March 2, 2015
Two weeks after Todd Lyght sweated through his first football practice for the University of Notre Dame in 1987, then-Fighting Irish football head coach Lou Holtz gave his team a break from the sweltering August heat.
Holtz took the Irish to a lake house in Michigan for a barbeque.
There, as his teammates swam and went jet skiing, Lyght was pulled aside by Holtz.
“I had been going back and forth, playing offense one day, playing defense the next day, because we had some injuries,” Lyght said. “I came in as a wide receiver. When I was being recruited, I was being recruited as the next Tim Brown. I thought I had pretty good athletic prowess on the offensive side of the ball. I had pretty good hands, I ran good routes.
“Coach Holtz pulled me aside and told me, ‘Todd, we’re going to move you to defense on a permanent basis.’
“I was crushed. That was my toughest day as a student-athlete. I remember calling my dad. I was really upset. I thought, at the time, maybe Notre Dame isn’t for me.
“My dad told me, ‘Listen. Coach Holtz is one of the best coaches in the country. If he wants to move you to defense, it’s for a reason.'”
Lyght went back to talk to Holtz, who was convinced that it was the right move for Lyght. Holtz told Lyght that he could be a good wide receiver and perhaps play two or three seasons, or he could be a great defensive back and play three or four seasons.
“Sometimes, when you’re a kid and you get news that you don’t think is in your best interest, it’s very difficult to take and digest. But Coach Holtz had my best interest at heart, he had the team’s best interest at heart, and it all worked out because I was able to listen to my coach and understand that he had a greater vision of the game and that he put me in a position to be successful,” Lyght said.
“When Coach Holtz first told me about the switch to defense, I was miserable,” Lyght said. “Everybody at the barbeque was having fun, and I’m walking around the woods thinking Coach Holtz just ruined my life. But, really, he set me up for success. I’m very thankful to Coach Holtz for moving me to the defensive side of the ball and seeing my potential there.”
Lyght’s potential has led him back to Notre Dame where he has been hired by Fighting Irish football head coach Brian Kelly to be a defensive backs coach.
Lyght earned consensus All-America honors at Notre Dame in both 1989 and 1990. He led the Irish in tackles in their Fiesta Bowl victory against West Virginia to help Notre Dame capture the 1988 national championship. He was also on the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams team of 1999.
Lyght got into coaching at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High School and served as a defensive intern at Oregon for two seasons. He was an assistant defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013 and 2014. Now he will work to set up current and future Irish players for success as the Notre Dame football defensive backs coach.
“Todd will bring a demeanor and a championship mentality,” said Reggie Brooks, the Notre Dame director of student-athlete alumni relations/engagement and an Irish teammate of Lyght’s. “Todd won a championship here at Notre Dame and won a championship with the Rams. He understands what it takes to win and how to compete at a high level. He understands what it takes to be successful on a day-to-day basis. He understands how to manage your time as a student-athlete at Notre Dame and how to push yourself at the next level.”
Lyght’s unique understanding of Notre Dame will be a tremendous asset when he recruits and coaches.
“The University of Notre Dame is a very special place,” Lyght said. “It’s not for everybody. You have to be very demanding of yourself. You have to manage your time very wisely, and you have to make great decisions. You have to decide that you want to excel on and off the field, and you have to be dedicated to that, day in and day out.
“A lot of people aren’t able to focus their dedication and their work ethic that consistently with a high effort all of the time, which is OK. But we’re looking for a special person, we’re looking for a special student-athlete, and they’re out there. Once we identify those players and we show them what type of place this is and how it can help them, not only in the next four years, but the next 40 years of their life, there will be a lot of young men interested in coming to Notre Dame and developing and becoming great men of character.”
Brooks says Lyght displayed great intellect as a player for the Irish.
“Todd was really instrumental in my success,” Brooks said. “My sophomore year, Todd was a senior. He was a go-to guy on the field. He had such a grasp of the game. He did a great job of helping out the younger guys, while competing at a high level himself. He’s very open, he understands the game very well, as evidenced by his success in his years at Notre Dame and in the NFL.”
Brooks said playing for Holtz helped Lyght hone his command of the game and develop mental toughness.
“If you were going to play for Coach Holtz, you were going to know the game, especially the mental aspects of the game,” Brooks said. “He demanded a lot. He forced you to put a lot more demands on yourself. If you were going to have success where he was concerned, you have to understand what you’re doing. It was always stressed to be perfect on the field, so to do that you had to understand what was being asked of you and then you had to go out and execute it. I think Todd’s ability to understand information, process it and at the same time transition it to play on the field was huge.”
In addition to Holtz, Bud Carson, who helped engineer the great Steeler defenses of the 1970s, influenced Lyght.
“The way you defend is, first you have to defend the field, second you have to defend the formation, and third you have to defend the play,” Lyght said. “That’s a teaching progression that I learned from Bud Carson, who was the architect of the Steel Curtain defenses of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a phenomenal coach, and I learned a lot of football from him. I look forward to teaching our kids the proper progression of how to learn and play football.”
Lyght, who played high school ball at Powers Catholic in Flint, Michigan, was drawn to football at a young age.
“I was always a student of the game,” Lyght said. “I grew up watching NFL Films in the 1970s. I’d wake up Saturday mornings and watch all of the shows. I’d memorize all of the players.
“I learned my multiplication tables by identifying them with football players’ numbers. Six times two was Terry Bradshaw. Eleven times eight was Lynn Swann.”
Lyght said his experience of playing on a national championship team at Notre Dame would play into his coaching.
“Personally, I think I played on the best team ever at Notre Dame, the 1988 national championship team,” Lyght said. “That was a phenomenal team with phenomenal athletes. We had playmakers all over the field. What was great about that team was how hard we worked day in and day out, and how we competed on the practice field, not only how we competed against the other team, but also the way we competed against each other.
“I’m not talking about offense and defense,” Lyght continued. “I’m talking about defensive players competing with one another on the field, during the game, not only to carry out their alignment, their assignment, their technique with great effort, but to see who could get their name called on the loudspeaker because they were the first one to the ball making the tackle. Michael Stonebreaker, Pat Terrell, Stan Smagala, Chris Zorich, Wes Pritchett … guys like that, we competed against each other at a super-high level, not just against the other team. That’s what made us special.”
Lyght’s love for Notre Dame goes well beyond football. He donated a scholarship to the University.
“Over the past 15-plus years, more than 20 students have graduated from the Todd William Lyght Scholarship Fund,” Lyght said. “I’m very proud of that. One student was a Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford. He sent me an amazing letter. I accomplished a lot of things on the field, but that’s probably my greatest accomplishment off the field.”
Lyght’s return gives the Fighting Irish a valued connection to a golden era in Notre Dame’s storied football history. It’s a connection that can lead to a golden future as well.
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent