Neither coach will admit it, but Mike Denbrock and Kerry Cooks have a chance to show their worth in the Pinstripe Bowl.
NEW YORK — Minutes after Rutgers offensive and defensive coordinators cleared the interview room at Yankee Stadium, their Notre Dame counterparts filtered in.
But in place of Chuck Martin’s wisecracks and Bob Diaco’s intensity were two different but familiar faces under a much brighter spotlight.
Mike Denbrock sat behind the “Notre Dame Interim Offensive Coordinators” place card. Kerry Cooks sat to his left, behind a similar card for the interim defensive coordinator.
In the wake of Martin and Diaco leaving to pursue head coaching gigs elsewhere, the outside wide receiver coach and safety coach were each bumped up to fill the holes for the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers.
Neither Denbrock nor Cooks will admit that this game has any significance beyond an opportunity to send the seniors out with a win. But there’s a very real chance that the Pinstripe Bowl will serve as an audition stage for both coaches to claim those roles full-time.
“We haven’t even broached or talked about any of that stuff that I know people are wondering about,” Denbrock said of his future. “I tried to step into a pretty big pair of shoes that have done a nice job with the offense and tried to fill that void as much as I can so the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and what we’re doing so we can go out and win.”
Cooks said he’ll leave the big-picture talk to head coach Brian Kelly.
“What happens after this? That’s a Coach Kelly question,” Cooks said. “I know that I love coaching, I love developing young talent. So whatever role I am in, I am going to embrace that role.
I think it’s a tremendous opportunity moving forward. Whatever happens after this game, I can always say I was a defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, and I can point back and say there it is right there for the Rutgers game.”
Though Kelly, Cooks and Denbrock have worked to make sure there are no major schematic changes between the first 12 games and the final contest, players have noticed slight differences at practices.
“Less yelling,” receiver TJ Jones said, laughing. “A lot less yelling. Scheme-wise, our offense really hasn’t changed.”
Cornerback Bennett Jackson said the atmosphere is significantly more laid back on the defensive side of the ball in Diaco’s absence.
“I would say it’s a little bit looser,” Jackson said. “Coach Diaco is a very, very intense man and a lot of the guys I wouldn’t say fear them, but if he wants you to run off the field, you’d run off the field.”
Kelly hasn’t mentioned if he plans to hire from within or not, but arguments in favor of both coaches are compelling.
Denbrock, like Martin before him, coached under Kelly at Grand Valley State, where he was an offensive coordinator from 1992-1995. He coached tight ends at Notre Dame in 2011 and 2012 moved to outside receivers and passing game coordinator in 2012.
Also like Martin, Denbrock has experience on the defensive side of the ball. He was GVSU’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 1996-1998.
“I’ve always been an offensive coach and always thought I’d end up on the offensive side of the ball,” Denbrock said. “The knowledge I gained from being on the defensive side is invaluable.”
However, Charley Molnar may complicate things for Denbrock. Molnar served as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator for two years before departing for the head coaching job at UMass.
UMass announced Thursday, Dec. 26, that it fired Molnar which could free Molnar up to reclaim his old title at Notre Dame.
Ultimately, Denbrock’s history with Kelly might be his “in.” Denbrock says the relationship boils down to trust.
“I think he trusts me and knows that everything I do, I do with the idea of making Notre Dame football better,” Denbrock said. “From my standpoint, it’s a loyal friendship first and a working relationship that has stood the test of time.”
Cooks, like Diaco, is a relatively young, Iowa product who was part of Notre Dame’s defensive overhaul in the past couple of years.
Cooks already has the credentials, too. He was named co-defensive coordinator after the 2011 season, the same time Diaco was named associate head coach. Cooks has coached the linebackers and in the secondary since his arrival in 2010.
“This is an opportunity that I am going to embrace,” he said. “I am going to enjoy the moment. And whatever happens after that, we’ll see. We’ll take it from there.”