SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Tommy Rees keeps a low profile in his second stint at Notre Dame. Early to bed, early to rise and mostly work in between.
It is not the life of a typical 24-year-old, but the former Fighting Irish quarterback has already lived in the spotlight in South Bend and has no desire to return.
Rees is finishing his first spring as Notre Dame’s quarterback coach, part of a massive staff overhaul by coach Brian Kelly after the Irish went 4-8 last season.
“I always kind of thought I’d end up back here,” Rees said. “I didn’t think it would be so soon after I was done.”
Rees completed a most unlikely career at Notre Dame in 2013. He left as one of the most productive quarterbacks in school history – if not one of the most appreciated. A leftover Charlie Weis recruit out of the Chicago suburbs, Rees was part of Kelly’s first signing class at Notre Dame. He was not a guy Kelly expected to play in 47 games, starting 31. But Rees maxed out his physical skills, and time and again circumstances led to the Fighting Irish turning to him to lead the team.
He threw for 7,670 yards and 61 touchdowns, and ended up with his name near the top of the charts in almost two dozen Notre Dame passing categories. Rees was also on the receiving end of plenty of scorn from fans when the Irish faltered.
Rees did not grow up a Notre Dame fan. His connection to the school was built through the bond he made with coaches and teammates. That’s what drew him back to South Bend.
“It is hard to be the quarterback here,” Rees said. “You go through ups and down. You’ve got to be mentally tough and mentally strong. You’ve got to have an extreme amount of confidence to be able to operate and believe in yourself and stay in that moment. For me, that came from my teammates.”
Rees’ understanding of just how hard the job is a big part of why Kelly hired him.
“Could we have found a quarterback (coach) with a deeper resume?” Kelly asked, know the answer. “But they would not have understood Notre Dame. They would have not understood playing as a freshman. They would not have understood all the intangibles that Tommy has that he can bring to the position. And the knowledge of who I am as a coach and what my expectations are and the offense.”
Rees tells his quarterbacks, especially Brandon Wimbush, the talented junior heading into his first season as a starter, to identify the people they can trust and use them as sources of confidence.
“It’s not as much about the people that are going to come to the game. One week they love you, the next ….,” Rees said, not needing to finish the sentence. “That’s not what Notre Dame’s about. Notre Dame’s about the people here that pour in everything they got to make sure this program is where it needs to be.”
Rees came to Notre Dame after spending last season as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working under wide receivers coach Nick Sirianni. He started in coaching the year before as a graduate assistant for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern.
“I think he’s going to be a rock star in this profession,” Fitzgerald said.
Rees was hired by Kelly to fill a spot on staff that did not exist in anticipation of a new rule being passed that will expand coaching rosters from nine to 10 full-time assistants in Division I. Last week, the rule was endorsed though it won’t take effect before January.
Because of that Rees, as with all grad assistants, will not be allowed to recruit off campus until next year. Otherwise, his role is exactly what it was when he was hired.
Rees is sporting an in-progress beard these days, but he can still pass for a student. There are three current Fighting Irish players who were freshmen on the team when Rees was a senior.
“They don’t know if they have to call me Coach or Tommy,” Rees said.
He said he doesn’t do much walking around campus and he has no desire to slip back into a college lifestyle. He is currently living in a condo owned by Kelly, but the weekend of the spring game he has to stay with relatives while Kelly’s parents are in town.
When he was living in Chicago and working at Northwestern, Rees said he was able to live it up. In South Bend, that could be awkward, and he knows how things can go wrong. In 2012, Rees was arrested for misdemeanor resisting arrest and under-age drinking outside an off-campus party.
“I don’t want to see the players,” Rees said. “I don’t want to put myself in a bad situation. The other part of it is to a certain extent South Bend’s a small town. So if I go somewhere there’s a better chance than not that someone’s going to recognize me or something.
“Most important thing to me right now is this job. So I come work, I eat dinner and I go to sleep. That’s pretty much what I do.”
AP freelance writer Matt Fortuna contributed to this report.
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