Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Tommy On The Spot: Competitive Rees Maxes QBs

August 31, 2019

Tommy Rees is right there, just behind the center’s hip and matching Ian Book step-for-step.

It is simultaneously an instructional moment and a revealing one: Rees competes at everything, even his own ability to maximize first-hand teaching.

Maybe its genesis best traces to a high school rivalry game against Libertyville, which sounds like a setting for Superman but this night is when a sophomore Rees stamps command of his Lake Forest (Ill.) offense.

“Tommy was just such a great competitor, always,” said Chuck Spagnoli, who took the mantle of the Lake Forest program in the early 2000s. “When Tommy was a sophomore, the first four games of his sophomore season, we didn’t start him. That was a huge mistake on my part; I’ll tell you that to my grave.

“But his first start, against our school rival Libertyville, which we hadn’t beaten for several years, he took us to overtime, helped us score a touchdown that got it to overtime, and put us in the end zone in overtime and led us to victory. It felt like watching him grow up in about four seconds right before our eyes.”

Rees, after concluding record-setting careers first at Lake Forest and then at Notre Dame, is in his third season as his alma mater’s quarterbacks coach. He’s growing, learning; still assembling his coaching identity from his time under Brian Kelly as first player and now coach, as well as Rees’ coaching beginnings at Northwestern and the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.

“You always push yourself to learn more,” said Rees, whose name adorns the top-5 of nearly two dozen Irish passing categories. “The more you’re around people that have been in this profession a long time, the more you’re able to do that.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great coaches on this staff, on other staffs, to try to gain as much knowledge from them as I can. I think you learn about the guys in your room ... people learn differently. You need to focus on individuals. If it’s clicking for Ian, is it clicking for Phil? If there’s a different way to present something that’s going to make sense to another guy in the room, how do you do that? I think there are times when you’ve got to be tough and demanding and really push people and there are times when you get off the field you can step back and have more of a conversation about what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Book, preparing for his 11th career start but his first season-opening nod as the Irish visit Louisville Monday night, is perhaps an iteration of Tommy Rees 2.0. The fourth-year junior makes few mistakes, his career efficiency rating hovering above 147, and carries with him a pervasive confidence that fuels Notre Dame’s quest for a return trip to the College Football Playoffs.

“I can’t give enough credit to Coach Rees,” said Book, just 11 interceptions in 389 career pass attempts and 27 total touchdowns. “He has helped me tremendously since the day he’s gotten here, through confidence, X’s and O’s and what it’s like to be the Notre Dame quarterback. He’s done it. He’s lived it.

“I feel truly honored to be able to be coached by Coach Rees; I love that it’s someone who’s done it himself. I think that helps tremendously. I can’t give enough credit to him. Every day I learn something new with him, he’s willing to work with me.”

To wit, the now-inseparable pair do not merely limit their football studies to the Irish or their opponents; sometimes, pro ball becomes required viewing for them.

“We’ll watch an NFL game together, I’ll have questions,” Book said. “He’s always there, he knows what’s going on; he’s extremely smart.

“He’s someone I totally rely on and totally trust and know he’s someone I can go to with any question.”

Rees builds his relationships on experience, honesty and knowledge still being accumulated through Rees’ own growth, visits with NFL coaches such as close friend and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni or, earlier this year, the staff of Matt Nagy’s Chicago Bears.

“I think if you build a good relationship with the guys in your room, they know when the coaching gets hard that it’s not a personal attack,” said the 27-year-old Rees, whose father, Bill, is Notre Dame’s Director of Scouting and owns more than 40 years’ experience in college and pro football. “It’s more of we’re trying to get things right. I think the first thing is building that strong relationship with the guys in the room and then on the field I kind of just let my emotions take over at times.

“If I feel like it needs to be pushed or we need to ramp up the energy a little bit, you kind of just have a feel for how your guys are going to respond to that and you react accordingly.”

For the 6-foot, 1/8-inch Book, it is about utilizing the sum of his quarterbacking skills and playing with the confidence that derives from a single question from Rees: Why can’t you be Drew Brees?

“Oh yeah. There’s been a couple times he’s said a couple key words I’ve never forgotten,” Book said. “They’ve always happened or came to light or came true. It just shows how much he believes in me and how much he knows.

“There’s been a couple times he’s said some things like [‘Why can’t you be Drew Brees?’] and, next thing you know, it’s happened. And he’s like, ‘I told you so. The hard work’s paying off.’ And he pushes me every day. He’s never let up. I appreciate him for that.”

It’s Rees’ nature. Cheating the game of football? That just isn’t an option.

“His senior year, I did a poor job coaching the team and the last week we were playing for nothing. No playoffs, nothing,” Spagnoli recalled. “Tommy had pneumonia that week and we get to the game on Friday, it’s raining sideways and we played literally in about three inches of water. But there was no way he was not gonna play in that game.

“They’re gonna get coached, but he’s gonna treat them honestly and with respect. Tommy deals in reality. He’s going to coach these kids and be friends with them the rest of his life because of the relationships he builds.”

Because really, day after day, Rees is right there: coaching and competing alongside his players.

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