Sept. 30, 2017
“The three toughest jobs in the world are: president of the United States, mayor of New York, and head football coach at Notre Dame.”
–former ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook
By John Heisler
Heather Wimbush stood in the security line at the Delta Airlines terminal of Logan Airport in Boston on a recent Sunday morning.
She wore a blue pullover top with Irish in script across the front, her face wore a smile–and under her arm she held the game ball her son Brandon had been awarded the day before as a result of the University of Notre Dame’s 49-20 football victory over Boston College.
Her son earned that token of appreciation from his coaches after running for 207 yards, most in history by an Irish quarterback. He scored four touchdowns, most by any Notre Dame player in 33 seasons. No Notre Dame quarterback had run for four TDs in a game until Wimbush did it.
As Irish head coach Brian Kelly told the team after the game, Wimbush showed grit.
In only his third career start, life that day had been pretty good for the Notre Dame signal-caller–even with both Wimbush and Kelly expressing a need for improvement in the passing department.
The 2017 campaign is Brandon’s third season in South Bend but his first as a starter.
He and his mother are still learning exactly what it means to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame–and there’s sometimes more to that assignment than many observers might realize.
If Beano Cook, the witty, irreverent bard of college football, had added to his list of challenging work assignments, playing quarterback at Notre Dame might well have finished fourth or fifth.
Cook helped contribute to that likelihood in 1994 when he suggested that Irish quarterback Ron Powlus might win two Heisman Trophies before Powlus finished his collegiate career. That came after the Pennsylvanian threw for four TDs in his first start with the Irish–a 42-15 primetime win over Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago.
“I’m the poster child for dealing with expectations,” says Powlus, now Notre Dame’s director of player development.
But that’s partly what playing quarterback is about at Notre Dame–considering that Wimbush’s predecessors at that position in South Bend include Angelo Bertelli, John Lujack, Paul Hornung and John Huarte (all Heisman Trophy winners), along with Terry Hanratty, Tom Clements, Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Tony Rice and Brady Quinn.
So, as Wimbush continues his first year in that role after mostly watching DeShone Kizer the past two seasons, first-year Irish quarterback coach Tom Rees and Powlus can only think back to their years under center and in the limelight in South Bend. Rees and Powlus remain third and fourth on Notre Dame’s career passing yards list–Rees with 7,670 yards and Powlus with 7,602.
The best part for Wimbush is that he knows there are two individuals with offices at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex who know exactly what he is experiencing from one day to the next–including his own position coach who held down the exact same job less than a decade ago.
For Powlus, playing quarterback in South Bend was simply an extension of what he had experienced in his senior season at Berwick (Pennsylvania) High School–a perfect season, a national player of the year honor for Powlus and a stop on the White House lawn to meet President Bill Clinton. So Powlus wasn’t fazed by what came next.
“It was all just part of the position,” says Powlus. “It’s the office and not the guy. It was the entity of the quarterback at Notre Dame–I was just managing it.”
Bill Rees, Notre Dame’s new director of scouting and the father of Tom (who played for the Irish in 2010-13), has been around the game most of his life, including 15 years at UCLA and 16 in the NFL. He recalls when his son handled that assignment:
“When we had moments together we always accentuated the positive–how lucky and fortunate he was to be in the position he was. He’s very competitive and so we would talk about maximizing the opportunity and taking advantage of every day.
“It was never as good as you think and never as bad as you think.”
Both Powlus and Bill Rees talk about those expectations–from the standpoint a player, especially a quarterback, doesn’t come to Notre Dame without being prepared to embrace those.
“You have high expectations for yourself, everybody does,” says Powlus. “You are still managing a real big entity. It’s kind of the tip of the spear behind Notre Dame football. Almost none of it can you control as far as expectations.”
Expectations for an untested Kizer, for example, weren’t great when he replaced an injured Malik Zaire in the 2015 Virginia game.
