This interview between former Vanderbilt head football coach Gerry DiNardo and Bill Traughber is exclusive to VUCommodores.com and Commodore History Corner.
In the life of a college football coach the experiences will combine the highs and the lows. There will be good days as there will be bad days. Former Vanderbilt head football coach Gerry DiNardo knew this very well being part of a national championship team and associated with losing teams.
DiNardo was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and began playing football in the Pop Warner League at age nine. He attended grade school at Our Lady of Grace, a Catholic parochial school in Queens. Later he enrolled in high school at St. Francis Prep, a traditional all-boys Catholic high school in Brooklyn. DiNardo participated in football, rugby and the field events in track.
“I struggled to be a starter in football until I was a senior in high school,” DiNardo said recently. “That is one of the reasons I went to a prep school after high school. I played in a great program with great teachers and coaches and I made many friends. It was a very traditional well-known high school. Two of my older brothers had gone to school there. One of my brothers had a lot of success playing football there. It was a great experience.
“We got on the subway each morning at 6:30 a.m., and school started at 7:30. It was a way of life. If you went to the public schools it was a little easier as far as getting there. Our family was more inclined to be a part of the parochial schools. It was a good fit for me.
“Up until my senior year I played all different positions in football. I played quarterback, running back and in the secondary. I started to grow late in high school. At that point I moved to the offensive line. I was actually a quarterback until my junior year in high school. I went from a quarterback to an offensive lineman.”
DiNardo, 56, did not attract any attention from college coaches to continue the game he cherished. His father felt that another year of growth and experience would aid his effort to play college football. Therefore he enrolled at Tabor Academy, a boarding school in Marion, Mass.
Though Tabor was not known for its football, DiNardo wanted to play for their football coach Mike Silipo, a family friend. His older brother Larry was becoming a two-time All-American (1969-70) offensive guard at Notre Dame. DiNardo’s weight increased from 190 to 210 pounds at Tabor. The extra year of football played off.
“I took three visits to decide where I wanted to play my college football,” said DiNardo. “I took a visit to North Carolina, Boston College and Notre Dame. Those three schools showed the most interest. Obviously, I picked Notre Dame and that’s where I wound up.
“It was a significant concern for me to go to Notre Dame following my brother. To a point, I didn’t really want to go there for that reason. On my campus visit, I sat with Ara Parsegian (Notre Dame head football coach) in an individual meeting. I left that meeting knowing I wanted to play for him and be a part of his program. That became the most important thing to me. Basically nothing else was more important than playing for him. That made my decision easy.
“My brother Larry had just graduated and I had spent some time on campus perhaps more than most recruits since I went to some of his games. I knew more about the history of the school than most recruits. If I was in awe of anything it was Ara. I was a pretty typical 18-year old making a decision although the history and tradition played a part of it. I was more interested in the present. I just thought I’ve got to play for this guy. He was dynamic. There was just something about his presence that was most important to me.”
DiNardo was ineligible for varsity play since he was a freshman. The rule changed the next year to allow freshmen to participate with the varsity. At six-foot-one, DiNardo would bulk up to 260 pounds as a sophomore. He became a three-year starter at right offensive guard for the Fighting Irish from 1972-74. The Irish captured the national championship in DiNardo’s junior year. Notre Dame rolled to a perfect 11-0 record capped with a 24-23 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
“It was incredible and something I will never forget,” DiNardo said about winning the national championship. “One of Ara’s messages as we prepared for that game was there are very few opportunities in our lives where we will be able to say that we were the best at what we were doing. That really struck home with me motivationally. That if we win this game, we can say forever that we were the best playing college football for that one year.
“Then you had that (Paul) “Bear” Bryant was coaching at Alabama and Ara was at Notre Dame. I think Alabama was ranked No. 1 and we were ranked No. 3 going into the game. It was New Years Eve in the old Sugar Bowl and it was Alabama versus Notre Dame, which had never played before. Two great coaches were playing in the South with a Midwest and a Southern team. The media hyped the game and the atmosphere was overwhelming.”
