The story begins with a butt-kicking in Florida.
On the football field, that is.
Almost six years ago, with two young coaches unknowingly on a path to both friendship and prominence within college football.
In Tampa, Fla., the annual postseason gathering of a Big Ten foe against an SEC foe. Bloomin' onions and Australian cliches aplenty.
Extremely early in his career, Tommy Rees is just starting his coaching path under the tutelage of Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern.
Nick Sheridan is just slightly further along as an offensive analyst for Tennessee, working in lock-step with longtime mentor Mike DeBord – the Vols' offensive coordinator.
“Shoot, we met, I was a G.A. at Northwestern and he was at Tennessee, and they kicked our ass in (the Outback) bowl game,” Rees says. “We met for the first time down there, and we've kind of kept in touch. We both got promoted around the same time, we were both going through things for the first time last offseason.
“We've built a pretty good friendship and we've spent some time talking ball together. He's someone that I value and that I trust and that I think really does things the right way.”
To this day, Sheridan recalls meeting Rees in Florida through a mutual friend – and already knowing plenty about the former Notre Dame quarterback, whose playing career beneath 'Touchdown Jesus' coincides with the onset of Brian Kelly's now-12-year-reign atop the Fighting Irish.
“I remember it vividly,” Sheridan tells FootballScoop. “Obviously I knew who he was; when you're quarterback at Notre Dame, most everybody knows you. But I didn't know his dad was in football and I knew he was a little bit younger than me. Northwestern's (director of football operations), Cody Cejda, was basically Fitz's right-hand man, he introduced us. We swapped numbers, shared contacts and just stayed in touch. I think he went to the (San Diego) Chargers right after that season, but we stayed in touch.”
Today, Rees is the offensive coordinator at fabled Notre Dame; Sheridan the play-caller at Indiana.
In a basketball-leaning heartland state, two of college football's brightest young stars from families synonymous with the sport are carving their own paths.
They're entering their second years in their respective positions, exiting equally impressive debut seasons despite the COVID-19 pandemic that continues its global upheaval.
Rees, who terms Sheridan a “big brother” in the industry, already has an 11-game winning streak and a College Football Playoff berth to initiate his career as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator; Sheridan enters his first 12-game season after helping lead the Hoosiers to historic wins against Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin a year ago.
“I don't allow myself to get there and I would say the Notre Dame fan base doesn't allow me to get there, either,” Rees says of his elevating national profile. “Highly competitive people are usually the most critical of themselves. And so the stuff that goes on in my head is much more, 'How can I get better? How can I continue to improve?' I stay up at night thinking about 'Hey, I didn't get this kid enough touches. How can I get him more involved? How can I maximize him?'
“It's not about me and it really never has been. The success that I'll have or that Nick will have, it's all going to be about how we perform on Saturdays. It's a performance job and that's what you're judged on. Look, you can get into some really bad places if you start reading or thinking about that stuff. For me, I try to bury my focus in our guys, our team and giving them the best chance to be successful each and every Saturday, or Sunday, since we're playing our opener on Sunday this year.”
Equally, there's only the present for Sheridan.
“I certainly don't sit there and think of us as these rising guys," Sheridan says. "We're just trying to do the best we can. I think Indiana is a state that appreciates winners and people doing things at a high level. And I think people rally behind either people or teams that they can connect with, and they appreciate how hard they play and the love they have for each other. I'm just thankful to be at a place that just appreciates quality and doing things at a high level and doing things the right way and for the right reasons and to work for a head coach that believes in that in Tom Allen. I know Tommy feels the same way. I think there's good football in Indiana, and good coaches that care about the right things.”
Both coaches, with Sheridan just four years older and their May birthdays one day apart, own unique insight into the oft-thankless world of football from their families.
Bill Sheridan is Air Force's defensive line coach in a career that traces its origins to starting under Bo Schembechler at Michigan and with considerable success as a Detroit Lions assistant.