Then Kizer shocked the college football world by throwing the game-winning TD pass in that Virginia game and he went on to have a very solid–and sometimes spectacular–rest of the season in leading the Irish to a New Year’s Six bowl opportunity.
Just that quickly the expectations for Kizer changed.
Yet, as Rees and Powlus understand, the trappings of the quarterback position are all any signal-caller wants or expects in South Bend.
Tom Rees, just four years removed from handling the Irish quarterback role himself, goes about doing what he can to help Wimbush, Notre Dame’s latest quarterback, find his way. Rees spends hours and hours during game weeks, helping prepare Wimbush to recognize coverages and fronts, make decisions and make plays. His job is to teach, guide and develop Wimbush and the other Irish quarterbacks so they are ready to do their jobs on Saturdays.
Yet Rees is fully convinced that Wimbush’s previous two seasons in training helped prepare him well for all the eventualities of the starting job in 2017.
“He comes and asks how to deal with certain things, but for the most part he’s such a good kid that you don’t worry about it,” says Rees.
“He knows how to handle things the right way.
“You just over-emphasize how important it is to stay within this building, trust the people who are here and as much as you can block out all the outside noise.
“You always want to represent yourself in the right manner because people are always looking.”
Powlus, meanwhile, on occasion is able to impart some of the wisdom he acquired in starting 44 games at Notre Dame.
“You don’t complete every pass–you have to manage the ups and downs,” says Powlus.
“There’s a whole team over there trying to stop you, so you learn to celebrate the victories you have, the successes in the moment.”
Once in a while, Powlus will point to a leadership opportunity–or a way to think about something good or bad that happened and how to move on from that.
“But you have to figure out your own way of dealing with all this,” says Powlus.
“Brandon can’t operate and live like me or DeShone or Tommy or Brady Quinn. He’s got to find his own way.
“That’s what life is. You observe other people, you have your own thoughts and then you do it your way.”
Bill Rees understands the role of quarterback also requires a certain demeanor.
“There’s a maturity that comes with playing the position. You’ve got to grow up fast. It can happen very quickly. And there’s no substitute for that feeling of going out there and doing it.”
Powlus and both Bill and Tom Rees like what they’ve seen from the Irish junior who played high school football in New Jersey but now calls Atlanta home.
“In Brandon’s case, as he deals with all the challenges, it’s the first time he’s seen things from this angle,” says Bill Rees. “But you don’t see any back-down from him, any hesitancy.”
Says Powlus, “I think he’s doing a great job of navigating the life of the quarterback at Notre Dame. He has a good capacity for handling all that goes with it.”
And Powlus hopes it plays out for Wimbush in all the ways he anticipates.
“Let’s face it, it’s an incredible thrill to play quarterback at the University of Notre Dame,” Powlus says. “It’s a wonderful experience–one you cannot get anywhere else in all of college football.
“We all hope when Brandon finishes his time here he’ll look back and say he wouldn’t change a thing.”
Heather Wimbush headed back to South Bend this weekend to watch her son write the latest chapter in his football journey. Maybe she’ll walk away with another football if Brandon does his part exceptionally well.
“He (Brandon) and his mother are really close,” says Tom Rees. “She’s a big part of his motivation, and she’s a big reason why he’s here.
“She has had a great influence on him, she means the world to him and he shows it. That’s no secret.”
Brandon and his mother text frequently and then talk a couple of times per week on the phone.
“She wants to talk Xs and Os, but she doesn’t know all the ins and outs of that–so most of the time we end up just talking about general things,” he says.
Amid all of those Xs and Os, the meetings and practices, the academics and the press conferences, the fan interactions and the social media posts–all involved expect there remains plenty of fun to be had along the way.
“You never forget running out on that field at Notre Dame Stadium,” says Bill Rees. “I think Tommy told me one time he couldn’t feel his feet when he was running out on that field.”
For Brandon Wimbush, all of that is part of just another day in the life of being the quarterback at Notre Dame.