DiNardo earned consensus All-American honors at guard his senior year as the Fighting Irish nipped Alabama in the Orange Bowl, 13-11. At Notre Dame, DiNardo earned a B.A. in economics. He also has a secondary teaching certification in social studies and an M.Ed in administration from the University of Maine.
DiNardo said that the All-American recognition was a reward for his hard work, but he felt that playing at Notre Dame gave him a great deal of attention. He said the honor was representative of his play, but also representative of where he was playing. DiNardo never lost sight of that and was very proud and felt good about the honor.
DiNardo also practiced his blocking skills against Rudy Ruettiger in practice. Actor Sean Austin depicted Ruettiger in the 1993 movie “Rudy.”
“In my senior year, Rudy was a junior,” said DiNardo. “I had been friendly with Rudy while he was at Holy Cross and was going through all that. Before he was a movie, he was a friend. He was on the scout team. The part that I wasn’t there for was when he played in the game. For the part in the movie that I was there, it was a very accurate portrayal in the movie.
“I wasn’t there when he played for Dan Devine. There are a lot of guys that came to Notre Dame, but we didn’t have the big walk-on program because it was a private school. There are some admission and cost issues. We had a lot of guys like Rudy that were either legacy kids or had some connection to Notre Dame. There were other Rudys on the team that weren’t very big. It was not quite as hard as it seems. I think it is harder to play in a game. There are a lot a guys out there today playing in college that are too small, but they contribute behind the scenes. I think the best thing about the Rudy story is he represents a lot of guys that traveled down the same path, but never got into the game.”
During DiNardo’s final season at Notre Dame he realized that he wanted to stay in football and be a coach. He left South Bend in 1975 to become a graduate assistant at the University of Maine coaching the defensive line. The Black Bears struggled the first year, but recorded a respectable 6-5 record the second year when DiNardo was now a full time assistant.
Mike Stock was a Notre Dame assistant when DiNardo was a player and became the head football coach at Eastern Michigan. DiNardo joined Stock’s staff coaching the next five years at Eastern Michigan as the defensive and then became the offensive line coach. DiNardo’s next opportunity came from another former Notre Dame assistant Bill McCartney who landed the head coaching position at Colorado.
“When Bill McCartney got the Colorado job, I started coaching defense for one year and then the second year I moved to offensive line,” said DiNardo. “Then in my third year I became the offensive coordinator and stayed there the rest of the time. I was there nine years and seven as offensive coordinator.
“We won two games our first year, four games our second year, and one game our third year. It was a tough situation. I believe what made it tough was we were following Chuck Fairbanks. He left in June to go into the USFL to coach the New Jersey Generals and so it was an unusual time for us to take over in the summer.
“Usually you take over in December and, in fact, we met most of our players for the first time during summer practices. Our scholarship numbers were difficult and Chuck did not have a lot of recent success. McCartney was a first-time head coach so there were some growing pains. Without being disrespectful to anyone, I feel that we took over a difficult situation.”
In 1989, Colorado finished the season 11-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. The following season the Buffaloes were 11-1-1 and became national champions with a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. It would be a split title as Georgia Tech was named champs by UPI and Colorado by AP.
“One thing we did to improve was to stabilize the staff,” DiNardo said. “We had 12 to 15 staff changes the first three years. We got guys that were committed to the program. Bill had grown into a great head coach and we did a great job recruiting. We realized how important recruiting at a place like Colorado was.
“We had very little in state talent so we had to be good recruiters. We made our mistakes and we learned form them. The guy that led us (McCartney) was bright, a great motivator, great recruiter and great football mind. As much as we struggled the first three years, we just started to do a lot of things right.”
At this time Vanderbilt had finished the season 1-10 under head coach Watson Brown. Vanderbilt’s athletics director, Paul Hoolihan, decided earlier in the season that a coaching change was necessary. The Commodores had lost its opening game to SMU, 44-7, a team playing its first game after being suspended for two seasons by the NCAA for recurring recruiting violations.
