The process that was at the heart of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jimmy McCleary’s introduction into coaching more than 20 years ago is still prevalent today.
McCleary, a student-assistant coach at then University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), was on the ground floor of a profession that required long hours and plenty of persistence. At the behest of full-time staff members, McCleary ran off copies of practice schedules, charted plays and did such a good job of filming practice, he earned a scholarship from coach Nelson Stokley.
“I was in college, my wife was out of college and we got into married housing,” said McCleary, who simply answers to Coach Mac or Mac. “We had my scholarship stipend living in a small two-bedroom apartment. We thought we were rich.”
McCleary handled all of the team’s film duties, both home and away, which contributed to marathon weekends. He carefully spliced VHS film into offensive, defensive and special teams groups in order for the corresponding assistant coaches to begin preparing their players for the upcoming game.
Twenty-one years later, the technology’s changed from the tedious start-and-stop nature of VHS to the more streamlined approach to reviewing game footage provided by digitally based Hudl.com, but McCleary still lives by the same principles.
“I’ll work 10 hours each day on weekends,” McCleary said. “I have great coaches that help and have taken so much off my plate so I can do more digging. I love Sunday through Thursday more than Friday and to some degree, I think the kids do as well. I love the grind.”
It’s been that dogged determination to leave no stone unturned during the preparation phase of game week that’s elevated McCleary to among the state’s most respected defensive coordinators and has made his defensive units some of the most fundamental and dominant as well.
“When you look back at what he’s done since he’s taken over, he’s in a league with the top guys,” Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook said. “We have people coming by school all the time to visit. They don’t come for just offense anymore. More of them are coming for defense than offense.”
This year’s defensive unit, which leads No. 3 Notre Dame (13-0) into Friday’s Division III state championship game against No. 1 Riverside Academy (11-1) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 1:30 p.m,, may ultimately rank among McCleary’s best.
The Pioneers are coming off their eighth shutout of the season last Friday with a 33-0 semifinal triumph over previously undefeated St. Thomas Aquinas.
Notre Dame’s allowed 95.9 yards and 3.8 points per game. The Pios permitted one touchdown in 28 quarters of district play and one touchdown during the playoffs.
Traditionally, they’ve been a base 4-3 team but have relied more on a three-man front this season with 285-pound senior Paul Guidry anchoring the line backed by linebackers Patrick Burleigh and Shea Zaunbrecher and safety Hayden Bourgeois.
“Their preparation is unbeatable,” Cook said. “They scheme to take away what a team does best.”
McCleary joined Cook’s staff where he began his student teaching after informing his high school coach at Morgan City, Jud Broussard, his passion for coaching was greater than the profession his engineering degree could provide.
For nine years, he coached the defensive line and linebackers, when McCleary succeeded outgoing defensive coordinator Fred Menard, who established a solid defensive reputation during his tenure.
McCleary said he incorporated what he learned organizationally and scheme-wise from Menard and furthered his knowledge under former LSU and NFL defensive lineman guru Pete Jenkins.
Despite annual turnover, including the loss of three senior defensive linemen from last year, McCleary has molded another formidable defense. It’s a group that may not show up on many college recruiting lists, but are the envy of their peers because of their selfless play, attention to detail and desire for the game — an accurate portrayal of their defensive coordinator.
Aside from a victory, McCleary said the pay-off after a grueling work week is being able to hand over a well-devised game plan to his defense and watch them carry it out to perfection, without a signal from him on the sideline.
“I think we just work hard and the kids do a great job,” McCleary said. “My biggest philosophy is to do what the kids can do. I’ve listened and learned and tried to adapt to what we do and it’s been working really well for us.”