Notre Dame football is sort of an odd thing. It is facing the chance of another 8-5 season, the virtual equivalent of Brian Kelly's first year. That year had started badly and ended well, and the four-game winning streak that resulted in 8-5 was just enough to undo the pains of the season's beginning. Moreover, it was a possible indicator of a brighter future.
The Irish were still adjusting to Kelly's scheme, fans said. Give it time.
But do fans still feel that way now? Notre Dame's second season under Kelly has been mired by turnovers and mental mistakes, off-the-field tragedy, and on-the-field embarrassment. Is it because the process is simply taking longer than expected? Or is because there is no process? The expectations that spanned across television in 2011's preseason spoke of the Irish going to a BCS bowl, and some even said that they were a dark horse contender for the national championship. That now appears to have been a gross overestimation.
A very, very long read after the jump...
Typically there are two modes of thought when it comes to Notre Dame. The first is that the program is flawed and needs to be rebuilt, and Kelly—a career rebuilder—is the perfect guy for the job. He gained a name turning feeble (or at least under-achieving) programs like Central Michigan and Cincinnati into powerhouses that often crashed the party and stole the national spotlight. He also was capable of winning national championships: he won them repeatedly at Grand Valley State in Division II. At the end of 2009 he was arguably the hottest coaching commodity on the market. All Notre Dame had to do was nod and he was on his way to South Bend.
At the time, it seemed like a knockout hire: Kelly's no-huddle spread-n-shred with Notre Dame's talent and resources? The prospect was frightening, and the only other comparable example was Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, the spread's original architect. It also seemed like no one could more readily or more capably restore honor (and, hopefully, national championships) to South Bend than Brian Kelly. Plus, it didn't hurt that he was actually Irish and Catholic. He seemed to be everything Notre Dame could hope for in a coach.
Fast forward two years and it's largely been more of the same. Kelly's inaugural season suffered hiccups that fans have become painfully used to. Quarterback controversies, injuries, and Michigan somehow found a way to win—again. A loss to Navy mid-season had some elderly alumni throwing fits in their Lazy Boys. The defeat at the hands of Tulsa officially cut off their oxygen. Luckily the switch to Tommy Rees managed to salvage the charred remains of the season—hey, fans said, at least it was better than last year—and Notre Dame finished with a satisfying win over Miami in the Sun Bowl.
2011 hasn't been any better. After a hugely over-hyped preseason full of BCS rumors and bloated watchlists, Notre Dame completely fell apart. South Florida's mind-boggling upset proved to be a serious blow, and the Irish would recover, but apparently not enough to escape whatever magic is happening in Ann Arbor. It wasn't until Notre Dame faced Michigan State that they unloaded some much needed vengeance. Kelly's players seemed to hit their stride after that, but unfortunately the only things keeping them from a BCS bid were two really, really tough rivals. Notre Dame lost to both.
Kelly's record now stands with an 8-4 regular season that only slightly counteracts last year's debut of 7-5. The Irish managed to almost completely rewrite the memory of the beginning of the Kelly Era with a good finish and a bowl victory. Yet the high hopes of 2011—and the predictably unimaginative ESPN narrative that elite coaches win a national championship in their second year—may have become too much for either Kelly or his team. A bitter reflection of last year is not what Notre Dame fans had in mind.
If Kelly rebuilding the Irish is the first mode of thought towards Notre Dame football and its future, then the second is certainly that Notre Dame's expectations take no prisoners. Three coaches have passed through South Bend since Lou Holtz won a national championship in 1988. Bob Davie was given the keys to the kingdom when Holtz retired, yet his attitude towards tradition and inability to replicate Holtz's success made the fan base quickly turn on him. The stoic Ty Willingham had an immediate contrast of success with ten wins but could not sustain it, and he was out before his third season ended. Charlie Weis arrived with boasts of Super Bowl championship rings and had the fans salivating when he led the team to back-to-back BCS bowls. Weis won neither, but he had brought enough confidence back to South Bend to allow the fans to at least flirt with idea that Notre Dame was again a contender. The next couple of years saw a fall-and-rise-and-fall-again type of collapse, one which Notre Dame is no longer surprised to see. When Weis was shown the door, the few rational fans hidden in South Bend started to wonder if the Irish weren't merely the victims of football mediocrity—maybe they were the cause of it. Essentially the same result with three different coaches was a hard fact to dispute.