DiNardo was a candidate for the soon to be vacancy. His I-Bone offense had been ranked in the Top 10 nationally in several offensive categories. Eventually, Brown was fired and DiNardo was hired as his replacement. The hiring process was somewhat controversial as John Bibb reported in the Tennessean after the popular Brown’s dismissal that Hoolihan “sneaked” DiNardo on campus to view the facilities while Brown was still the official head coach.
DiNardo was asked about that situation and said he could not remember those circumstances just recalled meeting with Hoolihan and Vanderbilt Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt. DiNardo first met with his new Commodore players on Dec. 3, 1990. He declined to coach Colorado in its upcoming title game against Notre Dame to devote full time to his new head coaching duties. DiNardo did meet with his former Buffalo players before the game.
“I did not have a great deal of knowledge about Vanderbilt,” DiNardo said. “I felt that I was lucky in that they had run an option offense. By that time we had changed from the wishbone to what we called the I-Bone at Colorado. The offensive team at Vanderbilt was well coached and fit very nicely into what we were going to teach them. But obviously we knew we had to change things to the way we wanted things done. Sometimes in coaching changes the misconception is the new coach is doing the right thing and the previous coach is doing the wrong thing.
“I never felt it was right and wrong. It was a different style. In one of my first team meetings I would always say, and I did this everywhere not just at Vanderbilt, I never want to hear a bad word about what’s gone on here previously. It doesn’t have anything to do with now. It is an opinion that may not be fact. We are going to move on. Marcus Wilson and Jeff Brothers were quarterbacks and I knew they could handle the new offense. I just took the majority of the template of what we had done at Colorado and brought it to Nashville.”
Vanderbilt had not recorded a winning season since 1982. In Brown’s three previous seasons his Commodores were 3-8, 1-10 and 1-10. There was a perception at Vanderbilt and the Nashville community that Vanderbilt football players were accustomed to losing with “moral” victories and close losses.
“The Vanderbilt football players are exceptional athletes just by virtue of being part of the Vanderbilt team,” DiNardo said. “I do think there was a time in their mindset they were true student athletes and were very good students. They saw themselves perhaps as superior students to some of their competition. As a result when things got difficult on the field, they resorted to feeling good about themselves in what is a more important part of their lives, which is the academics.
“I think it was only natural and at times that was something we had to address. We never want to sacrifice the academic side and it certainly is the most important side. But there is no reason we can’t achieve both. And when you don’t have success in one, it is not OK to take comfort in another. Just like it is not OK if you are a great football player in a great program and not taking care of business in the classroom. To say it’s OK, I’m a great player on a great team I don’t need that other part of my life. That was something I thought we had to work on at times.”
Vanderbilt is the only private school in the Southeastern Conference and Nashville is the largest city population-wise. A question that has been asked for decades, but never completely answered is why can’t Vanderbilt recruit enough of the best high school players to compete in the SEC?
“I don’t know that it was any more difficult to recruit players with the exception of the schools that have great football traditions that have inherit advantages,” said DiNardo. “In the way of the Southeastern Conference, the teams that have had great success through the years are still only a handful. There are 12 teams in the SEC and maybe four or five have the advantage of their tradition. The rest of the SEC schools are going to have a difficult time recruiting those good players as those traditional powers.
“So I would say there were certain advantages to recruiting at Vanderbilt that separated you in a positive way from the other schools with traditional powers by virtue of the education, the Nashville community and the size of the school. Recruiting is difficult no matter where you recruit. I would not say that Vanderbilt has a more difficult time in recruiting than the other 11 SEC schools. Except for the traditional powers, Vanderbilt can hold its own against the rest of the SEC.”
DiNardo enjoyed taking his Commodores to The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tenn. for a week of summer practice to get away from what he called cynicism from the media and community. He wanted to isolate his team from reports that his team was making progress and not making progress.
The most important aspect of going away to camp for DiNardo was building the relationships with the staff and the team. DiNardo felt that might not be accomplished successfully staying in Nashville.
