Oct. 28, 2015
Back in 1991, Keith Gilmore was a young coach who had been put in charge of the linebackers and running backs in addition to coordinating recruiting efforts at Grand Valley State.
Gilmore’s boss at the time was an up-and-coming Brian Kelly, who broke up long days at the office by sometimes talking about his dream to one day roam the sideline at the University of Notre Dame. Gilmore listened intently, while wondering if Kelly was getting a little bit ahead of himself.
“It was a little far-fetched at the time,” Gilmore says with a chuckle. “But, you know, everybody has a dream, and if anybody could reach it I thought he could. At the time, though, I was thinking, ‘We got a long way to go!’ I was more focused on just winning games at hand and what we needed to do to be good at that point.”
Some 18 years later when Kelly’s dream became a reality, Gilmore had two thoughts.
“I was happy for (him), number one, and number two, I wish I would’ve been going with him initially!” Gilmore says. “But I wasn’t surprised. He had won a lot of games, so the next progression would be a bigger job. Whether it was Notre Dame or not I wasn’t sure, but early on I knew he’d be getting a big one.”
Eventually, though, Gilmore would join his old boss and friend in South Bend. In early March of this year, Gilmore was hired as Notre Dame’s defensive line coach, and was not only reunited with Kelly but with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Paul Longo, director of football strength and conditioning, each of whom Gilmore has longtime connections.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I always thought I would be at a place like Notre Dame,” Gilmore says. “It took me a little longer than it takes some people, but it was a great feeling (when I was hired).”
Coaching didn’t always flow through Gilmore’s veins, although he did play football. As an outside linebacker and defensive lineman at Wayne State University in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, Gilmore earned all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors in 1979-80, while at the same time befriending VanGorder and Longo who were teammates. Gilmore then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in recreation management and headed off to work in the private sector. A few short years later, knowing that a desk job wasn’t for him, Gilmore jumped when offered the opportunity to give coaching a shot.
“I found that I didn’t like wearing a coat and tie to work every day, and there had to be something more to my liking,” Gilmore says. “So when a former coach approached me and asked me if I had any interest … I just kind of went from there.”
It didn’t take Gilmore long to realize he had found his niche. And it wasn’t just about coaching football players, but also being able to have an off-the-field influence on the players as well.
“The opportunity to give back to young men was probably the most intriguing part or the most exciting part of coaching to me,” Gilmore says. “I wanted to share some of the things I had learned with people and hopefully not have them make some of the mistakes I had made. So it was about making better players and people.”
Gilmore spent three years at his alma mater, a year at Michigan State (where he also earned his master’s degree in sports administration) and two a Northern Michigan before Kelly tabbed him to join the staff at Grand Valley State. Gilmore was a few years older than his new boss, but he still learned a few things from Kelly and was impressed by the young head coach’s demeanor.
“(Kelly) was very motivated and very sharp,” Gilmore remembers. “He was a real business person. I always thought he had some real business-type characteristics, like he was a guy who could probably run a Fortune 500 company or be a football coach.
“The first thing I learned from him was organization. He had a plan to win and he made things small enough for the players to understand, things they could refer to and hold on to. At the same time, he also was diverse enough to handle any situation that came about.”
Gilmore left Grand Valley State in 1993 and went back to Wayne State for a year where VanGorder was now the head coach. He followed that with a three-year stint at Eastern Michigan as the running backs coach and special teams coordinator and four years at Norfolk State as defensive line, running backs and special teams coach. Once he left there, Gilmore never went back to coaching the offensive side of the ball again. And, while he appreciated the experience, he was glad to have the opportunity to just focus on defense.
“I always wanted to coach on the defensive side of the ball because that’s where I played and that’s where I felt most comfortable,” Gilmore says. “Fortunately or unfortunately, early in my career, other people felt differently. But I was just happy to be a college football coach, so I coached wherever they let me. But I think it helped me become a better coach by understanding both sides of the football. It helps you to have the expertise, and it also gets you outside of your comfort zone.”
From there, Gilmore spent four seasons at Howard before being reunited with Kelly at Central Michigan in 2006. The duo were together there for a year before both headed to Cincinnati where Kelly took the head coaching position. After two seasons, Gilmore left for Illinois, while Kelly served one more season with the Bearcats before the Irish came calling. Finally, in 2015, the stars aligned and Gilmore had the chance to join Kelly, VanGorder and Longo on one of the biggest stages in college football.
“It was kind of a mutual situation,” Gilmore says of being hired by Kelly. “(Notre Dame) had made some changes on the staff, and they knew I could be a person who would possibly be a good fit but also someone who could do a good job for them during the transition. It would not be a big change per se in having to teach somebody how they approach things and how they operate. So it just kind of worked out for the best. And I was ready. It was close to home, working with good people, good friends. Being at Notre Dame is special.
“And it has been pretty seamless. It’s been very positive every day. We’ve got some great young men here to work with, and there’s some good coaches and great men in this building. So I’m enjoying it.”
Gilmore has transitioned through his years as a player-turned-coach over the years just as well. He notes that clearly there have been changes in college football, but that he’s adjusted more so because it’s been a steady progression as opposed to startling transformations.
“Football is a lot more technical now,” Gilmore says. “There’s a lot more information, and a lot more things you have to react to that you didn’t have to before. But if I had to pick one part of it I would say the passing game has really developed a lot, and the ability to rush the quarterback is of the utmost importance for the defensive line. When I played it was more option football and primarily being able to stop the run.”
The hardest part of coaching changes, however, often come off the field…for the coach’s families. Minor hiccups aside, Gilmore believes his family likes being closer to family and, in the end, football is a favorite for everyone in the Gilmore household and not just the boys.
“When you change jobs, it really affects your family,” says Gilmore of wife Bridget, sons Keith, Kierre and Grant and daughters Keyontay and Grace. “For me it’s easy. I’m at work all day doing what I do. So the toughest part is seeing them have to go through a few struggles and be uncomfortable for a little bit. But they’re getting through it. There’s been no major issues.
“And they’re football girls. They have no choice! It’s part of their life. But they may be more into it just as much or more than the boys.”
Running out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time on Sept. 5 against Texas in the season opener gave Gilmore butterflies. But then again every game does, and Gilmore thinks it should.
“I’m always a little bit nervous any time you play a football game and excited too,” Gilmore says. “That’s just part of being a coach. If you don’t have that you probably shouldn’t be in the game. But there are normal things – nervous about my guys being prepared and playing well. It’s not so much the game or the size of the game, but you want to make sure you’ve done a good job in preparing the players to do well.”
So far, the present has gone just about as well as could be planned with so much more of the season left. And 10 years from now?
“Hopefully I am retired and have some money so I can come to some Notre Dame games!” says the 57-year-old Gilmore with a laugh. “It’ a great place. It’s close to home. It’s kind of a dream job for me, and I would love to finish my career here.”