Tommy Rees and the Relentless Pursuit

By Claire Kramer

There’s a time to move on. Tommy Rees did. 

After an illustrious career as starting quarterback for the Irish, Rees put the Golden Dome in the rearview as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Notre Dame lore, just the third signal caller in Irish records to eclipse the 3,000-yard passing mark in a season and reigning program Offensive Player of the Year. 

He headed to Northwestern and then the San Diego Chargers, beginning his rise through the coaching ranks as an offensive assistant. The former QB1 at Our Lady’s University now spent hours in meeting rooms with coaches instead of playing for them, overseeing drills instead of running them, working out of an office instead of a locker room. And all the way, he picked up pieces of wisdom that would influence his career, like the emphasis on attention to detail from Chargers head coach Mike McCoy and his staff. 

“His attention to detail on the littlest things was incredible, and something that, when I did the work, I learned how much detail and pride it took to make sure to do those things right,” Rees explained, noting that his direct supervisor in San Diego, current Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, displayed this meticulosity in a way that Rees tries to emulate. 

“The process [Sirianni] went through in studying the opponent and developing a game plan, the way he interacts with players, but also the way his mind was constantly on football, and it was constantly on, ‘How do I get guys better?’ and, ‘If I’m watching something, I’m watching it with a purpose. If I find something, I’m going to share with the players immediately,’” the newly-minted John and Bobbie Arlotta Family Offensive Coordinator at Notre Dame remembered. 

And beyond the Xs and Os, he took an important coaching lesson from Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. 

“You don’t have to be anybody that you’re not,” Rees noted. “You really can approach the day being the same person, so your guys know what to expect. That’s something that I’ve tried to remind myself every day over the last three or four years: Just be the same guy every day, show up to work, and your staff and your players know what to expect.”

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Photo courtesy Los Angeles Chargers

. . .

So, there’s a time to move on. 

Moving on helps you elevate, teaches you new lessons, exposes you to unique processes and methods. 

Moving on can also bring you right back home, if home is a place to grow. 

As a high school recruit, finding home at Notre Dame proved instant for a young Tommy Rees. 

“There was just something in the spirit of people and something in the air that reminded me of where I was from, and the gut feeling at the time was just that, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be,’” Rees said. “As I’ve grown at Notre Dame and learned a lot here, being surrounded with people who have the same mission and the same goals and people that are driven towards excellence is something that is pretty consistent across campus.”

Armed with seasons on the coaching side, a lifetime of experience on the field and a new, mature name – ‘Tom’ – Rees returned to Notre Dame in 2017 to lead the quarterbacks. He coached with the knowledge of what it’s like to run out of the tunnel on Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium. He coached with the emphasis on attention to detail that he learned from McCoy and Sirianni and the attitude from Fitzgerald. He coached with a knowledge of the game that made his players take notice. 

“That’s one of his best skills,” current Irish quarterback Ian Book said. “He’s super smart, and his memory is ridiculous. He can remember plays from back when he played. He sees the field. He understands what defenses will do to stop what we want to do, and vice versa. 

“Everything I’ve learned has been from him.”

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Prior to the 2019 Camping World Bowl, offensive play-calling duties were turned over to Rees. 

“Obviously, the bowl game was kind of a trial run, but I tried not to treat it that way,” the former quarterback coach remembered. “I understood what we were trying to accomplish, but at the same time, I just handled my business as usual.”

Handle it he did, as the Irish downed Iowa State, 33-9, in a victory that saw Book go 20-for-28 for 247 yards and a touchdown, including 146 yards to MVP Chase Claypool, who also caught the scoring pass. Senior running back Tony Jones Jr., rushed for 135 yards, including an 84-yard touchdown run that was the longest in school bowl history and was a Camping World Bowl record. 

Rees’ promotion to offensive coordinator didn’t come to fruition until January 14, 2020. 

