The Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame: Part One

This is the first of a four-part series focusing on rebuilding and winning at Notre Dame today and for the future.

Rebuilding.

That word generates a lot of opinion, reaction, and argument from Notre Dame fans in 2012.

This is because it's hard to define and can mean a lot of different things to various people when broken down in the world of college football and the Notre Dame program.

For some, it means fixing what is broken.

For others it means restoring the past.

And for someone else, it means a remodeling effort.

The truth is that Notre Dame needs a little of all the detailed definitions above, but the problems and roadblocks inherent in such rebuilding are numerous---the greatest of which may be a popular culture based on tradition that has made it difficult to understand, recognize, or accept the need for rebuilding

This series of articles is not an excuse for failure, an apology for Brian Kelly's first two seasons, nor a prediction for major success in the coming years at Notre Dame, but rather testimony that honest and patient rebuilding can lead to a restoration of winning in South Bend.

Tradition is Dead

One of the biggest troubles surrounding Notre Dame is the belief held by some that the Irish program doesn't need rebuilding in the first place.

If you think the past success of Rockne, Leahy, and even Holtz means Notre Dame doesn't have to rebuild, you might want to stop reading now in order to continue living in your protected bubble. That is because Notre Dame is creeping up on 20 years without being a consistent national contender---and when you're trying to rebuild a program---a collection of dusty banners, trophies, and awards mean very little.

Don't get me wrong, tradition is important at Notre Dame and plays many roles for the University and most specifically as a tool to bring in talented recruits, but once those athletes step on campus their future success on the field has nothing to do with Gus Dorias or Chris Zorich.

Surely no coaching staff would begin a new career at Yale and believe the main ingredient to their future success is tradition just because the Bulldogs used to be great once upon a time.

Yet, the belief still exists that since Notre Dame was once great, it's road back to glory should be easy---or at least easier than the vast majority of other programs.

Unfortunately, it is not easy but more difficult than ever---especially when a rebuilding coach is trying to fix what's broken, yet is being assailed for not properly restoring the past and being undercut at every corner because his remodeling effort is deemed to go against tradition.

Again, this is not to say that tradition isn't important or plays a role in a successful program. What it means is that in the case of a nearly 20-year slumping Notre Dame, it does more harm than good. It can blind people from seeing real progress and sets the bar so high that potential rebuilding can be foresaken^ because it doesn't meet a certain level of excellence in a certain amount of years.

^This is something that could happen, and does not mean Davie, Willingham, or Weis were in fact rebuilding properly or deserved more time to do so.

For the best tradition is the tradition of winning in the here and now, and the worst tradition is the tradition of winning in the past and being unable to rebuild for tomorrow.

A New Notre Dame

There's not much need to go into all of the ways that Notre Dame has changed as a university since the internet age began, but suffice to say that it's been somewhat significant. In athletics, the changes in the college football world since the early 1990's have been enormously significant.

Together, both set of changes have decreased the margin of error at Notre Dame to an extremely low level.

Like the refusal to admit a rebuilding process needs to take place to begin with, some also refuse to accept the social, cultural, academic, and athletic changes that have impacted Notre Dame.

Some include:

  • The significance of the NBC contract has been diminished.
  • Scholarship reductions across the NCAA.
  • Recruiting (while still strong) doesn't approach the embarrassment of riches it once did.
  • Many of the nation's best players don't drool at the thought of playing at Notre Dame---in some cases, as with Louis Nix, they practically don't even know Notre Dame exists.
  • Classes and academic life are harder than ever.
  • The SEC and other programs seemingly playing by different rules.
  • The general campus culture has broadened to new and spectacular heights---removing Notre Dame from the football factory label as much as any time in history.

Additionally, while Notre Dame has had successful athletic teams in past decades, never before have all the teams been as collectively dominant as they are today---all while the former king in football still struggles to reach its once proud heights.

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Keys to Rebuilding: Keep the Coaching Staff as Solidified as Possible

It's inevitable that any successful coaching staff will be poached, and a program that isn't performing well may be better off bringing in new coaches anyway, so there's going to be a natural turnover.

Notre Dame experienced a shakeup this offseason, but was able to retain the three most important coaches in Diaco, Alford, and Martin. Moving forward it will be important for rebuilding to keep these teachers and recruiters around to be able to solidify that consistent message: This is the type of players we recruit at Notre Dame, this is the type of defense we play, these are the attributes we are looking for at the high school level, and this is how we do things at Notre Dame.

Don't underestimate the power and appeal of a steady and reliable message from Notre Dame for more than 3 to 5 years, and how a consistent approach to coaching and recruiting will make player development easier and allow high schools all over the country to be more comfortable with what Notre Dame has to offer.

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For example, what is the number one selling point for Notre Dame coaches to prospective recruits? What are they using as the primary tool to sway Davonte Neal right now?

The 40-year decision.

Was that the case in 1928? Or 1948? Or 1967?

Sure, academics have always been important at Notre Dame, but the 40-year decision has become the ultimate tool for recruiting whereas in the past it was undoubtedly winning and other assorted football related themes.

That is why rebuilding needs to be seen through this lens of a new Notre Dame.

It is highly unlikely that any future Notre Dame coach brings about a long run of national dominance, or given the state of affairs since 1994, come in and turn the clock back to 1965 after 30 months. If that's the only way you'll be satisfied with a coach in South Bend, prepare to take disappointment with you to your grave.

