Aug. 29, 1999
by Joseph Tybor
Kevin Rogers, Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator, is at his office desk well before 7 a.m., putting a black marker to transparencies, diagramming Xs and Os, creating new plays and new schemes and polishing old ones.
“Little doo-dads,” Rogers calls these quasi-artistic musings. When he is asked how many plays he has drawn up in his coaching career that stretches to Bayside, Va., High School in 1974, to most recently serving as offensive coordinator at Syracuse, he is reluctant to take credit – even though he has carved a reputation as architect of one of the most explosive, multiple offenses in college football the past few years.
“I don’t think anyone is ever that original. I’m sure the idea for these plays has come up somewhere sometime before. But in terms of the number of plays, it’s too many to count,” says Rogers whose foundation in coaching was cut from some of the biggest names ever to roam the sidelines, namely Lou Holtz and Woody Hayes.
Despite his vast offensive repertoire, Rogers believes the key to coaching an offense is not necessarily the number of snazzy plays, but the amount of quality practice time, to learn to execute them to near perfection.
“Otherwise you can end up like a kid in a candy store by trying to put too much in the game plan,” he says.
Forgive Rogers if he feels a little bit like that kid in a candy store these days-his eyes wide, bulging with the wonder of coaching at a place he grew up as a kid dreaming about.
There’s a lot that’s known about Rogers. He is an experienced coach with the versatility to mold a multi-faceted Irish offense built around the escapability and hard-throwing of returning quarterback Jarious Jackson.
He comes to Notre Dame following eight seasons at Syracuse as quarterbacks coach including the last two-years as coordinator of one of the most productive, diverse and dangerous offenses in the country. He is credited with playing a major role in the development of Donovan McNabb, a four-year starter at Syracuse who was the second player taken in this year’s National Football League draft.
What is not generally known is that Rogers bleeds blue and gold.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, he watched the Notre Dame highlights narrated on Sunday mornings by Lindsey Nelson. When his family later moved to Sparta, N.J., he was best friends with Jim and Tom Wright, the sons of Harry Wright, who was the starting quarterback for Frank Leahy in 1941 and a second-team All-America right guard in 1942. Jim Wright was a starting Irish middle linebacker in 1970 and Tom Wright, who was New Jersey’s leading high school scorer on the same undefeated Sparta team where Rogers played linebacker, was a reserve running back for the Irish.
Rogers treasured the jersey of Jim Seymour, wide receiver of the 1966 national championship team, gushed like a kid when he later met Bob Gladieux from the same ’66 team, in his last season as a player at William & Mary in 1973, he tracked and cheered the exploits of the 1973 national champions, and, later, as he marched through the coaching ranks, he – in his own words – “badgered” Holtz with letters asking for a coaching job when Holtz led the Irish.
It is little wonder then that Rogers acted like a little kid when Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who coached for two years with Rogers at Navy, told Rogers at the coaches convention this past January there could be a change from last year’s offensive coordinator Jim Colletto, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL.
“He asked me if I’d be interested. ‘Would I be interested? Are you kidding?'” Rogers replied.
“I went back home and all I did was check the voice mail for the next month waiting for someone from Notre Dame to call. I always wanted to coach here. This place is the best. If you’re going to coach college football, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
The call came in February.
“I talked to Coach Davie on a Friday, I flew to Notre Dame on Sunday, flew back on Monday and took the job on Tuesday morning,” Rogers says.
Despite his lifelong mania for the Fighting Irish, Rogers didn’t step onto the Notre Dame campus until he was an assistant coach at Navy, where he served from 1983 to 1990.
“It was gigantic! It was huge! We walked around the field on Friday, and it was hallowed ground for me,” Rogers says. “Going into the locker room was one of the most impressive things ever. I remember before the game, the band was coming out of the tunnel and they were playing the Victory March. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome, this is absolutely awesome.’ Here I was coaching for Navy and I had tears in my eyes.”
Syracuse’s loss should be Notre Dame’s gain.
Last season, Syracuse set a BIG EAST Conference record by scoring 468 points-shattering its own mark of 423 set a year earlier in Rogers’ first season as offensive coordinator. Syracuse’s average of 42.5 points per game last season was third highest among major colleges. Just as impressive was the offense’s diversity.
It was ranked 10th nationally in rushing with 228.4 yards per game and also was No.1 in the Big East in passing efficiency.
The offensive philosophy of Syracuse was not that dissimilar to what Davie wanted to do once Jackson inherited the quarterback helm. In fact, in preparing for Michigan last year, Rogers used the tapes of Notre Dame’s 36-20 stunner of the Wolverines to prepare his Orangemen.
“If you get that Notre Dame-Michigan game out and look at it, you’ll see a lot of similarities,” Rogers says.
