John McNulty: Trust the Experience, Adapt the Process

By Claire Kramer

For a kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, the chance to work at one of the most storied college football programs in the nation was, in John McNulty’s words, a “no-brainer.”

McNulty, along with his brother and father, would drive to New York Giants games during his childhood, accompanied by a guest: Jim Crowley, one of the original four horsemen of Notre Dame. They’d ascend the stairs to the 300 level of the stadium in such normal fashion that you’d nearly forget the legend climbing alongside. 

“He was just as happy to sit up there,” McNulty, the newest Irish tight ends coach, remembered. “I’m sure if anyone knew he was at the game, he would be sitting on the 50-yard line, but he didn’t want any part of any of that.”

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On the car ride from Scranton to the game and back each weekend, Crowley would share stories from his time with the Irish, and McNulty would listen. When Crowley passed away in 1986, McNulty’s father was a pallbearer at his funeral.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

John McNulty has come a long way from being that kid from Scranton. After his playing career as a safety at Penn State, he quickly joined the coaching ranks at Michigan as a graduate assistant. From there, a journey began that took McNulty around the country with collegiate stops at UConn, Rutgers and Penn State, as well as stints in the NFL with Jacksonville, Dallas, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and San Diego/Los Angeles. 

And then came a call from the program that Jim Crowley treasured.

“Initially, Tommy Rees called me about what I’d be interested in doing, and obviously, I was more than interested in coming to Notre Dame,” McNulty remembered of the early months of 2020. 

The Irish coaching staff was not unfamiliar to McNulty, having coached at the Chargers with Rees and competed against head coach Brian Kelly when Kelly was the head coach at Cincinnati and McNulty was offensive coordinator at Rutgers. 

What seemed like a normal transition to a new program quickly proved anything but. The Irish fit in one spring practice before remote learning and meetings took hold. Still, it was full steam ahead for the tight end room, and the alternative approach may have even produced some positives. 

“I’ve still been able to really get to know guys, even on Zoom and FaceTime — maybe even more so because now the parents are home,” McNulty noted in the spring. “They’re able to jump in on some of these conversations. If they came to practice, I probably wouldn’t really get to talk to them.”

Parents weren’t the only visitors in Zoom meetings for a room that includes returners Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright and lauded newcomers Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman. 

As the spring went on, NFL and Irish stars including Kyle Rudolph and Anthony Fasano dropped in on the tight end meetings. 


“I’ve found that these guys are all quality, character guys that want to give back,” he said of Irish football alumni. “If they’re former Notre Dame guys, forget it. They’ll drop everything immediately.”

Beyond the drop-ins from NFL players, McNulty brings a wealth of experience in the NFL, having coached future Hall of Famers like Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Gates. 

“I didn’t play in the NFL, and I always relied on [players’] points of view the first couple years in Jacksonville,” McNulty remembered. “We had a lot of good coaches that were there, and I could tell when guys weren’t into whatever was being presented.

“It hit me that these guys are great. They know what they’re best at, and they want to accentuate what they’re comfortable with. They look at it a different way.”

The longtime coach notes his time with Fitzgerald breaking down routes, matchups and the position as valuable insight into what works. As such, McNulty’s meetings are a conversation, not a lecture. He’ll send his players clips from NFL players, breaking down offseason prep and highlights. He’ll provide insight, asking what’s feasible for his own players and what they think they can do to make the game their own. 

“You sit in a meeting room with Kurt Warner every day, and he’s talking about how he sees things. With Antonio Gates, he’d say, ‘Hey, listen. Can I just run the ball to do this? I want to get my hands on the guy.’”

“All that time spent around those guys, seeing how much dedication that it takes to play at that level… You don’t roll out of bed and go to the Hall of Fame. It takes years of honing their craft. It’s all little techniques that they’ve learned. It doesn’t mean they’re always good for each guy, and it all then has to be individualized for the player.”

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McNulty takes this experience from the professional realm to the college one, both as proof that capitalizing on strengths, while developing a weakness works, and as a guide for how to coach players to be their best. Simply put, he knows the roadmap to get where any college football player wants to go – and that roadmap involves some choices. There’s not one right way to go, but there is a correct mindset to adopt. 

Joining a program that went 11-2 last season, and coaching a position that is a perennial point of excellence in Notre Dame Football, McNulty aims to be an asset to a staff that’s been moving at a fast pace since the end of the 2019 season. 

“We’re not going to start the season 11-2. We’ll start 0-0, and every week, every play, you’ll see how fast these games change, and there’s not a whole lot of margin for error,” McNulty noted. “The train is flying down the tracks, and they reach out a hand and grab you off the platform.”

With a returning starting quarterback and a strong offensive line, bolstered by notable veterans and flashy newcomers in the running back and receiver positions, expectations are high, but the return could be even higher. 

“Ian Book is going to give you opportunities to make explosive plays down the field — whether it’s blocking for him when he takes off, or blocking for someone else, or he’s going to put the ball up and give you a chance to make some of those spectacular plays,” the tight ends coach asserted. 

“At some point, it’s going to be your time to do something that’s a little bit above the X’s and O’s. And, if you’re playing at Notre Dame, you’re expected to be able to do that… You don’t know when it’s going to happen, so you have to treat every play like, ‘This is it.’ Hopefully, when it comes, you’re ready to meet the challenge.”

Just a kid from Scranton, but a product of NFL meeting rooms, storied college football fields and drives to Giants Stadium with a legend, McNulty joins the Irish staff ready to make his mark and armed with a wealth of knowledge and an eye towards creativity.

“I think it’s pretty clear where this thing is headed, and I’ll just do the best I can to help it get to the ultimate destination.”

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