If there’s one candidate who perfectly fits the now vacant Northwestern offensive coordinator position, it’s Notre Dame quarterbacks Tommy Rees, (or as he’s known today Tom Rees). He actually grew up a Northwestern fan in very nearby Lake Forest, Illinois and he already has a good relationship with NU Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Before we get to all that is right with Rees (we had an exclusive with him, and talked NU somewhat during 2018 Notre Dame Media Day), we do need to take some time to reflect on the Mick McCall era; which just ended. No one who makes free college football expert picks saw the rise of NU in 2018, when they went 8-1 in the league and won the Big Ten West division. Likewise no one in the prediction and forecasting business saw fall this season, in which they finished in last place, just 1-8 in conference play.
However, it happened, and now it’s time to move on. It’s for the best that McCall and NU part ways. In the words of Whitney Houston “didn’t we almost have it all?” (in the power ballad titled by that lyric). As Houston goes on to sing in that powerful break-up song, “the ride with you was worth the fall, my friend.”
This is kind of how I imagine all high profile firings go in the world of big money sports- the conversation evokes lyrics from well known breaking up ballads. The guy getting fired says to the guy doing the firing- “don’t speak, cuz I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t need your reasons. Don’t tell me cuz it hurts.” (sorry Gwen Stefani, No Doubt).
But seriously, under McCall’s offenses (and later in spite of them) NU won bowl games in 2012 (ending a 64-year-drought) and 2016-18.
Prior to 2012, NU had one bowl win in their entire history.
“Mick was one of the first hires I made when given the honor of leading this program, and has been a trusted colleague and loyal friend for almost my entire tenure,” reads a statement attributed to Fitzgerald.
“He’s guided our offense through unquestionably one of the most successful periods in Wildcats history, with four bowl championships and nine postseason appearances. Mick recruited and coached great student-athletes and exceptional young men who have made the Northwestern community proud in so many ways after graduation.”
McCall’s offenses have been in significant decline since 2014, and this year was about as nadir as a nadir can be, but you must remember the highs as well.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished at Northwestern, and the success I’ve contributed to throughout my career,” reads McCall’s statements.
“It’s been a privilege to represent this University, and work alongside some of the best student-athletes, coaches and staff I’ve encountered in my career. I’ll forever be indebted to Pat Fitzgerald and Jim Phillips for giving me this opportunity. A piece of my family and me will always belong to Evanston and Chicago.”
Fitz and McCall were close over the course of his 12 years in Evanston, but now we’ve come to the end of the road.
And unlike the situation described by Boyz II Men, we have to let go and this is natural.
This decision should have been made at least two, if not three years ago, but hey better late than never. You know the #JettisonRussell (the Cubs FINALLY getting rid of Addison Russell today) rule.
The transition from Mick McCall to Tommy Rees might embody the concept of old school giving way to new school. McCall is age 61 while Rees is just 27. Of course, this is the main knock on him- inexperience, especially so in play-calling. However, he does come from a coach pedigree as his father, Bill Rees is the director of scouting at Notre Dame.
Rees the elder was also previously the coordinator of player personnel and assistant director of football operations at Northwestern.
Much like Rees the younger, Bill began his collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant at Northwestern. He held the position in 1976-77 before serving one year as an assistant coach for the Wildcats in 1978. He earned a master’s degree in education administration from Northwestern in 1977.
As for Tommy Rees, he attended a lot of Wildcats games in his youth, and NU was a factor in his recruiting process before he eventually decided on Notre Dame. Once the Wildcats committed to Trevor Siemian, Rees looked elsewhere.
He ended up leaving South Bend among the top five in 21 different single-game, single-season or career passing categories, including the highest career pass completion percentage in school history.
The new #Northwestern OC should be, ideally, Notre Dame QB Coach Tommy Rees. He's a Lake Forest native that grew up a Cats fan, and he already has experience as an assistant on Fitz's staff. His stock is rising, and he's going to get an offensive coordinator job somewhere soon https://t.co/T5ww3CxeWX
— Paul M. Banks??? (@PaulMBanks) December 1, 2019
His sophomore year, 2011, he had a 66% completion rate in 411 attempts. He threw for 27 TDs his senior season of 2013. He finished his collegiate career second in ND history in TD passes, third in passing yardage.
And we’ve seen him help to rapidly accelerate the progress of current ND signal caller Ian Book, who has put a 56-17 TD-INT ratio in two years and change as a starter. Book was one of only two quarterbacks in the entire FBS to finish this season with 2,500+ yards passing, 30 touchdown passes and 500+ yards rushing. Book has only lost three games as a starter for the Irish, and he led the team to a College Football Playoff berth last season.
Rees actually began his coaching career at Northwestern as a graduate assistant in 2015, before joining the San Diego Chargers for one year as an offensive assistant. In 2017, he assumed his current position on before joining Brian Kelly’s staff.
“Obviously, Chicago been home for me, somewhere I have a lot of pride in, so getting to play there will be a lot of fun for me,” said Rees during our exclusive conversation.
“I learned a lot from Coach Fitz, he’s someone who’s been a great mentor to me, and a great role model to a lot of coaches that go through Northwestern,” said Rees, who went 23-8 as the Fighting Irish starting quarterback.
Tommy Rees is just like Fitzgerald, someone fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to coach at his alma mater.
“He’s a tremendous human being and he’s been a great role model for me,” Rees added.
Northwestern has to go bold and innovate again; like they did back in 2000. That was the year that then coach Randy Walker, Fitz’s mentor, basically made the spread-option offense a thing. NU started the trend of the spread, but they went from cutting-edge to stagnant to falling way behind.
Some people think Rees is not ready for a gig like this yet, but that doesn’t seem to be hurting his stock right now. He’s regarded to be a great recruiter and well-liked by his players. There is talk that if current OC Chip Long leaves ND, and Kelly decides to go in house with his successor, the job could be Rees’ to lose.
There is talk that South Carolina is potentially interested as well.
Overall, his commodity value in the coaching carousel market seems to be rapidly rising, so this might be the best chance for Fitz to try and woo him. We already know that the two men are close.
Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation.Follow paulmbanks