on the field because our coordinator was upstairs. So I got to be with them on game days. I was kind of the communicator with that (quarterback) group on Saturdays and with the receivers on the field during the week. So I got to do both which was really beneficial.
With the Chargers it was pretty similar--I dealt with the pass game for the majority of the time. You do a lot of film breakdown and a lot of the pass game install. I was on the field with the receivers with the pass game because our receiver coach was up in the box. So I was involved with adjustments firsthand on the field. I was learning at a really high level. I was around some really great coaches who taught me a lot about the game. More than anything it was an awesome learning experience just to further my knowledge of football.
The thing I start with here right now is building a relationship with the quarterbacks. I want to build a strong foundation—who are you, who am I? Build a knowledge base so when it comes time I know how to coach them and how they are going to react. Then I’m interested in just seeing what they know from a base standpoint. Talk to me about the game—where are you there?
I think it’s a really great group of guys. They are really eager to learn because there is not a lot of experience in the room. Brandon (Wimbush) has only played so many snaps, Ian (Book) was just a freshman and Gummy (Montgomery VanGorder) has had his role through the years. They’ve already come up and spent some time with me. Brandon is a great kid—he’s a pleasure to be around and talk to. He’s mature and he has his head on right. Everyone seems to gravitate to him and that’s what you want. Ian is still feeling his way through—he knows he has a lot to learn and he wants to learn it and get going. He wants to have a significant role this year.
In terms of X’s and O’s, those are all conversations yet to be had. We’ll all be on the same page because it will be a collaborative deal—we’ll all go through this together, players and coaches. We’ll guide them and work through it and it will be exciting. Chip’s got a strong track record of being efficient on offense, so it’s an exciting time. Chip and I have talked some football. He’s sharp and he’s passionate about it—that’s obvious as soon as you sit down and talk with him. We spent some time talking about what he’s done in the past and some of the things I’ve been around and liked. He has been great, and I think he’ll be a great influence on this group of guys.
It can be invaluable that I have the experience of being a quarterback at Notre Dame. I don’t think there’s a situation that could come up that I haven’t already been through first-hand. Coach (Ron) Powlus recruited me here so we have a great relationship, and we talk about a lot of these things. He’s someone I can go to talk to about everything. Between the two of us, if there’s anything that ever comes up with any of these kids, there’s nothing that we haven’t faced before. That knowledge base and that understanding of what it’s like to play the quarterback position here--the ups and downs, playing within this offense--hopefully can be invaluable for these guys. I take it very seriously and I want them to know that anything at all that comes up, I’m here for them.
Coach Kelly and I had had that conversation before when I was still playing here—he knew I wanted to coach. He paid me a huge compliment in that aspect after the Pinstripe Bowl my last year. I remember that very vividly. And now it’s been fulfilled because it’s come full circle.