Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: New Kids on the Block

September 2, 2018
Sunday Brunch: New Kids on the Block
By John Heisler
Chad Riley had been a former University of Notre Dame men’s soccer player and then an Irish assistant coach during the Bobby Clark era – and he previously had been the head coach at Dartmouth.
Nate Norman had been an assistant Irish women’s soccer coach for one season after playing soccer at Notre Dame – and had been a head coach previously at Western Michigan and Liberty.
Mike Johnson had been an Irish associate volleyball coach the last three years under Jim McLaughlin – and he previously had been a head coach at Xavier and Austin Peay.
And Matt Sparks had been a Notre Dame associate coach for the cross country and track and field programs the past four years – after a lengthy career as cross country coach at Southern Illinois.
But this was different.
This time, on different days and nights, there was a new element:
“For the first time I am coaching a game as the head coach at the University of Notre Dame.”
Here’s how that played out for the quartet:
–On Aug. 16 Norman’s women’s soccer squad began its 2018 campaign with a 3-1 home win against Central Michigan at Alumni Field.
–On Aug. 24 Riley’s men’s soccer team opened at home and finished with a 1-1 draw against Saint Louis.
–On Aug. 24 Johnson’s volleyball squad began with a 3-0 triumph against Weber State in the opening match of the Golden Dome Invitational at Purcell Pavilion.
–On Friday Sparks’ cross country squads, both the men and women, won the Crusader Invitational in Valparaiso.
Though all four new coaches (among Irish fall sports, Brian Kelly in football qualified as the lone incumbent) understated their debuts, down the road they’ll have special memories.
Noted Riley, “In some ways our game against Mexico this past spring felt like my first ‘real’ game. We had our alumni weekend on that occasion, and Mexico’s U-20 National team is always a great opponent. We had a big crowd and many of my former teammates and players I coached were back, so that felt like the first one for me. 
“As a coach I have tried to train myself to focus on each day as it comes, so generally how I feel for every game is the same, though I did consciously try to make a mental note during our first regular-season game against Saint Louis to take in the scene. The beginning of each season is unique and, as we talk about as a team, each team is unique and will only exist for one year, before seniors graduate and new first years arrive. It is our duty as the coaches and caretakers of the program to put everything we have to help each team realize its potential.
“Our game against Saint Louis had a bit of a cruel ending as we gave up a goal with 16 seconds left in regulation, but I remain proud of the effort and intensity in which we competed in the match, and the way we regained our composure for the overtime periods.”
Norman made certain to find personal ways to celebrate his debut.
“I was certainly a bit more nervous before my first game,” he said. “It wasn’t my first game as a head coach, but it was my first game as a head coach at a place that is so special to me. Notre Dame has done so much for me in my life that the honor of coaching this team for the first time was almost surreal.
“I tried to take some time for myself in the middle of the day, just to walk around campus and thank God for this opportunity. Sometimes you can get caught up in the business of a coaching job, but I think it is so vitally important to take a step back sometimes and I was able to do that on the first game day.  
“After the game there were certainly way more texts and calls from friends and alumni and it created a very special day.”
Sparks is anything but a rookie from the coaching angle, but this latest challenge creates a different sort of energy.
“The biggest transition to head coach responsibility has been the administrative side,” he said before his team competed Friday.
“I do not remember ever being this excited to start a season as I have been this year. It’s a relief to step away from some of those administrative responsibilities and get back to the root of why I got into this profession.”
Johnson came into his first match as Notre Dame head coach with six previous seasons of head coaching experience in his hip pocket.
“But it’s certainly different at Notre Dame,” he said. “I always felt a level of responsibility for the team and the outcome and the progress and welfare of our players. But it’s a different responsibility here.
“At Notre Dame the expectations are the highest for ourselves, our team and our players. That makes it even a little different being the head coach here. It’s also something I welcome and embrace – and our players like it, too.
“The opportunity to be at Notre Dame is special, and it’s something I really cherish.”
Johnson’s place at Notre Dame hit home about three hours before his 2018 team’s first match.
“I was very close with my grandfather who passed away about 20 years ago,” he said. “My parents were recently going through his old wallet and found a laminated four-leaf clover that actually had belonged to my great-grandfather and is probably more than a hundred years old.
“My dad came in my office and gave that to me that afternoon of our first match. I just sat in my chair and and looked out at the campus — and you can see the dome and see Mary on the dome from my window. And I thought, ‘What a special gift.’
“More than anything else, walking into that first match, I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity — not just for me but for our players. This is about the players and what they need. The mindset in that regard is the same. Walking into the arena for the first time, I simply hoped to give our players the very best opportunity to be successful. 
“And it’s all because it’s such a special thing to wear Notre Dame across our chests.”
And, now, they are rookies no more.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.