Keith Gilmore

Irish Extra: It's Like Old Times Again for Keith Gilmore

March 2, 2015

“We were all pretty young,” Gilmore said of a Grand Valley staff that included Kelly, now the University of Notre Dame head coach, and current Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“Coach Kelly always had this vision,” Gilmore said, remembering back to those talks after long days and long nights of coaching at Grand Valley. “Coach Kelly always talked about being at Notre Dame, winning national championships. Back then, I was like . . . ‘OK, let’s just win the (Great Lakes Conference) championship.’ But coach Kelly has held to it.

“I’ve known from the early days, with Coach Kelly’s organization skills, his people skills, the way he was able to put a staff together, he was going to be successful at whatever level,” Gilmore said. “I had an opportunity to win at every stop with him, and we won championships–and I expect the same here.”

Gilmore is back with Kelly and VanGorder, and now they are all talking about Notre Dame and winning championships. Gilmore was hired to join his former Grand Valley colleagues as Notre Dame’s defensive line coach. The 30-year coaching veteran was North Carolina’s defensive line coach the past two seasons. Gilmore also coached with Kelly at Cincinnati from 2007-2008, and he was on VanGorder’s staff at Wayne State in 1994.

VanGorder said Gilmore’s relationships with Kelly and VanGorder will allow a seamless transition.

“It gives him a great benefit for being in a new situation,” VanGorder said. “The prior situation is good in that he knows enough about me, and he’s not figuring me out the first month or two. He’s got a good idea of what I’m all about. We have a lot of years of friendship. That makes communication easier and helps the transition.

“Keith has got a lot of experience and he brings a lot of knowledge,” VanGorder said. “He also brings a great demeanor to the room. The guys are going to enjoy playing for him. He’s a solid teacher and he presents it really well. He’ll give them a consistency in terms of standards and expectations, and I think they’ll respond well.”

Gilmore said he was thrilled to join forces with Kelly and VanGorder again. Together they’ve hoisted trophies at Grand Valley and Cincinnati.

“The big thing for me is being united with one of the guys I feel is one of the best football coaches in the country, Brian Kelly,” Gilmore said. “Obviously, there is the mystique and history and tradition of Notre Dame that makes it all appealing. I’m a Midwest guy, born and raised in Michigan, a Wayne State graduate. The opportunity to come back home and be in a great program is very intriguing for me.”

Gilmore said knowing Kelly and VanGorder puts him ahead of the learning curve for a new staff member.

“You know the expectation,” Gilmore said of having worked with Kelly before. “You understand what he’s looking for. You know how to operate on a day-to-day basis. You know how to operate on game day. Understanding what the expectation is, that’s the biggest deal. You don’t often get a chance to work for the same guy over and over and over again.

“I’ve been blessed to have this opportunity, and I’ve won a lot of football games with Brian Kelly,” Gilmore said. “I know the formula works. I’m a staunch believer in what he’s done and what he’s doing, and I can sell that same message because I’ve been a part of it. You still have to do your job, but familiarity helps a whole lot. It makes the transition a lot easier.”

VanGorder was a teammate of Gilmore’s at Wayne State. Gilmore started out at Michigan and then switched to Wayne State, graduating in 1981.

“When Keith came to Wayne State from Michigan, he was a better player than all of us,” VanGorder said. “We looked at him, and it was like, ‘He’s pretty special.’ The other part of that was, he was always a likeable guy and a good teammate. He’s always had that presence and that character that is special.

“Keith was a good player, and he became, as we got older in the program, more studious about the game, which I think really prompted him to jump into the coaching part of it,” VanGorder said. “He was a good player who grew into the intellectual part of the game as a youngster and then ventured into the coaching profession. He’s been motivated to move up in the profession, which I respect. He started out in Division II football and moved his way to Division I and he’s remained there for years.”

Gilmore has made a mark in the coaching profession, gaining attention for developing players for the National Football League and for being a coach highly regarded for his integrity.

“I consider myself a teacher,” Gilmore said. “Coaching is teaching. You have to reach your students in different ways. I’m going to find the best way to reach my students, so they can perform at their highest levels. You can’t coach all guys the same way. You have to have an understanding of what the temperament of a kid is and what his skill set is. I think my greatest asset as far as being on the field is that of a teacher and having patience, knowing that it takes young men a while to become good football players. You can’t expect overnight success. That’s why they call you coach.”

A veteran recruiter, Gilmore is looking forward to the challenge of bringing the top players in the nation to Notre Dame.

“From a recruiting standpoint, I think my experience–and the relationships that I’ve built over the years in recruiting players and developing the players that I’ve developed over the years–will be valuable,” Gilmore said. “I think young men want to play for somebody who they know can help them get to the next level, as well as motivate them to get a degree. Between those two things, I think I bring a pretty good skill set to the table.

“In the recruiting aspect, you have to focus on the types of young men you want to make sure that you bring to Notre Dame. You want to make sure they fit from a character standpoint and an academic standpoint, as well as being good football players. It’s something I’m looking forward to. I want to coach guys like that.”

In his coaching, Gilmore brings a parental approach.

“There’s an old saying, ‘Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Gilmore said. “I think it’s all about relationships. You want kids to climb a wall for you. They’ll go through a wall for you. If they don’t care about you and you don’t care about them, you’re probably not going to get that.

“Throughout my career, the way I do things, I coach a kid the way I want somebody to coach one of my sons–hard, disciplined, but respectful, and with some love in your heart. If you do that, you’ll get a young man to do what you want him to do. They all want leadership, they all want to be disciplined, they all want challenges. If you do it the right way, you’ll get the most out of them. The parents I interact with, they know I’m going to look out for their sons and I’m going to hold them accountable, yet I’m going to treat them right.”

Gilmore’s experience at Michigan State University as a graduate assistant after he graduated from Wayne State was pivotal in his decision to pursue a career in coaching. He credited former Spartan coach George Perles with instilling a coaching ethic in him and giving him an understanding of the process.

“That’s when I really began to put it all together, where I wanted to go as a coaching career was concerned,” Gilmore said of working with Perles at Michigan State. “That experience gave me a nucleus and a network of people to help me achieve that.”

Gilmore said he can’t wait to reunite with Kelly and VanGorder and help Fighting Irish players make their mark on the football field and in the world.

“I’m truly excited to work with guys I’ve played ball with and coached with,” Gilmore said. “It’s a special time for me, being at Notre Dame. I’m going to make the most of it.”

by Curt Rallo, special correspondent