At the end of the 2021 season, West Virginia head football coach Neal Brown knew his offense needed to get better.
He had spent the campaign working in concert with offensive coordinator Gerad Parker, sometimes calling the plays himself and sometimes having Parker call them. West Virginia ranked 95th of 130 FBS teams in yards per play.
Brown’s solution was to bring in former USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to run the offense and call the plays, leaving Parker as the co-offensive coordinator and No. 2 on the offensive staff. Less than a month after that change was announced, Parker departed West Virginia to become Notre Dame’s tight ends coach.
Hold that thought.
In December, Harrell left West Virginia after one season to become the new offensive coordinator at Purdue for first-time head coach Ryan Walters, taking over an offense that was losing its All-Big Ten quarterback, All-American wide receiver and future NFL tight end.
Notre Dame, by contrast, went into its search for an offensive coordinator to replace Tommy Rees this month with the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman, on its roster, plus a strong stable of running backs and tight ends, a young, talented wide receiver room, and one of the best tackles in the country in Joe Alt.
Moreover, Notre Dame went a relatively promising 9-4 in coach Marcus Freeman’s first season, while Walters has never been a head coach before.
With that foundation, the Irish and Freeman announced Saturday the hire of … Gerad Parker.
Notre Dame’s road to ending up with an offensive coordinator who 13 months before had been quasi-demoted at West Virginia was circuitous and raises questions about not only the university’s commitment to competing at the highest level of the sport but also about Freeman’s decision-making process.
Some background: Early in the coordinator search, the Irish courted Kansas State offensive coordinator Collin Klein and Utah coordinator Andy Ludwig.
Klein opted to stay at his alma mater and Notre Dame zeroed in on Ludwig, a perfectly acceptable choice whose run-first, pro-style offense beat USC twice last season.
Freeman got deep into the process of hiring Ludwig, going so far as to take him to an Irish hockey game in full view of the public.
But Ludwig was not hired at Notre Dame, reportedly because his buyout at Utah – in excess of $2 million – was an obstacle for the Irish.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, in a mass email to a group of concerned fans in the wake of Ludwig remaining at Utah, insisted Notre Dame was willing to pay the buyout and the money was not the issue. Not really, anyway.
“To the extent the buyout was an ‘obstacle’ in the case of one candidate, that was true of a brief period of time only because of conflicting information that had been provided to us regarding the amount and mechanics of the buyout,” Swarbrick wrote. “However, it was an obstacle we knew could be quickly resolved.”
But Ludwig is still in Utah, not South Bend. And sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel the buyout was the issue, so apparently it was not resolved quickly enough.
National championship contenders pay without blinking to get the best coaches available. Notre Dame blinked, at least momentarily, and that was long enough.
With Ludwig out of the running, the onus returned to Freeman to find another qualified candidate. Though the Irish head coach has a distinct idea of what he wants Notre Dame’s offense to look like – pro-style, run-based, capable of playing from multiple tempos and formations – there was no shortage of coaches who would have jumped at the chance to lead an offense loaded with talent for a program with College Football Playoff aspirations.
But after a “long, tough” interview with Parker, Freeman believed he had found his man. The second-year coach admitted that Parker’s familiarity with Notre Dame’s terminology and personnel, his philosophical agreement with the head coach on the right direction for the offense and the coaches’ close personal ties – they were on staff together at Purdue from 2013 to 2016 – were all elements in favor of Parker’s hire.
Of course, there are advantages to an internal hire. Freeman, who received a promotion from defensive coordinator to head coach at Notre Dame, knows that as well as anyone.
But did Freeman hire Parker because Parker was the best remaining candidate for the job or did he settle for someone with whom he was comfortable after a couple of public swings and misses?
Freeman wants everyone to believe it’s the former, of course.
“It was halfway through the interview and my mind was made up,” Freeman said. “I said, ‘This is our next offensive coordinator.’ ”
To be clear, Parker might do wonders with Notre Dame’s offense. Maybe Brown was more of the problem in West Virginia’s relatively punchless attack than Parker and the 42-year-old former Kentucky wide receiver will be able to get the most out of the significant talent the Irish have placed under his command.
Much comes down to how much one trusts Freeman’s football instincts. He was hired as head coach in part for his reputed talent as a motivator and relationship-builder and it’s possible he sees something in Parker others have missed. But in hiring a former colleague with little track record of success as a play-caller, Freeman is taking a significant risk.
If the offense looks disjointed this fall, deserved scrutiny will be placed not only on Parker, but on the head coach who could not top the hire made by Purdue.
Dylan Sinn covers college sports for The Journal Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.