Friday, June 03, 2005

Position Filled | by Michael

Replacing David Cutcliffe was indeed a tall order, but it appears that we've quickly and seamlessly found a replacement in Peter Vaas. As Charlie related in a press release today:

"For several years, Peter Vaas has been on our 'radar' and was certainly on my short list (of coaches) when I took this job," Weis said. "After further research, the support for Peter from people I know and trust was overwhelming, making this move an easy one. An additional plus was Peter's Notre Dame experience in 1990-91, adding another coach with Notre Dame ties. I'm looking forward to working with Peter as we prepare to kick off the 2005 season."
You might remember Vaas as a former RBs and QBs coach under Lou Holtz. In fact, his resume is littered with stops all over the place: at colleges large and small, the CFL, and NFL Europe.

In comparison to the high-profile resume of David Cutcliffe, Peter Vaas may seem at first like a huge dropoff. Yet Vaas is an experienced, successful coach with solid credentials, and after you discover a little more about him, his hiring by Coach Weis won't seem so surprising. While losing Cutcliffe was surely a blow, Weis has tabbed a jewel of an assistant coach.

You might look at the smaller schools on Vaas's resume -- Allegheny, New Hampshire and Holy Cross -- and cringe. (It might even remind of your reaction to reading about the CFL acccomplishments of one Bill Diedrick.) Vaas was a three-year starting QB at Holy Cross despite walking-on to a program that could offer athletic scholarships. Upon graduation, he took a job as a janitor and assistant coach at Allegheny, and from there he built his career in the lower tier of college football.

But Lou Holtz saw something in him, and in the early 90s he was hired as an offensive assistant with the Irish. After two years on the Notre Dame staff, Vaas's alma mater, Holy Cross, called him to become their head coach, and it was hard for him to pass up that opportunity. Holy Cross was traditionally a Patriot League power, but times had changed and Vaas took over at a school that had decided to abandon atheltic scholarships. After four dismal years and a terrible record he was fired. Worth mentioning is that his replacement at Holy Cross, Dan Allen, had a history of turning around other programs. But Allen, too, failed to make the Crusaders a winning program again.

After a brief stint in the CFL, Vaas found work with NFL Europe, where his coaching career slowly resurrected itself. Starting as an offensive assistant with the Barcelona Dragons, Vaas was eventually hired to coach the Berlin Thunder, with whom he won back-to-back World Bowl championships. (By the way, take a gander at who the opposing QB was for the Barcelona Dragons when Vaas won his first cup.)

When you consider that NFL Europe is a league that starts up every year with new players, sustained success is directly attributable to coaching, as this article illuminates:
One head coach who seems to have found the winning formula is Peter Vaas, who has guided the Berlin Thunder to a second World Bowl appearance in successive seasons.

Vaas, now nearing the end of his third season as head coach of the Thunder, won the World Bowl in 2001 and is gunning for a place in history on Saturday by having his team become the first to win back-to-back World Bowls.

"This league is so different to the college or NFL ranks," Vaas said. "You have new players coming in each season and that's why your coaching staff is more important here than any place else.

"If you were in the NFL you would have veterans that come back and act as extra coaches on the field and in college you have seniors and juniors that help out the freshmen.

"Here in NFL Europe everybody is a freshman or a rookie and you lean on your coaches a lot more. There is a lot that goes into the formulation of a team each year and it is extremely gratifying and makes me proud that we have taken two different Berlin Thunder teams to the World Bowl."

As a head coach, Vaas is big on garnering team spirit and the results certainly seem to suggest the former college coach at Holy Cross and Allegheny hits the right notes in the locker room.

One man who will back up such a claim is Berlin Thunder linebacker Jude Waddy, who said: "Peter Vaas is a great guy to play for and he certainly creates a great atmosphere in the locker room and on the practice field.

"He can get players going and fired up without getting down on them and he is a lot of fun to be around."

Explaining his coaching style and philosophy, Vaas said: "I try to be very communicative and let people know where the boundaries are. Then once we are inside those boundaries I tend to be very relaxed and loose and try to make the game fun. But if you cross those boundaries I can be nasty.

"We want to create a strong feeling of trust and to get to the World Bowl like we have means we have taken a group of strangers and been able to make them into a team. That is very satisfying."
Here's another article on Vaas that echoes much of the same sentiment. Both this and the article above are well worth a full read.

Peter Vaas knows that his success this year has to do with his experienced assistants. After four years with the Berlin Thunder, Vaas was chosen to be the very first head coach of a new NFL Europe team, the Cologne Centurions, and helped build the franchise from scratch.