At the end of DiNardo’s first season in 1991 at Vanderbilt his team was 5-6 (3-4, SEC), which equaled the number of wins for the previous three seasons. The Commodores won four straight over Georgia, Mississippi, Army and Kentucky.
“We thought the team played really hard and again I think the fact that they had run the option offense previously helped make the transition,” said DiNardo. “We lost to Duke (17-13) down there and I thought that was a game that we should have won. I didn’t think we played very well. We had some growing pains. We started slow and then we got on somewhat of a roll. We certainly improved.
“When we beat Georgia (ranked No. 17) I thought maybe we were on the right track. It reinforces a lot of the things we’d done with players that have taken them out of their comfort zone. We tried to redefine their comfort zone and most people are reluctant to do that. Then when that new level is set, it helps people believe that this is our new comfort zone and it’s not that all a bad place to be in.”
Vanderbilt also broke a 23-game SEC road-losing streak with a 30-27 win at Ole Miss. DiNardo was rewarded for the Commodores vast improvement by being named AP’s Southeastern Conference Coach-of-the-Year and Kodak Regional Coach-of-the-Year. He was also selected as one of the coaches for the annual Blue-Gray All-Star game, which was won by the South.
DiNardo’s 1992 Commodores went 4-7 with a noticeable win over 25th ranked Mississippi. Other victories came over Duke, Kentucky and Navy.
“I felt that we were still on track to be successful, but probably not as much as I should have,” DiNardo said. “I was a young and immature head coach as it relates to coaching. I probably fell into the trap where if you win five games the first year, the next year you should win six or more. If you win six the third year then in the fourth year you should have more than six wins.
“I didn’t realize as much as I should have because of my inexperience that we had to continue to make progress. Looking back I think we did make progress. That is something I would look back at differently than I did then. Because when you win five games in the first year, and four the second and four the third, you think you are not successful. I’m not sure that was true. I’m sure we were doing some good things.”
Vanderbilt was 4-7 in 1993 collecting wins over Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Kentucky and Navy. The 1994 team entered the season finale at 5-5 with a home contest against intrastate rival Tennessee on the Vanderbilt campus. A victory over the Vols would give the Commodores their first winning season since 1975. The Vols crushed Vandy, 65-0.
“I know that when you build a program there are a lot of steps you have to take,” said DiNardo. “When you take over a program, everybody buys into ‘team’ and they will say we don’t care what it takes, we just want to win. I don’t care about how much I play or what position or what offense or defense. Then if you have success, I think different agendas come up and maybe guys start worrying about themselves. I think there is a psychology when you build to a point where you are 5-5 and have a chance for a winning season.
“I think this might be a natural progression and you are put in this pressure situation where if we beat Tennessee we will be bowl eligible and might go to a bowl game. I’m not sure that when a team, for the first time, faces that situation they are equipped because they are out of their comfort zone. I would say we were confronted with a very pressure situation opportunity to beat Tennessee, be bowl eligible and we just weren’t ready for it.”
In the four seasons that DiNardo’s Commodores faced UT all games were losses 45-0, 29-25, 62-14 and 65-0. Somewhere during DiNardo's tenure at Vanderbilt he shied away from mentioning “Tennessee” preferring such phrase as “That team to the East.” The media and fans were puzzled by such a reference to the Vols.
“I was trying to motivate my team,” said DiNardo. “It was a way to say what kind of rivalry is this? It is so one-sided. You can call it silly, call it disrespectful, you can call it whatever you want. It was an attempt to motivate my team. It got a lot of attention. People talked about it a lot. Stories got embellished and I think it served a purpose though we certainly never beat them. Certainly we got our butts kicked. It wasn’t meant to me a form of disrespect. Would I do it again? I don’t know. I thought it was a good idea at the time and I did it.”
When the season was over, officials at LSU contacted DiNardo about becoming their new head football coach after the firing of Curley Hallman. The temptation was too great for DiNardo to pass up and he accepted the position with three years remaining on his Vanderbilt contract. LSU was one of those traditional SEC schools DiNardo was familiar.