Kelly is now coach number four. Depending on your mode of thought, he is either on the way out or is deserving of another few years. If Notre Dame is not some entity that cannot be controlled, tamed, rebuilt, then Kelly will make it into a power like all the other programs he has touched. He knows how to do it. Football is football wherever it is played. The method for rebuilding does not change because the players are wearing golden helmets. Yet if the demands of success are bigger than one coach's efforts, if the demands themselves are an entity that has burned the careers of all its coaches in the modern era, then Kelly could be just another failure in South Bend. The question becomes: is Kelly bigger than Notre Dame, or is it bigger than he is?
This is often misinterpreted as a question of ethics or humility. We are not asking, "Is Kelly more important than Notre Dame?" Anyone associated with any major college football program, Notre Dame or otherwise, knows that the program is always more significant than the people in it. You are accountable to your school, and this allows you to share in its greatness. It fueled Bo Schembechler's historic "The Team" speech at Michigan, and it is largely the reason why great programs continue and, more importantly, continue to be great.
What we are asking is if Kelly can be able to replicate what he did at other programs, all of which were rebuilding jobs of varying degree—and, more to the point, how much time Notre Dame will give him to do so. All of Notre Dame's previous coaches came to South Bend with impressive pedigrees. Bob Davie had built Texas A&M's famous Wrecking Crew and was an assistant under Lou Holtz. Ty Willingham had taken Stanford, Notre Dame's academic rival, to the Rose Bowl. And Charlie Weis was already famous for being the Patroits' offensive coordinator and helping them to multiple victories in the Super Bowl. Yet each of these coaches experienced the same lack of measured success at Notre Dame. The two modes of thought naturally lead to two distinct opposing conclusions: either Notre Dame is in need of a massive overhaul, or Notre Dame has not yet found a coach who is worthy of its prestige.
What made Brian Kelly so appealing when he was hired was that he appeared to be an answer to both. He was considered by some to be the hottest name in college football in 2009, and Notre Dame wouldn't have accepted anything less. He was also a skilled recruiter and rebuilder who, even among the most cynical or skeptical, had very few doubters. He had more head coaching experience than Davie, Willingham, and Weis combined. Those who had watched Notre Dame constantly under-achieve and thought it needed to be rebuilt said, "If Brian Kelly can't do it, no one can."
That was before Kelly lost a few games and the Irish plummeted in the rankings. For at least two years in the Kelly Era, Notre Dame would not be in the national picture. Its tradition alone seems to be the only thing keeping Irish football in the conversation ("We have to consider Notre Dame!") while SEC teams and two Pac-12 powers attract the nation's real interest. Notre Dame's exclusive TV deal with NBC, once seen as a prized gem, has lost its luster and now looks like a pathetic cry for attention. The worst is that the Irish have gone from mediocre to almost completely irrelevant, and you cannot help but sit back, stunned. Did the coaches destroy Notre Dame, or did it destroy itself?
I once made a bet with a friend that Brian Kelly would win a national championship at Notre Dame within five years. That was in late 2009, when Kelly was first hired. I sincerely believed that Kelly was a good enough rebuilder to handle Notre Dame and anything that came his way. Now it is two years later, and Kelly is not so much in a rebuilding process as much as he is trying to manage talent and expectations. As much as delusional Notre Dame fans might disagree, the Irish are not a world-beater. They hardly exhibit SEC-level dominance, and they should thank their lucky stars that they haven't yet faced a team from that soul-crushing conference either this year or last year. Stanford and USC, if anything, have been but a taste of that competition. There is also Michigan, which looks to be in the midst of a resurgence. As painful as it might be for fans to accept, the prospect of a national championship is a long ways away.
A small part of me is not surprised that Kelly's record is 16-9 over two seasons, because there is usually some degree of growing pains that come along with the rebuilding process, and that generally results in a few losses. However, as I mentioned previously, what surprises me is that Kelly doesn't seem to be rebuilding at all. His entire career at Notre Dame has been a scramble. Every game is a fight for his job. This greatly perturbs me. Kelly achieved success in two previously low pressure environments, where he was allowed to work at his own pace and build up a team that surprised more people than simply placated them.
Instead, Kelly is in a rush to win at Notre Dame because the job apparently demands it. There can be no margin for error here, no time, and no process. Proponents of the second mode of thought would argue that Notre Dame already has the talent that it would have taken Kelly years to attain at his last two stops, or any of his stops. Therefore no rebuilding is needed. Yet I am inclined to ask two questions from this: 1) does Notre Dame really have world-beating talent as it often precariously claims, and 2) if no rebuilding is needed, then why hire a rebuilder? Kelly seemed to thrive best in the environment where he created the expectation of success rather than constantly having to catch up to it. It's hard to make cool, effective calculations when the sudden possibility of a loss at any time puts your job on the line.
