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Notre Dame Football

Environment of Empowerment Has Led to Success for Golden's Defense

April 7, 2024
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If you didn’t know Al Golden, you’d think he would fit into the category of “old school”.

He played for Joe Paterno at Penn State. When he started out coaching as a graduate assistant at Virginia, they were still writing out scouting reports by hand. While the the head coach at Temple and Miami, he wore a shirt and tie on the sidelines.

It doesn’t get much more old school than that.

He became a college head coach back in 2006. Most of Notre Dame’s current football team were infants at that time. It would be easy to assume that Golden might have a difficult time coaching this generation of college football players because of how much has changed with players in the last couple of decades.

That hasn’t proven to be the case at all. After being away from college and working in the NFL for six seasons, Golden returned to college coaching as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He has adapted and thrived in this role.

After his defense finished seventh in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rating), fifth in yards per play, and fourth in points per drive, Golden signed a four year contract extension to stay at Notre Dame rather than return to the NFL.

“I'm excited to be here,” Golden stated. “It's a blessing obviously to be on the staff and work for this institution. And it's even a greater blessing to be able to coach these kids. So, to me that's what's fun. That's what makes you get up, work hard and do all the little things you’ve got to do to make these kids as good as they can be. And that's what's fun.”

One of the things that helped the defense be so successful last season was Golden being able to concentrate on the bigger picture because of his confidence in the staff he’s working with. That’s continued this year with most of the same staff in place and coaches like Max Bullough and Mike MIckens earning promotions as well as special teams coordinator Marty Biagi now assisting with defensive backs.

Golden expressed how much he loved his staff after practice on Saturday. And he’s happy to let his coaches coach.

“Just trust,” Golden answered when asked why he’s able to spend more time bouncing around to different position groups. “I mean, we ask the players to be empowered and to lead and make decisions on the grass, and it's no different for the coaches. If I have a lot of coaching points or a lot of things that I want to talk about with the coaches, we do that upstairs.

“And then when we get down here, just complete trust in what they do, and my role is to support them, to make sure they have everything they need and maybe pull somebody aside after Mick (Mike Mickens) has taught or after Max (Bullough) has taught and say, ‘You know, look at this. Try to do this a little bit better.’ So, from that standpoint, it's been great, and it really allows me to plan ahead and really delve down. And that's been great, just being able to operate that way this spring.”

Even after losing some key players from last season, there’s a belief from those around the program that the 2024 defense has the potential to be even better than it was last fall. To accomplish that, some young talent has to step up and develop.

Golden and his staff’s process has been about teaching. Allow the players to learn without berating them in practice and this approach has connected well with the young players.

“Again, one of our biggest tenets is just empowerment, let them figure things out — teach them how to fish, if you will,” declared Golden. “Don't feed them. Don't stand behind them during practice and tell them to get lined up here or lined up there or ‘you should have done that.’ Don't yell at them during the play or before the play. Let them learn how to do it. Let them go through it and let them learn how to make decisions.

“In other words, don't create an environment where indecision is OK. Let them learn how to make a decision. And then when they come over to the sideline, we help them understand, ‘Well, maybe try this next time’ or ‘That was a great solution, but here's what we would want to do in a game.’ So, that's really how we're based.”

A lot has changed about coaching over the years and Golden is keenly aware of that. The graduate assistants aren’t compiling scouting reports by hand these days.

Golden might be an old dog teaching a bunch of young pups, but his experience has added knowledge to the players without relying on outdated coaching tactics. Taking this approach has been one of the reasons why Notre Dame is set to yet again have one of the best defenses in the country.

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