Roger’s offenses at Syracuse featured multiple groupings and formations to take advantage of the pass-run abilities of Marvin Graves and McNabb, the quarterbacks Rogers coached from 1991 to 1998. One grouping might include two wideouts, a tight end and two backs. Another might have four wideouts and one back, or no back.
“At Syracuse, we did about eight different groupings like that,” Rogers says. “And within those groupings, we can have anywhere from 25 to 30 formations. The multiplicity of that-having an option game, a dropback passing game, a play-action passing game out of each one of those formations-enables you to really keep defenses off balance. It doesn’t let the defense take aim at you. “
The real challenge for Rogers with the Irish offense is not to do too much too soon. The Syracuse offense was an evolutionary process built over a period of years, building the Irish offense is still in progress.
“Doing too much is something we talked about,” Davie says. “That’s one of the things that impressed me the first time I met him. He was not a big ego type of guy. He was unselfish, and he really wanted to be here. I’m really comfortable with him.”
While Irish fans shouldn’t expect to see Rogers’ entire repertoire right away, he expects the offense to be productive.
“I think we’ve got good players,” Rogers says. “I think we’ve got good backs, good wide receivers. I think our offensive line is inexperienced but are good players. I think the quarterback is an excellent player. I think the backup quarterback is a good player so I expect we’re going to be pretty good on offense,” Rogers said.
“Hopefully, we can create big plays. When I say big plays I man 10 yards or more in the run game, 16 yards or more in the pass game. Ideally speaking, we’d like to be a 400-yard plus offense from week to week. We’d like to score about 30 points a game.
“Can we do them? I don’t know, yet. I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Rogers came up via the route of hard knocks and hard work. Disappointed that he didn’t receive any scholarship offers out of high school, he enrolled at Massanutten Academy in Woodstock, Va., for prep school and played in the old Virginia military school league, where he gained some attention as a linebacker.
Holtz, who had just left Woody Hayes’ 1968 national championship staff to take his first head coaching job at William & Mary, was among schools that recruited Rogers.
“I was in Coach Holtz’s first recruiting class and the assistant who recruited me was Bobby Ross, his secondary coach,” said Rogers.
Freshmen weren’t eligible to play then, but Rogers started as a sophomore. Holtz, who led William & Mary to the Tangerine Bowl in his second season, left after Rogers’ sophomore year. Rogers suffered season-ending injuries the next two seasons, breaking his right ankle in his junior year and his left ankle in his senior season.
His playing career over, Rogers longed to stay in football. For three years, he served as an assistant at Bayside High, then he interviewed with Hayes for a graduate assistant job at Ohio State.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” says Rogers of the interview. “There I was coaching high school one day and sitting next to Woody Hayes in a full staff meeting the next. He asked me a ton of questions and, in fact, I told him my heart was beating through my chest. He told me, ‘We already have a guy with heart problems, we sure don’t need another one.'”
Following his stint at Ohio State, the only job Rogers could get next was at Mainland High School in Florida. He borrowed money to rent a trailer to move, and the house he and his wife lived in was in such disrepair that the landlord let them live there rent-free.
In 1980, Rogers went back to William & Mary to coach running backs-the first time he ever coached on offense He moved to Navy in 1983, and stayed eight seasons under three coaches with differing offensive philosophies. There, he coached tight ends, offensive tackles, wide receivers, defensive backs, running backs and quarterbacks. He learned about the power running game under Navy coach Gary Tranquill, the option under Elliott Uzelac and the drop-back passing game under George Chaump.
Over his career, Rogers has coached every position except the one he played, linebacker, and as a player, he was impressed with the split-back veer offense Holtz ran at William & Mary.
“My philosophy of multiplicity developed from doing all those things, and when I went to Syracuse in 1991, they were looking to be an eclectic team, where they were going to use a little bit of all these different things.”
Rogers credits Hayes for teaching him the importance of player discipline, executing plays with the proper technique and a meticulous attention to detail. From Holtz, he learned the importance of making players believe they can be better than they think they are.
In a profession known for the chaotic disruption it can levy on families, Rogers has been a rock of stability. He has known his wife, Betty, since the sixth grade. They were married in his senior year at college. He has spent eight seasons at Navy and eight at Syracuse. The couple has three children – Kevin, a quarterback at Villanova, Megan, a star high school soccer player who will remain in Syracuse for her senior year, and Ryan, who plans to play high school football in South Bend.
After 25 years in the coaching ranks, Rogers comes to the Irish as a hot property in offensive football circles, more importantly, he’s come full circle from the boy who watched Notre Dame highlights on Sunday mornings in Brooklyn.
“I’m here for as long as they keep me here,” he said. “This is home.”
Editor’s Note: Joseph Tybor is founder and publisher of IrishEyes.Com, a web-based subscription service on Notre Dame sports that can be accessed on the Internet at www.irisheyes.com.