Dec. 19, 2017
By John Heisler
Former University of Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor returned to campus Monday.
It wasn’t for an Irish football game.
It wasn’t for a reunion of teammates who helped him win a combined 40 games during his four seasons in South Bend.
It wasn’t to meet with Irish coach Brian Kelly or his staff in Taylor’s role as an analyst for CBS Sports.
This was way more personal than that.
Taylor, the 1993 Lombardi Award winner, enjoyed a stellar career in an Irish uniform as a three-year starter for head coach Lou Holtz. And he couldn’t have enjoyed and appreciated more the relationship that he formed with veteran Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Moore.
Moore, a crusty, old-school veteran of the college coaching wars, came to Notre Dame beginning with the 1988 Irish national championship season and remained on Holtz’s staff through 1996.
It wasn’t any accident that, in tandem with talent like Taylor, the Irish annually ranked among the most productive rushing teams in the country under Moore. Notre Dame rated 12th or better nationally in eight of Moore’s nine seasons in South Bend, including averages of 287.8 yards per game in 1989 and a 280.9 figure in Taylor’s junior season in 1992 that ranked third nationally.
So it probably was no accident that, several decades after his days on the Cartier Field practice grass, Taylor decided there was room for one more college football award. And, in Taylor’s eyes, that award was all about Moore.
There already were awards like the Lombardi and the Outland for linemen, along with the Rimington Award for the best center.
But Taylor’s history with the game convinced him that offensive line success seldom was about a single player–instead it demanded five guys playing together at a high level, down after down.
And so Taylor commissioned a trophy to be sculpted, created a selection process and committee and otherwise crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s required to make this award reality to honor the best offensive line in the nation.
It was the Joe Moore Award and everything involved in it was absolutely a labor of love for Taylor.
He flew into South Bend Monday and spent two hours that night personally uncrating the pieces of the larger-than-life trophy and base and putting them back together.
Then on Tuesday morning in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex auditorium–in front of the entire Notre Dame squad–he took part in a surprise presentation to Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and 2017 Irish offensive line regulars Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey.
For Taylor, it was emotional because this is his alma mater.
It was emotional because Hiestand’s fingerprints were all over the award, and Taylor knows as well as anyone that Hiestand holds no one in higher regard as a coach than Moore. They represent a pair of tough, feisty Pennsylvanians.
And it was ironic because when Taylor began creation of the award the photos he provided to sculptor Jerry McKenna to build the trophy were posed shots of the 2015 Notre Dame offensive line that just happened to include Nelson and McGlinchey. Those two just happened to both claim consensus All-America recognition this past week, with Nelson meriting unanimous acclamation (Taylor also qualified for that category in 1993).
Notre Dame won the award, in great part, because the Irish average of 279.1 yards per game in 2017 is 115.8 yards better than its 163.3-yard average from only a year ago. The Irish currently rank seventh nationally in rushing–a year ago Notre Dame finished 80th in that category. And that’s after Notre Dame as a team after 2000 only once has averaged more than 200 yards (207.6 in 2015).
Moore’s nine seasons at Notre Dame saw the Irish average 258.4 rushing yards per season.
The 2017 version led by Nelson, McGlinchey and Hiestand fit perfectly into that profile. They combined for five straight midseason games of 318 rushing yards or more–something that may never have been done at Notre Dame. It definitely did not happen in 1973 when the Irish set a record with an average of 350.2 rushing yards per game.
Other than Kelly, no one sitting in the late Tuesday morning team meeting knew the award was coming. But when the Irish head coach invited Hiestand to come down to the front of the seating area and the massive trophy–covered with a dark blue sheet–was wheeled through a side door, most of the players seemed to immediately understand what the occasion was about. Applause erupted, the first of a handful of standing ovations in a 10-minute period for the Notre Dame line.
“Each of the last three years there has been a very distinguished group of former offensive line players and coaches who have gotten together on a weekly basis to pore over film and discuss offensive line play all over the country,” Taylor told the team. “Within this group there are 1,000 years of playing and coaching experience. They come together for one simple job and that’s to recognize the outstanding line unit in the country.
“At the beginning of the fall there were 130 potential teams that had the opportunity to make that quest. As the season progressed, the cream started rising to the top. The 130 became 21. Then 21 became seven–and seven became three, three very good units that best exemplified what offensive line play is about. But there was one unit that stood above all others and best displayed the award criteria of toughness, effort, teamwork, consistency, technique and finishing. That group stands before you.”
McGlinchey provided his context:
“This doesn’t happen without Coach Hiestand. We’ve got the best in the business coaching us every day. The slogan for Joe Moore is `I am because of us,’ but we are because of Harry Hiestand. Thank you, Coach, for all you do every single day.”
Taylor added a personal touch based on his relationship with Moore.
“Joe Moore is widely recognized as the most successful offensive line coach in the history of this sport,” he said. “I remember being inside Loftus and being turned into the player and man I am today.
“I remember we had a big game coming up my senior year (1993) against (unbeaten and top-ranked) Florida State. We put the film on and those guys had unbelievable first-round talent and more speed than we had seen any time in my four years here. Coach Holtz came into our team meeting room and said, `Men, I’m not going to lie to you–they’ve got more speed than we’ve seen all damn year. I don’t know how we’re gonna beat their (butts), I just don’t know how.’
“Then we go down to our offensive line meeting and Coach Moore walks in. `The little guy with the glasses has got a point. That’s the fastest defense I’ve ever seen. They are flying around. But, you know what, guys? They’ve got one problem. You know what that is? Their problem is us.’
“And that’s where that statement, `I am because of us,’ came from. When we worked together as a team, great things happened.”
Hiestand’s connection with Moore goes back to when he was coaching at the University of Cincinnati (1989-93) and he came to Notre Dame for several days in 1989 to observe Moore and the Irish offensive line.
“I drove up here and watched all the drills in Loftus and sat and talked with Joe. That’s where it all started,” says Hiestand.
“After Joe left here he coached at a high school in Erie, Pennsylvania (Cathedral Prep), and I would see him in recruiting. Then when I was at Illinois (1997-2004) with (head coach) Ron Turner, he came and worked with us for a whole week. We did that for about three years.
“I was hooked based on the effect he had on me.”
Taylor, who routinely recuses himself from the selection process because of his college connections, finished with these reflections:
“It has been said you can live a life of comfort or one of accomplishment, but not both. This award represents what’s possible when a bunch of talented people come together and sacrifice their personal game for the greater good. That extends to the offense and the defense and the special teams. When you guys do that great things are possible and these guys in front of you represent that.
“On the front of this trophy there’s a famous quote from Coach Moore, `There’s no greater joy in life than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.’
“In the process of researching this trophy, there was another quote that emerged that was a little different and subtle and that one said this: `There’s no greater joy in life than moving a man from where he is to where he doesn’t want to go.’ That’s what Joe Moore used for us as players. He had an uncanny ability to get us to be the best versions of ourselves, often against our own will. We want things easy, but that ain’t football–and you guys know that.
“I’ll leave you with this. Teamwork–it’s what defines football as a sport. And it’s displayed in its greatest glory in the play of the offensive line, for it is there that individual achievement only matters if the entire unit is performing. Teamwork is a bond. It’s the greatest form of individual achievement because it requires total sacrifice and focus and effort. The road to success is paved with teamwork, and it makes that success one of the great achievements on the planet.
“I think the timing of where we are in the country is noteworthy based on a celebration of us instead of me. That’s the undercurrent of what this award represents, the principles of what makes this game what it is.”
Pittsburgh native Moore died in 2003.
On Tuesday at Notre Dame, Taylor and the Irish made him alive again.