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The Notre Dame-Cincinnati Coaching Link - Part 1

By Connor Regan Writer Twitter/X: @ConnorReganIT

Photo - University of Notre Dame

As one of the oldest and most storied programs in all of college football, Notre Dame has connections of some sort with nearly every school in the FBS. With that said, the University of Cincinnati isn't typically first to mind when looking for Notre Dame's deep historical ties. The Irish & Bearcats have only faced off head-to-head twice: ND took the first game in 1900 with a lopsided 58-0 win, and most recently, Cincy took down the Irish at home in 2021, 24-13.

Despite the lack of on-field history, the two programs have significantly impacted one another in recent years.

Over the last two decades, these two programs have shared a ridiculous amount of staff, from assistants and coordinators all the way up to head coaches. As of 2024, the Irish have more personnel on staff with direct ties to the Bearcats than ever before. Although there are a few outliers, most of these shared coaching connections came in two distinct waves, tied to two very prominent college football coaching trees.

The Old Guard

Due to the sheer number of coaching ties between the Irish and the Bearcats, a handful of names don't completely fit into the two primary coaching trees.

Foge Fazio - Cincy(1973-1976) / Notre Dame(1986-1987)

After playing college ball for Pitt, Fazio cut his teeth coaching as a graduate assistant, eventually making his way to Cincinnati in 1973. He spent four seasons with the Bearcats before getting his first big promotion to defensive coordinator at Pitt. Fazio was considered one of the top defensive coordinators in the nation during the late 70's and early 80's. His defensive prowess was instrumental in Pitt's rise to national prominence, heading the defense from 1977-81.

After taking the helm as head coach in 1982, Pitt and Fazio eventually parted ways after a lackluster 5-5 season in 1985. In his first season at Notre Dame, Lou Holtz hired Fazio as defensive coordinator, a massive win for an Irish staff still reeling from Faust's departure. Following a disappointing 1987 season for the Irish, Holtz let Fazio go. He ultimately went on to work in the NFL for the next 15 years with the Atlanta Falcons, NY Jets, Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, and Cleveland Browns before his retirement after the 2002 season.

Rick Minter - Notre Dame(1992-93, 2005-06) / Cincy(1994-2003)

Minter's ND-Cincy path is pretty unique. Unlike Fazio, Minter was a relatively small name in the coaching realm when hired by Holtz in 1992. He'd been the defensive coordinator at Ball State from 1985-1991 and immediately led the Irish to 2 top-20 defenses. Notre Dame went 10-1-1 in 1992 and 11-1 in 1993. This quick success helped him land a head coaching position with the Bearcats in 1994, where he'd stay for ten seasons. In those ten years, Minter would post six winning seasons, with four of those securing the Bearcats bowl appearances. Ultimately, Minter was let go after a 5-7 2003 season.

After a 1-year stint at South Carolina as Lou Holtz's defensive coordinator, Minter would return to the Irish upon Charlie Weis' hiring. Minter would spend another two seasons with the Irish, leaving after the 2006 season, when the team posted a 10-3 record.

AJ Christoff - Notre Dame(1984-1985) / Cincy(2001-2002)

Christoff joined the Irish staff during the 1984 season as Gerry Faust's defensive coordinator. The Irish posted a disappointing 7-5 record in 1984 and a 5-6 record in 1985, ultimately leading to the entire staff's turnover upon Faust's resignation. It wasn't until 2001 that Christoff would make his way to Cincinnati, where he became the defensive coordinator to previous Notre Dame defensive coordinator Rick Minter, now head coach of the Bearcats. Christoff would spend two seasons with Minter and the Bearcats before departing following the 2002 season.

Jon Tenuta - Notre Dame(2008-2009) / Cincy(2017-2020)

Tenuta joined Notre Dame in 2008 as the linebackers coach/assistant head coach, having been hired by Weis. Heading into the 2009 season, Weis added to Tenuta's coaching titles by promoting him to defensive coordinator. Weis & Tenuta posted two back-to-back 6-6 seasons, and both parted ways with Notre Dame upon Weis's firing.

After making stops at NC State and Virginia, Tenuta ended up at Cincinnati in 2017 as the safety's coach. After three years with the safety's, Tenuta became the Bearcat's defensive assistant in 2020. During his time at Cincinnati, Tenuta worked alongside head coach Luke Fickell, OC Mike Denbrock, DC Marcus Freeman, and several other current Irish staffers. Tenuta left Cincinnati after the 2020 season for a DA position with Virginia Tech.