It would be both glib and naive to simply say "Ease up, Notre Dame" as the solution to the Irish's troubles. You can argue that, in hindsight, Davie and Willingham were not given a fair shake, but Weis certainly was. Notre Dame endured a descent into mediocrity as they gave Weis time to get back to the success of his first two years and, hopefully, push further to the next level. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, a change had to be made. Even rivals acknowledge that Notre Dame needs to be a contender.
Yet why is Kelly, a proven winner, struggling so immensely at Notre Dame? I think it is because, by the nature of the Notre Dame job and the reality of it, Kelly has hung up his rebuilding hat and is trying to pick up where he left off at Cincinnati and coach the Irish as though he has already built them. In other rebuilding jobs, you grow into the role. You grow with the program. You make it better every day, and eventually it pays off. Kelly has come into a situation at Notre Dame where there can be no time for growing. There is only time for winning.
The egregious amount of turnovers and the lack of both discipline and fundamentals are evidence that Kelly's priorities were less about rebuilding and more about scheme and gameplan. He turned Central Michigan and Cincinnati around by establishing a foundation. Sometimes the situation is so bad that you have to go back to the basics. At Notre Dame, Kelly either chose to approach the situation differently or was forced to. He looked at the great tradition and the lack of job security and the enormous expectations and forgot essentially what he was hired to do: rebuild, lay a foundation, go back to basics, build this team up, and then surprise everyone. Notre Dame's current foundation is shaky, and that's why they struggle every year to stay in the Top 25.
Chances are that, if you are of the first mode of thought, you are disappointed but not horribly displeased with Kelly's second season. You still trust Kelly and his abilities as a coach, and you are optimistic that Notre Dame will get there. If you are of the second mode of thought, Kelly has one more year, tops. He has to make a serious bid for a BCS bowl in 2012, even a run for a national title.
This season's end provides a look to the future that, either way, is not totally encouraging. If Notre Dame beats Florida State in the Champs Sports bowl, it will be a ninth win to finish an overall disappointing season. It would hardly be progress, but it would be something. Notre Dame hasn't had a 9-win season in five years. If the Irish lose to Florida State, Kelly will essentially break even from his record last year, which in itself isn't bad, except when you remember that this is Notre Dame. Even his staunchest supporters may question his ability to get it done. No pressure, Coach.
It's possible that I was misguided when I made the bet about Kelly and the national championship. I had only vaguely considered the stark reality that Notre Dame hired Kelly to win immediately, not to rebuild. Certainly that is how Kelly himself sees it. I also only vaguely considered the sheer weight of Notre Dame's expectations. Kelly has succumbed to the pressure. It is clear what influences his decisions. Just look at the yearly quarterback controversy. This is not a coach trying to establish a culture of winning, where victories are pleasant surprises and suddenly everyone is afraid of the new kid on the block. This is a coach trying desperately not to be a loser.
Kelly situation at Notre Dame is not uncommon among storied programs. If you play with the big boys, you'd better expect big boy expectations. Programs like Texas, USC, Ohio State, Alabama, and Michigan all have national championship aspirations. It's no different for Notre Dame, nor should it be. The difference is that those programs either have foundations established or are currently re-establishing them. The most noteworthy turnaround of 2011 has been Michigan, where Brady Hoke (another career-rebuilder) came to Ann Arbor facing great expectations, along with equal skepticism, and improved the team by going back to basics. The Wolverines now know how to tackle, and they are playing a BCS bowl. Some are even surprised by what Baylor has done. It shouldn't be surprising if you look at the coaches and how they approach the team.
Those coaches were hired to rebuild amidst pressure. Brian Kelly did not come into a situation like Urban Meyer inheriting Ohio State, or Bret Bielema inheriting Wisconsin, where success is already in full swing, and Kelly just needed to keep it going. The Irish had success, yes, even in their down years, but they did not have a championship momentum that simply needed to be continued. It needed to be re-established. Notre Dame is not alone on this. UCLA now faces a similar predicament and must choose its next coach wisely.
Kelly's first two years with the Irish have been exercised with little caution, certainly less than what he exercised at his previous jobs. That should be cause for concern. I'll stand by my prediction about where Kelly will be in five years, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't starting to wonder if he'll be allowed to get there—either in what he decides, or if Notre Dame makes a decision for him, or about him.