“After an extensive national search, I’m proud to name Tom Rees our next offensive coordinator,” said Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly. “Tom’s ability to connect with our players and staff and accepting and embracing the incredible opportunity in being the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame made him the right choice. While Tom’s leadership ability and knowledge of the game was evident, it was his humble approach to his own development and desire to continue to grow and learn that were also key factors that set him apart in a talented pool of candidates.”

And, within hours, another change was made. “Tommy.” 

. . .

From the outset, the philosophy was clear. 

“There’s a relentlessness in the way I’m approaching things,” Rees offered. “There’s a very directed vision and attention to detail that I want to establish within the offense. 

“There’s a larger vision here and a culture that we want in terms of total buy-in amongst the team,” he continued. “I’m trying to get across to the offense that it’s not about me, it’s not about other coaches or an individual player. It’s about the group as a whole. 

“It’s really important that our 55 guys all have the same set of eyes going toward one goal, that we all understand how we’re going to get there and the process that it takes.”

Part of this comes with a physical commitment: get every offensive player in one room, and put every offensive coach in front of the entire group. 

“We’re on the same page, and you get to see exactly what everyone is doing,” offensive lineman Robert Hainsey noted. “We’ll be in the room and talk about who’s doing what. I get to know what the running backs and tight ends are doing, and not just the O-Line, so that’s helpful, because then I can adjust. 

“In my mind, I’m like, ‘OK, if this is what they’re doing, how can I make this the easiest for them?’ It’s been really helpful,” Hainsey added. 

“If you only know your job, you don’t fully grasp the whole concept,” Book attested. “If any situation happens in a game, you wouldn’t be able to adjust because you wouldn’t truly know what’s going on everywhere. Using the same verbiage is huge, especially as a quarterback. All of our routes are called the same thing.”

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Before restrictions were put in place due to COVID-19, the Irish worked in one spring practice. Already, they could see the pursuit begin to pay off. 

“Coach Kelly said it was one of the best first spring practices he’d ever seen,” Book remembered. “I think we need to get more into the season to totally fill that out, but we put in some new formations, some new names for routes and I don’t think there were any big mental mistakes on the first day.”

“With the formation calls and play calls, I know exactly what the offense is doing,” Hainsey added. 

As restrictions were introduced, and all returned to their homes, the work didn’t stop. Prior to the spring season even beginning, Rees said he learned to put a plan together early, so that it could be followed as closely as possible. Even with changes no one saw coming, relentlessness doesn’t take a break. 

“As I’m working and I see something on film, I’m not hesitant to take a quick video on my phone and make sure the players see it just to keep them engaged,” Rees explained. “They can be anywhere from an opponent we’re studying or an NFL game we’re looking at, just to keep their mind going and thinking about football.”

In addition to the film tidbits, the offensive coordinator has placed an emphasis on putting student-athletes in a position to succeed, while identifying specifics on which to improve to make them more complete players. These are discussed in individual meetings with each player. 

“I believe in maximizing your player’s ability,” Rees shared. “We’re going to make sure our guys do what they’re good at. At the same time, It’s our job as coaches to develop areas that need improvement.”

This transparency and acceptance of a player’s skill, Rees noted, helps to build trust in the coaching staff and the direction of the offense. 

“When you’re asking them to do something that they are comfortable with, they’re going to buy in and take ownership of that, and then, as you continue to go down that path, you work with them to develop other parts of their game,” the former player added. “As coaches, that’s our job, and as leader of the offense, it’s my job to make sure that we put our players in positions to make plays and be successful.”

As the remote spring preparations continue, the offense is utilizing calls from the whole group, from coaches, from position groups and from SWAT teams. While they are productive, according to Hainsey, the Irish can’t wait to get back on the field in the fall. 

“I’m just looking forward to being back with the guys, everyone being on the same page, doing their job,” the rising senior shared. “We have all five of us [offensive linemen] back up front and some great young playmakers on the outside. We have Ian back, our running backs are studs and our tight end group is as good as it’s ever been. We just have guys that are going to make plays.

“When we’re on the same page like this, there’s no defense that could stop us.”

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