Notre Dame football players try to process the resignation of hard-driving Matt Balis

SOUTH BEND — For Notre Dame football, the shockwaves continue to reverberate from Matt Balis’ resignation after 6 ½ seasons as the program’s director of football performance.
“I think he’s been taking some time for himself,” Kevin Bauman, a fourth-year junior tight end from Red Bank, N.J., said Thursday. “I shot him a quick text just thanking him and everything. I think he’s keeping a little bit to himself right now, focusing on what he needs to focus on, which we all understand.”
Like fellow tight end Eli Raridon, Bauman is nearly all the way back after a season-ending ACL tear last fall. Both credit Balis for helping them navigate that mental and physical journey.
“It was really shocking,” Raridon said of Balis’ departure, which went public on Tuesday. “No one saw it coming. We wish nothing but the best for Balis. We all loved him. He had to do what he had to do.”
Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman on his expectation for Fred Hale and strength/conditioning staff: 'Your job is to make sure (there's) no dip'
Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said Balis called him on Sunday and said he wished to resign for personal reasons. An in-person meeting on Monday failed to change the Chicago native’s mind.
“I have so much gratitude for the work that he’s done for this program,” Bauman said. “He’s been a big influence to me, always pushing me and the guys. He was truly a special man.
“Everyone here is very grateful for him. The news came as a little bit of a shock to all of us, I think, but we want the best for him. We want him to do what’s best for himself and his family.”
Fred Hale, who joined Balis’ staff in January 2021 after previous stints at Eastern Michigan and Tennessee and a brief internship with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, was promoted on an interim basis.
“(Balis) was very big on mental strength and mental toughness,” Raridon said. “It really taught me how to push my limits and go as hard as I possibly can.”
Natural connection
Raridon’s father is a former Notre Dame offensive lineman and long snapper, and his grandfather, Scott Sr., trained Notre Dame’s last national championship team in 1988 as strength-and-conditioning coach for Lou Holtz.
That led to a natural connection between Balis and one of his most successful predecessors with the Irish.
“When I’d take visits and stuff, they’d always talk,” said Raridon, a sophomore from Des Moines, Iowa. “They really get along. I think they text every once in a while.”
In general terms, the value of a top-flight strength-and-conditioning coach cannot be overstated in a football context.
“As far as mental toughness, they do a great job of putting that into the weight room, but that also translates onto the field,” Raridon said. “Being in football is all about being big and strong. These strength coaches have a lot to do with that.”
Bauman, who also had to overcome a fractured leg in the 2021 season opener at Florida State, suggested he gained as much from his private conversations with Balis as he did from their higher-intensity interactions in the weight room and in offseason conditioning.
“That was the great thing with him,” Bauman said. “Obviously, he was our head strength coach but at the same time, you know, in a lot of ways he was this mental coach. He built this mental fortitude with our program, which is something that not many guys are able to do.
“He would push you like no one else has pushed you before, but then he’d also be there to talk to you about whatever. His son’s football games (at Penn High School), what’s going on with your family. He knew a lot about everybody. He was just a great guy to be around.”
Fred Hale steps in
On a muggy Thursday morning, as 11 tidy lines of Notre Dame players went through their traditional stretch routine before practice, it was Hale, 34, who blew the whistle at the front of the group.
Freeman said Wednesday that Hale, who spent 4 ½ years as co-director of sports performance at Eastern Michigan, would receive consideration for the full-time role. A widespread search for Balis’ successor seems likely.
“He is the right man for the job in terms of promotion — an interim guy,” Bauman said. “He has a similar style to Balis but also brings his own kind of differences and quirks, for lack of a better word. He’s commanding. All the guys in the locker room love him.”
A standout wrestler and second-team all-state football player at Mentor (Ohio) High School, Hale competed in both sports at Division II Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.
A 6-foot-2, 241-pound defensive end for the Lakers from 2007-10, Hale had 11.5 total sacks his final two years as he earned first-team honors in the West Division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Hale earned a master’s in exercise science from Mercyhurst in 2012.
Valerie Smith-Hale, Fred’s wife, joined Notre Dame’s Olympic-sport strength and conditioning staff in May 2021. She oversees those programs for women’s soccer, women’s tennis and men’s and women’s throwers.
A former Adrian (Mich.) College volleyball player (2006-10) who has competed in the North American Cup circuit (2012-14) with the U.S. Women’s Bobsledding, Valerie Smith-Hale has a doctorate in exercise and sport science from Wayne State in Detroit. She also worked at Division II Wayne State as a sports scientist and coaching assistant with the football program.
The couple has a young daughter named Georgia.
“I think (Hale) is just a great guy to take over this position,” Bauman said. “We all love and respect him and we trust him. To work your hardest, you’ve got to trust the people who are leading you, right? Just that trust factor we all have with him. We’ve been around him for a couple years now. He knows what he’s doing, and we love working for him.”
Maintaining the standard Matt Balis set
Raridon, who has packed on 22 pounds of muscle since he enrolled in June 2022, gave Hale high marks as well.
“I think he’s got a lot of respect from the players,” Raridon said. “I don’t know how to explain it. You look at him and hear him talk, he’s very easy to respect. He knows how to push us all. I think he’ll do a great job.”
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the uncertainty that surrounds the role Balis redefined through the sheer force of his personality.
“I have a very good relationship with all the training coaches, Raridon said. “They’re awesome guys, and I really hope they stay with the program.”
The best way to make that happen is for the 2023 football edition to make good on Freeman’s directive that there be “no dip” in The Golden Standard he and Balis conjured together.
“Coach Freeman mentioned the same thing: Although (Balis) was a very important man, it’s us as a program,” Bauman said. “We are what run this place. It’s our program. Coach Hale takes over, and it’s still us. We’re still there working together. We’re the ones who make that program go.
“It’s not as big of an adjustment as you would think. We have goals, we have focus. We’re going to keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing: working hard. We just have some different people running it.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

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