The issue of rebuilding isn't about lowering expectations, it's about setting the program up for a long-term future that will allow Notre Dame to achieve it's goal---winning a national title again.

Read that last sentence again for clear understanding of this Guide.

A new history needs to be written at Notre Dame; A new plan based on rebuilding and patience needs to be undertaken. The past means very little to this future endeavor, and strict sentiments of what past coaches did by year three should not automatically determine if a current coach has failed or not.

When Notre Dame is far different than every school in the country, it's unwise to point to what other programs have done and believe that is what has to be done in South Bend. When Notre Dame has changed and grown as a university it is rash to point at what the Irish program has done in the past and believe that is exactly how the script must be followed.

For if there is a college team that will do things a little differently, and win a title in an unconventional way, it is probably going to be Notre Dame.

Don't expect success to follow the same path as past Notre Dame teams, and get comfortable with the Irish taking an unfamiliar historical route to sustained success.

So What Needs to be Fixed? What is Rebuilding Anyway?

It's incredibly useful for Notre Dame fans to define what needs to be done and understand exactly what rebuilding means today.

Luckily the physical structures are in place for success---something that wasn't true 10 years ago--- but they also haven't had time to take root over many classes.

The Guglielmino athletic complex is state-of-the-art and provides players with everything they need in terms of preparation. The training table has arrived and gives players proper year-round nutrition. The locker room is spacious and updated. The stadium is large and full on each home Saturday.

For the most part these are the easy fixes---the ones that a wealthy university should take care of---but they are ones that are not the core problems. They are helpful for sure (much like a video board or consistent playing surface would be), and some are more important than others (proper nutrition far outweighs having music played through the PA system), but they are periphery concerns in comparison to the real issues surrounding the players and coaches themselves.

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Keys to Rebuilding: Beat More Ranked Teams

Over the five-year Weis era, Notre Dame beat just one football team that finished the season ranked---Penn State in 2006 sneaking in at No. 24 in the AP and No. 25 in the Coaches Poll.

In fact, in the 16 seasons from 1994 to 2009, the Fighting Irish beat just five ranked teams that went on to win at least 10 games that year, while Brian Kelly has achieved this in back-to-back seasons with victories over Utah in 2010 and Michigan State this past season.

It's a hopeful sign for sure, but Kelly still needs to improve as he is only 2-6 (2-7 if you count 2011 USC) versus teams who end the season ranked. Most coaches are going to have head scratching losses from time to time, but Notre Dame desperately needs that regain that upset gene, pull closer to .500 against ranked teams, and especially hold down the home field advantage and make opponents worry about competing inside the House that Rock Built.

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The much more difficult and important aspects to rebuilding revolve around coaching, consistency, mental toughness*, continuity, building sustainable depth, and fixing team weaknesses and lack of production.

*Mental toughness is a huge part of the rebuilding effort at Notre Dame---but at the same time it is so hard to measure or quantify. For those who have played sports at a reasonably high level, you know how important it is, and really you know it when you see it, or conversely, how obvious it is when a team doesn't have it. Mental toughness should definitely be a high priority for Kelly & Co. right now.

Putting the methods of the current Brian Kelly regime aside for the moment, we may agree the levels of the above program health indicators were at absolutely dreadful lows following the 2009 season.

In recent years Notre Dame has hired three coaches unprepared to take on the responsibilities of rebuilding in one form or another, and this affected the culture of the football team in an enormous way.

The team was never able to win at a high level or sustain a consistent level of winning. It was always peaks and valleys---with far too many valleys and no breakthrough upsets to turn the tide.

The mental toughness was downright atrocious at times, with even the smallest of negative circumstances defeating the team long before the end of the game.

At many positions (defensive line especially) the depth was nowhere near where it should be for a strong D-1 team.

And also many positions were terribly unproductive and dependent upon 2 or 3 players carrying that side of the ball (especially on offense).

You can cite the recruiting rankings all you want, but when a coach comes into the above situation and is also forced to coach within the parameters of Notre Dame's rules (no JUCO's, no grayshirting, no oversigning, no player dorms, no easy classes, etc.) the ability to rebuild and reload becomes an epic challenge.

The easy solution is to simply hire a top-level coach, which makes sense since the head coach is mostly responsible for continuing an already built foundation or rebuilding a new one. But with every failed coaching regime, the chances to land the top-level coach dwindles, the margin for error decreases even more, and recruits stop believing in a bright future.

The problem for Notre Dame in the 21st Century is that rebuilding is needed more than ever, yet the patience for such rebuilding is still frighteningly lacking in part because of Irish tradition but also because of the past three failed coaches.

In fact, the Irish are stuck in this bizarre world where some fans can moan about the lack of success for nearly two decades, wail at how far the program has fallen, beat their chests with the lack of dominant play---and then turn right around and refuse to buy into any rebuilding effort.

As long as there remain several positive trends and there are no 3 or 5-win seasons, the Irish faithful should be very hesitant to move on to yet another new coach. Since Kelly hasn't dipped to that level yet, and has improved the program from its 2007-09 malaise, the patience levels should be reasonably high.

Coming up in part two:

Is Brian Kelly Rebuilding?

How Long Should Kelly be Allowed to Rebuild?

The Power of Not Sucking.

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