A clause in the Vanderbilt contract stated DiNardo must pay the university his annual salary for the duration if he broke the contract. Vanderbilt officials would later sue DiNardo in court for what they said was owed over $200,000. The case dragged on for several years before a settlement was reached.
“I’m not sure that I did a lot of things right in those days,” said DiNardo. “It was a great temptation to go to LSU. Joe Dean was the athletics director that I really liked. I had followed the history of LSU even though I was an East coast and Midwest guy. I have struggled with that to this day how I did things, why I did things and if I did the right things. I loved working at both places.
“I guess at the end of the day I did the right thing. I regret more than anything else in my entire working and educational career not meeting with the Vanderbilt team on the way out. I regret that to this day. I know that was the wrong thing to do. I wish I could have that back. It hurts me terribly that I didn’t stand up in front of my team and tell them I was leaving. I’m emotional now talking about it.”
DiNardo left Vanderbilt with a four-year 18-26 record (9-22, SEC). He arrived at LSU in the midst of six straight losing seasons. The Tigers were winners right away with DiNardo’s leadership going 7-4-1 including a 45-26 win over Michigan State in the Independence Bowl. In 1996 and 1997 LSU racked up records of 10-2 and 9-3 with two more bowl wins over Clemson, 10-7 (Peach Bowl) and Notre Dame, 27-9 (Independence Bowl). His 1997 Tigers returned to Nashville as the No. 13 ranked team and squeaked out a 7-6 win over his former team.
DiNardo’s Tigers were consistently listed in the Top 25 for most of his first three seasons. But in DiNardo’s final two seasons in Baton Rouge the Tigers were 4-7 and 3-8. DiNardo was fired before the final game against Arkansas in 1999 and would be replaced by Nick Saban. His five-year record at LSU was 32-24-1 (19-20-1, SEC).
“It was a great experience,” DiNardo said about his time at LSU. “We obviously got off to a fast start. At some point we lost a lot of our defensive guys going into our latter years there. We changed quarterbacks and we had some issues. We had some discipline issues and at the end of the day I believed we would have survived it. Mark Emmert, who became the chancellor did not hire me, but came in after my third year. They had a change in the president and a change in the board. Emmert, who is now at Washington, never saw anything good in me as the head coach or the coaching staff.
“So he never had any confidence in me because he did not see in the three years where we had built something that was pretty good. That’s the business. If they don’t have confidence in you or they don’t like you or one or the other, they are going to make changes. That’s what happened. I coached a lot of great players and a lot of great people. The fans I’m sure at times didn’t like me much, but they are great fans. When we were rocking and rolling it was a lot of fun.”
DiNardo was asked about what he believed was his greatest strength as a football coach.
“My ability to communicate with the players in a one-on-one situation in my office,” said DiNardo. “And my ability to communicate with them in a team setting. I could recruit in their homes. I thought I got the big picture of the team. I thought I could analyze the strengths and weaknesses of other teams. I could help the staff, maybe not put together the details of the game plan, but give them some feedback of what I thought should be done to attack an offense or defense.”
DiNardo’s next head coaching job in 2001 was in the ill-fated XFL as the head coach of the Birmingham Thunderbolts. That league folded after just one season. He moved on to become head football coach at the University of Indiana in 2002, but never won more than three games in a season and was fired after the 2004 season.
Today DiNardo lives in Chicago and is a studio analysis for The Big Ten Network. He also owns a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana named, “DeAngelos.” DiNardo says he misses coaching and being on a college campus everyday. He enjoyed living and working in the South and said, “Football is more a part of people’s lives in the Southern part of the United States than any place I’ve been exposed to.”
Looking back on his football career is there anything he would like to change?
“Again it would be leaving Vanderbilt without a team meeting,” said DiNardo. “I think that at times I would escalate a situation that didn’t need to be escalated. I think you learn that through experience. Things that really work make that much of a big difference in the outcome of a program or a game. Whether it was an interdepartmental issue, coaches sometimes focus on the wrong thing, and I certainly feel that I was guilty of that at times.”
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com.