Sept. 16, 2014
By Renee Peggs
As one of the nation’s top college football assistant coaches and recruiters, University of Notre Dame recruiting coordinator/running backs coach Tony Alford easily could confine his focus to the X’s and O’s. But Alford knows his role is more than just being a football coach.
“I’ve got three sons of my own,” Alford says, “but all the guys out on the field are my kids. Sometimes it seems like I’m parenting them [the Notre Dame football players] more than my own boys, depending on the season. But my role here is much bigger than just teaching the game of football.”
Whether he’s talking about running backs, fellow coaches or his family, Alford understands that part of his responsibility centers around character formation.
“What I’m about is helping people develop into their best selves, holding them to a standard where they achieve excellence–and not just in one area,” Alford says. “To be an excellent human being, [excellence] has to be authentic and all-encompassing. You have to keep raising that standard and not settle for what you’ve already become or achieved. It’s a process of growth and stretching that never ends. That’s what I want my guys to realize and work toward. That’s when I know I’ve done my job and fulfilled my role–when I can look at them and say, `These are really excellent men.'”
Former Irish running back Armando Allen, who signed with the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs as a free agent in 2011 and then was a member of the Chicago Bears from 2011-13, says Alford is rare among coaches.
“Who we were off the field mattered to him probably even more than what we did [during practice or games],” Allen says. “On the field he had high expectations and he led by example. He always came in early, worked hard and worked us hard. But Coach Alford stressed over and over that what he really wanted was to prepare us for life, and that’s why discipline and accountability are so important.”
Allen believes Alford does not measure success in terms of a player’s draft selection or how long he plays in the National Football League. Instead, Alford’s measurement is by what an individual does off the field after he graduates from Notre Dame.
Allen adds that many of the young men that Alford coaches understand and embrace what he teaches.
“Coach Alford’s players present themselves in a different manner,” Allen says. “He teaches us to be humble and to put the unity of the team ahead of our egos. As young men, we need people like him who discipline with understanding.
“A lot of college parents worry about their sons being away, about what they are doing and who they are looking to for direction. Coach Alford absolutely fulfills the role every parent wants and makes them feel comfortable sending their sons to Notre Dame.
“He taught me to [make choices] so that I can be happy about who I am and where I am at, every day and any time in my life. We [his former players] know we can go to him any time with anything. He still puts in a lot of effort to check up on us–he still makes us feel important even though we’ve graduated years ago. Personally, I don’t just like him, I love him.”
TJ Jones, who played wide receiver for the Irish from 2010-13, couldn’t agree more with Allen’s assessment of Alford and how he goes about his business of being more than just a football coach.
“I came to Notre Dame as a 17-year-old kid and gained a starting position [on the football team] almost right away,” Jones says. “Everything before that had always been so easy for me, but as a college freshman, all of a sudden [that totally changed]. Coach Alford could tell some days I was tired and hurting. I felt like I had nothing left in the tank, but he wouldn’t accept that. He kept pushing me harder and harder, toughening me up, not letting me quit. That did more for me than any conditioning or any position drill. That’s what allowed me to out-compete other players. That’s what helped define me as a person.”
What defines Alford?
“Not this,” he answers without a moment’s hesitation.
His gesture all but dismisses the impressive memorabilia collection that covers the walls of his office at the Guglielmino Football Complex.
“Not football, not coaching or recruiting or anything about this office or on the field,” Alford says. “I’m passionate about the game and my role in Notre Dame football, but at the end of the day, this is a job. Understand that my essence and my identity are defined by my relationships.”
Those relationships, when his players are concerned, extend far beyond the field or the practice facility.
Former defensive lineman Louis Nix III, now a nose tackle with the NFL Houston Texans, describes the many ways Alford invested in him from their very first meeting.
“Being recruited [out of high school] is so hard. You’ve got [this parade of] coaches from all over, in your living room, and they’re all throwing around big dreams and big game and this incredible picture of what it would be like to play at their school. A lot of recruits just want to play ball and nothing else matters to them,” Nix says.
“When I met Coach Alford in 2009, I had no idea what Notre Dame was about. Unlike all those other recruiters and coaches, he was a realist. He told me straight up how hard it would be, how tough the academic requirements are. He didn’t apologize for that or try to sugarcoat it. He said it could change my life if I would stick with it.
“My freshman year at Notre Dame was rough. The coursework was more than I had anticipated. But Coach stayed on me about it. Every time I saw him he asked how I was doing. I always said I was fine, but he saw right through that. He finally sat me down and I admitted that I was really homesick, struggling with classes and that I hated not playing. He taught me that day about humility and being part of a team.
“Our relationship didn’t end when I graduated. Coach Alford was a big part of the consistency and the glue that held the team together when [former head coach Charlie] Weis left, and he still reaches out to us on a regular basis. He cares about us, and he continues to mean so much to me,” Nix says.
When it comes to his players’ individual ups and downs, Alford takes both aspects personally, because of his investment in their whole development.
“When they succeed, when they have a great play or a great game, I feel like I’m a part of that,” Alford says. “But the reverse is also true. When they struggle or falter, I’m second-guessing myself. Where did I fail them, what should I have done differently, what did I miss, how do I need to change to make sure this doesn’t happen again? I take responsibility and hold myself accountable in those situations. That way we keep each other in check.”
As a man of integrity, Alford does not demand anything of his players that he does not first model and demonstrate for them. Among his assets you’ll find tenacity, discipline and even the humility of starting from the ground up.
“I didn’t know anything about being a receiver when I made the switch to the slot in the spread offense,” says former Irish standout Theo Riddick. “It was a huge process. Coach Alford literally had to teach me everything from the very beginning.