A few other things we dug up on Coach Vaas. Check out the following videos. In one of them, Vaas reminisces about a certain favorite game of his:
A great moment was when I was an assistant coach at the University of Notre Dame, we played in New Orleans in the Superdome, against Florida in the Sugar Bowl in a game that we weren't supposed to be in, and we came away with a victory. That was a tremendous feeling.
Want to read an article that Vaas wrote for American Football Monthly? Check out Dragon Attack, which Vaas wrote while an assistant with Barcelona in NFL Europe (complete with some nifty diagrams). This offensive philosophy might sound familiar:
You can create a variety of mismatches and a great deal of confusion through the use of formations and motion, yet you won't confuse your players with a lot of new learning. They must understand the concept of what you are trying to accomplish and react within that concept.
Kory Chapman, a practice squad running back for the Patriots who was optioned to play under Vaas's Cologne Centurions had this to say in a recent Boston Globe blog entry about the difference between the Centurions' offense under Vaas as compared to the Patriots offense under Weis:
"It's a spread offense, sort of how we do it in New England, spreading the defense out and hitting them with the run. I'd say it's similar, but not the same."
Also, do these two comments remind you of anyone else's offensive strategies?
"The new Cologne fans should be ready for an offense that does not have a lot of different plays and wants to beat the opposition through superior execution and unexpected play calling."

"In Peter Vaas' offensive system, the quarterback position is probably even more important than usual."
For that and more on Vaas's offensive philosophies check out this terrific NFL Europe preview from last year.

Vaas's ties to Notre Dame go beyond his brief tenure as an assistant coach in the early 90s. Vaas was also a coach at last year's Notre Dame summer Fantasy Football camp. In addition, his daughter is currently a student at ND. You can read about both on Vaas's online diary, Peter's Points, found on the Cologne Centurions' website. It's a revealing look into Vaas's personality, especially as it relates to his family and former players. Notre Dame is constantly mentioned. (On a sidenote...did anyone else know that Reggie Brooks is currently an assistant for the Berlin Thunder? News to me.) There's even more on Vaas at the Centurions site, but be sure to have your Langenscheidt's English/German dictionary at the ready.

Finally, no one's summed up Peter Vaas better than Barry Terranova, the publisher of American Football Monthly. In the same issue (November '99) where Vaas presented his article on the Dragon Attack, Terranova included this
Letter from the Publisher. And Terranova called it...six years ago, even before Vaas's NFL Europe career (the italics are ours):
As the 1980s ended, Vaas was a "hot" coach, coming off of a very successful stint as head coach at Allegheny (Pa.) College. In his five years with the Alligators, he turned a team without a winning season in the previous seven years into a national contender in NCAA Division III. The big boys began to notice and Lou Holtz offered Vaas the chance to join the Notre Dame staff as quarterbacks coach. From Allegheny to South Bend—Vaas had arrived.

In 1992 Vaas made a decision that still haunts him to this day. His alma mater, Holy Cross, came calling, eager to have a favorite son return to take over the program. Vaas knew that the program was transitioning from the only Patriot League school giving athletic scholarship to non-scholarship status. He realized it would be difficult, but this was a chance for he and his wife to go home and raise their kids in the pleasing environment of suburban Boston. He also had a healthy dose of attitude, ". . . to heck with the hardships. . . I'll get it done."

Needless to say, Holy Cross did not enjoy the same level of success in the non-scholarship era, and in 1995, Vaas was unceremoniously dumped after a 14-30 record over four seasons. School administrators knew how difficult it was going to be to win once the scholarships went away. Vaas felt somewhat bitter and betrayed.

Fired, Vaas found himself in a tough situation. He felt labeled as a "small-college coach." Vaas went through a period of soul searching, even questioning the sanity of staying in the coaching profession. But, ultimately, he realized he is a "ball coach" and coaches should coach.

March 1996 began a sojourn that has seen Vaas go from offensive coordinator of the CFL's Montreal Alouetts to his current job with Jack Bicknell in Barcelona. All along the way, he has sent out countless resumes, trying to get back into the college or NFL circle.

So, now what does he do? Keep shaking the trees in hopes a job will fall his way, or enjoy the decent life he has with his family?

I suppose I know the answer. Peter Vaas will keep trying to get back to the Notre Dames of the world. Success has that effect on you—once you've tasted it, nothing else will do. You say to yourself, "If they can do it, I know damn well I can." Hopefully, one day soon, some coach will realize that the true test of a man is how he performs under adversity. And Peter Vaas has not only passed, he has persevered and thrived.
For anybody doubting the appropriateness of Peter Vaas as our new QB coach, this description sealed the deal for me, and it should seal it for others, too. Simply put, Weis has found a terrific offensive assistant, a guy with a sterling character and solid coaching know-how -- and not to mention, some familiar Irish roots. Peter Vaas's perseverence has paid off, and he's made it back to ND...much to our blessing. As Coach Vaas himself said today:
"I'm looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity of returning to the Notre Dame family," Vaas said.

"In this business, you always leave a place with a heavy heart and some sadness, yet arrive at your new place with a smile on your face. That certainly will be the case with this move. I've been in NFL Europe for eight years now, so I'll be leaving a part of me over here, but I'm excited about returning to Notre Dame.

"My past experience in college football was tremendous, and I've had some opportunities to return to college football over the last 10 years. But none of those opportunities were as exciting as this one. Our first experience at Notre Dame was fabulous, something that had a great impact on my family and me. The chance to return to South Bend and to work with - and learn from - Charlie Weis is an amazing opportunity."