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The Maple Street Press Irish Kickoff Series: Part Three (Coaching)

Our interview with Pat Mistch, editor of Maple Street Press Irish Kickoff 2011 and former writer for The Blue-Gray Sky, continues with part three as we take a look at the coaching at Notre Dame.

If you've missed the first two parts, here are the links to both:

Part One: Offense

Part Two: Defense

Remember, this is a five part series and we will be giving away a free copy of MSP Irish Kickoff 2011 to a lucky reader who makes a comment on these articles. Make sure to have your voice heard by the fourth installment as we will announce the winner for the final fifth post.

If you're not the lucky winner, go ahead and buy the MSP Irish Kickoff 2011 anyway. It's the best in the business.

Now to the questions....

OFD: History has shown that any human being is going to have a very difficult time coaching at Notre Dame for more than 10 years. What would you put the odds at of Brian Kelly (who will turn 50 during the upcoming season) coaching past 2020?

Mitsch: While I'd love to tailgate out of the back of my flying car before a Kelly-led 2021 Irish game, the odds are against Kelly being the head coach then. Of the 18 head coaches since Jesse Harper (including interims McKeever and Devore, and resume casualty O'Leary), only 4 lasted a decade. So history is saying Kelly has roughly a 1 in 5 chance of lasting double digit seasons.  

But in reality I'd say his chances are even lower than that. There is far more competition and parity these days and less fan patience to sit and wait a few extra seasons for a coach to build his team (back) up to championship caliber status. Even Lou, who has a statue of himself outside the Stadium, wasn't immune to fan complaints that the game was passing him by and that it was time to move on.  ND fans are a fickle lot and get spoiled pretty quickly.

Even if Kelly wins it all in the next 2-4 years, he'd have to put up a few more championship runs (and maybe even another win) to ensure fan support. As Bob Davie once lamented, Rockne did set the bar very high.

OFD: Do you expect to see a more calm, cool, and collected Brian Kelly on the sidelines in 2011?

Mitsch: If we're winning and not making mistakes? Sure. Otherwise, I suspect more than a few players will be on the end of a tongue-lashing after a costly mental error.  Funny you should ask this because I asked nearly the exact same question in the Irish Kickoff 2011 to a roundtable of writers.

Allow me to cheat here and crib an excellent point from Jay, a guy some of you might remember from our BGS days together.  "A coach like Kelly, 20 years in the game, doesn't change his stripes in the heat of battle."  In other words, if a veteran player makes a dumb, unforced mistake that costs the team, he's likely to hear it, loudly, from Kelly that such mistakes are unacceptable.

OFD: If Kelly is ever able to recruit enough elite running backs, do you ever foresee Notre Dame running the ball more than they throw it at some point down the road, or is it just lunacy to expect something like that?

Mitsch: If ND can land an Adrian Peterson caliber recruit I think it's pretty likely that he will start to lean more on the run than the pass. That's sort of a no-brainer for just about any college coach. But ND did have 4 running backs on the roster last year who were Top 100 recruits and still threw the ball more than they ran so I think as long as ND features the spread we won't see an overwheming focus on the ground game.

On the other hand, Kelly was head coach at GVSU for 10 years before switching to the spread. Who's to say he wouldn't try and change to another offensive system if he's at ND for a long time (although hopefully it would turn out better than Lou's attempt at the "Blarney Offense")

OFD: Is Director of Football Strength & Conditioning Paul Longo a secret weapon for Notre Dame, or is he merely bringing the program back to the best it can be and where other elite teams have already been for a number of years?

Mitsch: Kelly sure seems to be happy with the results of Longo's work as he keeps bringing him along from CMU to UC to ND.  "Secret weapon" might be a bit much, but having a strength coach you can trust and rely on is pretty key as they get to spend a lot more time with the players than the head coach or any assistants.

Of course, the reputation of the strength coach is usually tied to the success of the head coach. From our outsider vantage point as fans, it can be difficult to determine where the impact of the strength coach stops and where the impact of the head coach starts.