Bill Rees is Notre Dame's director of scouting, a former 15-year UCLA assistant coach with a sterling reputation as an NFL scout; Danny Rees is Tommy's older brother and a former Bruins player.
“Look, he's probably my biggest influence when it comes to football and understanding the game and seeing the game through a certain lens and evaluating guys,” Rees says of his father, a key cog in the Irish's recruiting evaluations. “He's definitely got his opinions on people, but he does a pretty good job of just trying to be supplementary to what we're doing and just trying to help us as much as he can.
“He's a great resource to everyone. He knows the game, really, as well as anyone I've ever been around. It's always someone that I'm able to bounce things off of or if I'm struggling with a kid or a decision on a kid, it's just another set of eyes and another viewpoint that I'm able to trust and value.”
Sheridan's influences are many; none bigger than his father.
“We've kind of been prepping to be in coaching since about any point you can name,” says Sheridan, a former Wolverines walk-on who earned a scholarship and started multiple games at quarterback. “Tommy had a lot better career and was a better player than I was, but you come up through the same kind of path.
“I thought what my dad did was awesome, and my dad is my hero. He always has been. I just thoroughly enjoyed growing up in the profession and having someone I could talk to in my dad. I don't know Tommy's dad that well, but I hear great things about him. I'm sure it's very similar.”
Despite being in the burgeoning stages of their careers, both coaches are on the path they've been envisioning for nearly two decades.
“Being an offensive coordinator is kind of what I wanted to do my entire life,” says Rees, crediting his high school coach, Chuck Spagnoli, for nurturing Rees' desire to be a play-caller with the freedom to call plays at the line as a prep quarterback. “And that's really the reason why: You get to design things to take advantage of what the defense might be doing or to give people opportunities to be successful.
“The schematic part of the game is something that I love and it's something that I constantly am trying to get better at. We have a great staff and I'm still relatively young, so I don't pretend like I have all of the answers. I'm trying to continually get better and find out more ways to attack and use our personnel to our advantage.”
Sheridan remembers not that kind of offensive autonomy but rather working as the backup-quarterback during his eighth-grade year – actually about 10 miles from the Notre Dame campus in Granger, as his father was serving as Notre Dame's safeties and special teams coordinator.
“I couldn't start on my middle school team,” says Sheridan, “so I knew I was probably going to get into coaching.”
The two coaches' offenses don't quite share the same traits as their architects.
The Hoosiers can be uptempo, frenetic and spread out – especially with a healthy Michael Penix running the show.
Rees' Irish are more traditional pro-set, with NFL prospects at both tailback (Kyren Williams) and tight end (Michael Mayer), as well as an offensive line – even a rebuilding one – with a reputation as perennially among college football's best units.
Those differences actually are assets in the friendship.
“Our teams are different. You don't have the same 11 players, style and schemes you run, but some big-picture things are common,” says Sheridan, a former Wolverines walk-on who earned a scholarship and started multiple games at quarterback. “Especially last year with Covid, asking each other, 'What are you doing with staff? How are you spending time? How are you getting things communicated to players?'
“Nobody, regardless of if you were a first-year coordinator or 30 years in the business, had been through that. It was just great to have somebody give you an idea of ways to do it better or [saying] 'Hey, you're on the right path, you guys are on it.' We enjoyed those conversations and that's really when our relationship grew. We were going through the same thing, trying to do a good job and be first-year coordinators doing what's best for our teams.”
Both coaches bring a servant-based approach; they want perhaps most importantly to grow their players off the field as much as they're driven for on-field success.
“At the root of it, the things my dad taught me and other coaches my dad worked with and for, it's being about the right things,” Sheridan says, “genuinely caring about your players, the sport and trying to be great teachers, mentors and motivators for the players.”
They talk about football with perspectives still being shaped, experiences still unfolding and on honoring a game that's so central to their lives.
“The game has given me a lot, my family a lot,” Rees says, “and so it's something I've always cherished and loved to do.
“I'm just excited I get to do it here and have the opportunity to give back to a place that gave me so much and really work with great kids, great players, great people every day.”