The Kelly Tree

The first of two major coaching trees at the center of this relationship, Kelly's tree is so expansive that some of it still exists in one way or another at the school, even after his departure.

Brian Kelly - Cincy(2006-2009) / Notre Dame(2010-2021)

Kelly's career as a head coach started at Grand Valley State in 1991, where he led the Lakers to two Division II National Championships and five conference titles in thirteen seasons. After three seasons at Central Michigan, Kelly was hired as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2006 following Marc Dantonio's departure for Michigan State. In 2007, Kelly led the Bearcats to a 10-win season (only their second ever), a bowl win, and a final AP rank of 17th in the nation, a level of success the Bearcats had not seen since their 10-win season in 1949. 2008 spelled even more success for Kelly and the Bearcats, winning the Big East Conference title, Big East Coach of the Year, and securing an Orange Bowl appearance. Cincinnati would fall to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, but Kelly and the Bearcats had again made significant progress over the previous year.

2009 would see Kelly and the Bearcats reach new heights yet again, going from completely unranked in the AP poll to an undefeated 12-0 season. The Bearcats secured a Sugar Bowl matchup with the Florida Gators and entered the game ranked third in the AP. Before the Sugar Bowl, Kelly was considered the hottest up-and-coming coach in college football, and this was confirmed when news broke that the University of Notre Dame had lured him away to become their new head coach. Kelly spent twelve seasons at Notre Dame, making one National Championship game, two CFP appearances, and eleven winning seasons. Ultimately, Kelly would leave Notre Dame for LSU in a shocking move.

Kelly's initial move to Notre Dame from Cincinnati would open the floodgates and deepen the connections between the two schools more than ever. As of 2024, Brian Kelly's coaching tree needs no introduction. During his time at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame, Kelly has produced countless names still bouncing around football, such as Vanderbilt's Clark Lea, Butch Jones, Miami's (OH) Chuck Martin, Matt Lefleur of the Green Bay Packers, and Robert Saleh of the New York Jets. In addition to these names, Kelly's coaching tree has quite the umbrella.

Mike Denbrock - Notre Dame(2002-2004, 2010-2016, 2024-Present) / Cincy(2017-2021)

Mike Denbrock may be the biggest mover on this list. His close relationship with 2 Notre Dame head coaches dictated many of his moves between programs over the years. He had two stints at Grand Valley State (1986-1987 & 1992-1998), where he first met Brian Kelly and eventually became both his offensive and defensive coordinators during his time with the Lakers. After a stop in Buffalo, Denbrock landed at Stanford as the TE/OT coach alongside future Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham. Denbrock followed Willingham from Stanford to Notre Dame in 2002, where he held the same position. Upon Willingham's termination at the end of the disappointing 2004 season, Denbrock again followed Willingham to Washington, where the two worked together until 2008.

After a one-year pit stop at Indiana State, Denbrock would reunite with Kelly and make his 2nd trip to South Bend in 2010. Over the next seven seasons, Denbrock worked his way up the ranks of the Irish staff, starting as the TE's coach for Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert, moving to the WR's coach in 2012, and then adding the OC title in 2014. In 2015, Denbrock moved from OC to assistant head coach while maintaining his WR coach duties. Following the 2017 season, Denbrock was lured to Cincinnati by Luke Fickell to head up his offense and coach QB/TE. It's here that Denbrock first encountered his third future Irish head coach, Marcus Freeman (Bearcats DC at the time), as well as several members of the current Irish staff (Mike Mickens, Mike Brown, Gino Guidugli, Max Bullough & Al Washington). After five seasons with the Bearcats, a CFP appearance, and three 11+ win seasons, Denbrock would follow Brian Kelly to his new post at LSU. In just two seasons, he'd lead the Tigers to the nation's top offense and guide his transfer QB Jayden Daniels to a Heisman Trophy.

In possibly the most shocking move on this list, Mike Denbrock chose to return to Notre Dame for the 3rd time late in 2023. News broke just before Christmas that Denbrock had turned down an offer from Texas A&M that would have made him the highest-paid coordinator in college football, so it came as a shock when reports leaked that Notre Dame had offered him the open OC position and he'd accepted. When asked about his surprising third return to South Bend, Denbrock opined, "…I was in a really good place, had a really good job, enjoyed what I was doing, enjoyed living in Louisiana. But it's Notre Dame."