OFD: There seems to be a fairly large divide between how people view the abilities of this coaching staff as some really like them and others are clearly not that impressed. What is your take on the staff from top to bottom?

Mitsch: After the instances of discord between assistants under Charlie, it's refreshing to have a staff that give all appearances of being on the same page and understand their role in the bigger picture. There were understandly some concerns when Kelly brought a large number of his UC staff to ND rather than hiring bigger names, but having a staff that is familiar with your methods and have good chemistry together is a pretty key attritbute when trying to rapidly rebuild a program.

The confidence the staff had in Kelly during last season's awful October no doubt filtered down to the players and contributed to the excellent November.  As for my take on the individual coaches themselves, we'll all start to get a better idea in Year Two. I think it's pretty tough to get that good a look in the first year when everything is brand new. Now that the players know what to expect, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few units really start to shine under their position coach's leadership.

OFD: No coach experienced quite the lows and highs last season like Bob Diaco, and for good reason. At 38 years old, coming into his third year as a defensive coordinator and 13th year as a coach, is Diaco a rising star in the college ranks or still a fairly unproven commodity?

Mitsch: It's tough to call anyone a rising star who oversaw the defensive collapse against Navy last season. Granted, the turnaround at the end of the season was fantastic, as was his relentless recruiting leading up to National Signing Day.  

Still, I think he's still a work in progress. He has plenty of potential and the players seem to really like him, but he has to prove that games like the Navy game were the fluke outlier. He'll also probably have to get a bit more polished in front of the media before he starts to get mentioned for more DC and head coaching opportunities. I do think he'll get there, but it might take a few more years.

OFD: Earlier in the offseason there were concerns that some of the assistants would be moving on to other opportunities. That hasn't happened yet, but do you see any coaches leaving anytime soon and if so, who do think are the first one or two to leave?

The safe bet for the first few assistants to leave are the ones already being mentioned for jobs. Coach Martin is a likely candidate to be offered multiple head coaching jobs very soon. Coach Warriner is another guy I expect to be offered more OC jobs (and I suspect his new run game coordinator job title is a way to give him a higher salary and get him to stick around a bit longer).

If Coach Alford continues to be the excellent recruiter he has been the past few years, teams will certainly come after him too.  And as I mentioned earlier, Coach Diaco needs some more seasoning and to show continued defensive improvement, but he's also a candidate in the next few years to move on.

OFD: What is one major positive sign you saw from Brian Kelly (and the whole coaching staff) in 2010 that leaves you very upbeat about the future? What is one major negative that has you concerned?

Mitsch: The obvious positive is the way Kelly and his staff held the team together after multiple losses and tragedies hit the team mid-season. His ability to weather the storm and keep the team focused is Example A why ND always needs to hire a coach with plenty of head coaching experience.

The major negative I suppose is the curious playcalling at times that seemed to be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. I think that's just who Kelly is as a playcaller, but there needs to be a balance between being not afraid to make a risky call and dialing up a flea flicker for Tommy Rees's first collegiate pass.

OFD: Brian Kelly is already 40 percentage points higher than the average winning percentages of Davie, Willingham, and Weis. With a 10-3 record in 2011, Kelly would finish year two in South Bend with just under a .700 winning percentage for his career at Notre Dame. Will Kelly ultimately win 70% of his games at Notre Dame? Is that something we should expect or demand?

Mitsch: I don't know if Kelly will ultimately win 70% of his games at ND, but I do strongly believe it is something that ND fans should both expect and demand from the ND head coach. After all, the goal is to win national championships and every coach who has done that at ND easily cleared the 70% win hurdle.

With the 12 game regular season, hitting 70% only requires a coach to alternate 8 and 9 wins and I don't think any ND fan would be happy if ND rarely if ever hit double digit wins.  I certainly hope that Kelly wins more than 70% of his games at ND, because if he doesn't, he's going to be shown the door just like the three coaches before him.  

Coming up in Part Four: Recruiting