“Funny thing is, he had never coached receivers before that year (2010), so we were in it together. That absolutely strengthened our bond. He was upbeat and positive when I was grumpy and frustrated. He taught me consistency and [getting past a bad attitude]. I carry that with me.”
Riddick, now in his second season with the NFL Detroit Lions, sounds sheepish but sincere as he adds, “Even from miles away, I can still feel his presence. That may sound corny, but he’s my role model.”
Speaking of which, Alford’s investment in his football players pays reciprocal dividends. His young sons, Rylan (13) and Kyler and Braydon (both 9), spend considerable time around the Irish–during practice, at games, on the sidelines and in the locker room.
“I don’t worry about them for a second,” Alford says. “How rare is it to trust your own children with a bunch of 19-to-20-year-old college football players? But I know my guys, and I trust in their character, that they will never do or say or present anything of a questionable nature around the Alford kids. I treat [the team members] with respect, and they pay it right back to my family. I treasure that.”
Football is an Alford-family legacy. His father, Robert Alford Sr., became a football player after his own brothers (Tony’s uncles) convinced him to follow in their footsteps. Lettering all four years in high school, Robert Sr. earned a football scholarship to Kent State where he was an All-American, had a brief stint as a lineman with the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers and coached high school football in Ohio for 10 years.
As coaches’ sons, Tony and his brothers grew up on the gridiron. “My earliest memories,” Alford says, “are of hanging on to my dad’s belt loop and following him around the sidelines.”
Tony and his younger brother Aaron both played football for Colorado State before becoming coaches themselves. All three of Aaron’s sons are football players. Tony’s eldest plays middle-school football in Granger, Ind.
“Our middle son, Kyler, is into computers and music, which is great,” Tony says. “My wife and I absolutely encourage and support him in those interests. Our other sons, Rylan and Braydon, really want to play football, but we’re not letting Braydon do that just yet. He’s still too little.”
If hindsight is 20/20, then so apparently is fatherly protectiveness gained from experience.
“My older brother (Rob Jr.) and I used to absolutely crush Aaron when we were kids. We were ruthless.” Although Tony laughs when he offers this, there is a hint of remorse emerges as he filters his memory through the lens of fatherhood.
“Aaron was so much smaller than we were, but he looked up to us and loved to play with us. We would make him stand under the basketball hoop and take the charge while we dunked over him, and if he moved we’d just pound him. We’d play full-tackle football in the yard and knock the crap out of him. But he was just so excited and he took it all in stride,” Alford says with a chuckle.
“One time, our mom left [Rob and me] in charge of Aaron while she went out for a bit. That was a big mistake. We knew we weren’t supposed to slide down the stairs on pillows, but we wanted to see if it would work, so we made Aaron try it first. He ended up wiping out really bad, but we told him if he cried or complained to our mother, he couldn’t play with us anymore. God bless him, he went a day and a half…
“Mom took him to the hospital because he was in so much pain. He had a broken wrist. Poor kid, he kept it quiet as long as he could because he admired (and feared) us that much. But ohhh, there was hell to pay in our house after he got fixed up! Wow….”
Apparently, Mrs. Alford is not a woman with whom to be trifled.
But Tony admits to being the better for it.
“Both my mom and my dad modeled [excellence in their parenting]. I never once had to question their love for me. I absolutely believe that what they did and the choices they made were to the best of their abilities. If my sons can look back when they’re in their 40s and say the same about me, then that is the greatest success I could ever hope for.”
Just as his coaching and parenting extend beyond the football field, even Alford’s love for his family goes beyond the bonds of blood.
“Coach Alford is just like a father to me,” says TJ Jones. Son of the late Andre Jones, defensive end for the 1988 national championship Fighting Irish football team, TJ was able to reach out with compassionate understanding when Alford’s father passed four years ago.
“That was family for me,” says TJ. “My father was close to Coach Alford and to his father. Our families spent a lot of time together. Coach knew how my father thought and how he would want me to be raised. He has always been there for me.”
What goes around, comes around.
When his brother Aaron died suddenly a year ago, Tony received back from the players and coaches and family members to whom he has always given so much.
“This place… you set foot on this campus and within five minutes you know there’s something different, something special. That has never been clearer to me than after I lost my brother.
“The Notre Dame community, my guys, Father John (Jenkins, University president), the coaching staff and especially Brian and Paqui (Kelly) were absolutely amazing in their support,” Alford says, shaking his head. “It was unbelievable. What’s even more unbelievable is that it’s still going, even a year later.”
Current running back, team co-captain and senior Cam McDaniel parks his incredulity elsewhere.
“Coach Alford has accomplished this near-impossible feat of building cohesiveness and reducing egos in the running back unit in order to achieve the best overall success for the team,” McDaniel says of the triumvirate that is now sharing playing time.
“He has consistently maintained an attitude that is positive and uplifting, even when we knew he would rather be with his family. I love him. We love him and we want to do anything we can for him at any time.
McDaniel admits he and his coach may butt heads from time to time, but never at the expense of interfering with the team dynamic that exists. “We all operate with an intentionality to give our best and to do what is best for each other,” McDaniel says. “He (Coach Alford) models going the extra mile. If we reciprocate that, it’s because we learned it from him.”
Could there be any better advertisement for a collegiate football program?
“When I recruit, I don’t have to sell the University of Notre Dame,” Alford says. “I try to get [prospects and their families] on campus to experience it for themselves. I tell them what the Notre Dame family has meant to my family and me. That touches people. That reaches high school players and their parents in a way that few other schools can reach them. If they’re the kind of people who are looking for this kind of support and love while their son plays collegiate football, then Notre Dame is absolutely the best place for them to be.”
With discipline in one hand and love in the other, Tony Alford is turning out young men who don’t just play like champions today. They live like champions every day.
— ND —