Mike Elston - Cincy(2006-2009) / Notre Dame(2010-2021)

Elston is one of the more straightforward Kelly acolytes, with a much more linear career progression than someone like Mike Denbrock. Elston first met Kelly at Central Michigan in 2004 as the D-line coach, eventually earning the "Co-defensive coordinator" title and ultimately becoming the special teams and linebackers coach in 2006. When Kelly moved to Cincinnati, Elston followed, earning the new titles of "tight ends coach" & "recruiting coordinator."

Again, Elston followed Kelly to Notre Dame in 2010 where he'd spend 12 years on the defensive side of the ball, special teams, and as a recruiting coordinator. Kelly promoted Elston to assistant head coach in 2018, a title he would hold until he and coach Kelly parted ways with the Irish after the 2021 season. He'd spend two years with his alma mater, Michigan, before most recently making the jump to the NFL in 2024 with the LA Chargers.

Bob Diaco - Cincy(2009) / Notre Dame(2010-13)

Diaco met Kelly at Central Michigan in 2005 when he was hired as DC & LB's coach, but the two would only work together for a single season before Diaco moved on to UVA for three years. The two reunited at Cincinnati in 2009 when Diaco was again hired as DC & LB's coach.

Diaco joined Mike Elston and others in Kelly's move to Notre Dame in 2010, keeping his DC/LB titles. Before the 2012 season, Diaco was promoted to assistant head coach, and the Irish would go on to a national championship appearance and an undefeated regular season. The 2012 defense was 2nd in scoring defense (12.77), 7th in total yardage allowed (305.46), and 11th against the run (105.69). After the 2013 season, Diaco accepted a head coaching position at UCONN and would ultimately link back up with Kelly at LSU in 2023 as the Tigers' special teams and LB coach.

Harry Hiestand - Cincy(1989-1993) / Notre Dame (2012-2017, 2022)

Hiestand beat everybody in Kelly's coaching tree to Cincinnati, arriving there in 1989 as the OC/OL coach. He'd spend four years there before dedicating his time to being a full-time OL coach at Missouri and Illinois before making the jump to the NFL. Hiestand joined the Chicago Bears in 2005, where he'd stay for five years before returning to the college game.

After two seasons coaching OL at Tennessee, Hiestand drew the attention of Kelly and the Irish and was quickly brought in to helm Notre Dame's OL development. And BOY, did he. Hiestand directly coached future NFL linemen Alex Bars, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr., Nick Martin, Zack Martin, Mike McGlinchey, Sam Mustipher, Quenton Nelson, Ronnie Stanley, and Chris Watt.

After six productive seasons with the Irish, Hiestand was lured back to the NFL by the Bears in 2019, where he'd spend another two years. In 2022, Hiestand joined Marcus Freeman's staff in a hugely important move for the young coach and his new staff. Following the 2022 season, Hiestand announced his retirement from coaching, having spent 40 years coaching, 7 in the NFL and 7 with the Irish.

Jeff Quinn - Cincy(2006-2009) / Notre Dame(2015-2021)

Quinn spent 19/26 years of his coaching career as an assistant to Brian Kelly at each of his stops before LSU. The two met in 1989 at Grand Valley State, where Quinn was the OC and OL coach, and Kelly was a DB's coach. Kelly became head coach of the Lakers in 1991, and Quinn remained his OC until both coaches left for Central Michigan in 2004. Quinn remained OC/OL coach for all three years Kelly spent at Central Michigan, and the two moved once again to Cincinnati in 2006.

Quinn and Kelly split for the first time when Kelly moved to Notre Dame in 2010, with Quinn taking a head coaching position at Buffalo instead. Quinn stayed at Buffalo until 2015, when he decided to join Kelly and the Irish as an offensive analyst. After three years as an analyst, Quinn succeeded Harry Hiestand as the Irish OL coach in 2018, a position he held until the end of the 2021 season. He parted ways with the Irish upon Kelly's exit.

Charley Molnar - Cincy(2007) / Notre Dame(2010-2011)

Molnar first linked up with Brian Kelly at Central Michigan in 2006, where Molnar was a pass game coordinator and the QB/WR coach. Like Elston and Quinn, Molnar followed Kelly from Central Michigan to Cincinnati, where he'd continue as a pass game coordinator/WR's coach. After quite a bit of success, Kelly again took Molnar with him to Notre Dame, where he received his biggest promotion yet, OC and QB coach responsibilities. Most notably, Molnar coached future Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees and helped the Irish to their 2nd straight bowl appearance in 2011. Following the 2011 season, Molnar left for the head coach position at UMASS.

Part 2 Coming Soon

In part 2, we'll look at the 2nd influential coaching tree in the Notre Dame-Cincinnati relationship and where this unique coaching connection stands today


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