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Brian Kelly and the Future: Undefeated Today, But What About Tomorrow?

Notre Dame has started the 2012 season with a perfect 6-0 record, what does it mean for the future of head coach Brian Kelly?

Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Notre Dame is 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country. It feels pretty good doesn't it?

The football season always seems so short every year. It makes me want to hit 'pause' on the rest of the season for a full month and go back and really dig into the details and all the moments that brought Notre Dame to one of the top teams in the land.

However, the season must march on and the independent BYU Cougars are coming to South Bend this weekend. If the Irish remain perfect after that tussle then a historic visit awaits in Norman against the revitalized and talented Oklahoma Sooners.

As the Fighting Irish have fought their way to 6-0 this season there's been a lot of talk about head coach Brian Kelly. A lot of that chatter has centered around how Brian Kelly has changed, how he's learning on the job, how he's doing things differently, and with many skeptics coming out and supporting his efforts.

Of course, not losing games and staying undefeated halfway through a season is going to do that to people.

I'm not concerned with talking about if Kelly has changed (at least right now, and for the record I don't think he's changed that much) or exploring why more people are jumping to support the head coach today. Notre Dame is 6-0 and that seems like a pretty easy explanation for now.

Yet, we know Notre Dame isn't going to win every game. At some point the losses will come. We'll see what the temperature is after those defeats and what the support of Brian Kelly is like when national title hopes are dashed or even if a BCS bid disappears.

A lot of the issues I've seen surrounding coach Kelly and the Fighting Irish football team have to do with expectations and how fans perceive success under the Golden Dome. Back in February I tackled many of these issues in the Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4) which is 12,000 words longer than what you'll read here today.

My point is that there's always been many people who were in a rush to judge Brian Kelly---and even more damning---to deny the need to rebuild Notre Dame football. In many respects, they were in a hurry to see championship football when that just wasn't realistic because it meant the Irish would have to skip over a bunch of steps that are a part of every healthy program in the 21st century.

So as we stare at a possible 7-0 record after this Saturday afternoon I am not trying to throw mud at anyone and say that they were wrong about Brian Kelly and that I was right. On the contrary, I must emphasize that we still have a long way to go, many games to be played, and more of the process to play out before a more complete judgement can be handed down.

But it's just that, THE PROCESS, which is something a lot of Irish fans don't want to deal with.

Sure they love it now when Notre Dame is 6-0, but many will jump off the bandwagon if Oklahoma wins two weeks from now. The progress that has been made in rebuilding will be largely ignored and the nit-picking will start right up again as will the internet coaching searches and condemnations of the current staff for not calling the right play 3 times out of 75.

That's part of today's instant reaction're only as good or bad as your last game. Forget the process and rebuilding---a handful of bad playcalls and the fans will start etching your name in stone as a bad coach after a loss!

In the Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame I laid out a number of keys to the rebuilding effort in South Bend:

  • Solidifying the coaching staff
  • Beat more ranked teams
  • Avoid losing seasons
  • Develop the quarterback position
  • Maintain healthy depth across the entire roster
  • Push the envelope with new technology
  • Blow out more teams
  • Decrease the amount of blow out losses and bad losses
  • Recruit football-first players
  • Develop team mental toughness

If you're waiting to see a championship-level team out of Notre Dame this year, or if you're waiting for Brian Kelly to "prove" that he's a championship level coach in year 3---you might miss the progress the program has made.

If you're still upset about Tulsa, or that Kelly chose to call 3 pass plays backed up against his own end zone against Stanford, or that the head coach is not a perfect playcaller---you might miss the progress the program has made.

As we stare at a 6-0 record it's tempting to think about a national title. It's tempting to think that Notre Dame is officially "back." It's tempting to think that a Return to Glory™ is actually coming true.

As tough as it may be for Irish fans, remember to look at the big picture.

A BCS bowl winning season would be huge for Notre Dame, but the process doesn't end there should it occur this year. When I've talked about rebuilding Notre Dame football in the past it's not about having one great year. More or less, the Irish have experienced that high a few times over the past 15 years (minus a major bowl win but you get the point), but what's needed is a higher-level of winning that is consistent year after year.

The program building needs to reach a certain level of sustained success before we set our goals higher because Brian Kelly did not take over from a dynasty built by Pete Carroll at USC, but instead one held together by yarn by Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.

You'll notice there are no national title or BCS victory among the rebuilding keys and that's because the Irish have had no business talking about such glory.

Notre Dame needs to work on the rebuilding keys above before greater glory can come later on. If Brian Kelly cannot successfully achieve the vast majority of those keys through four or five seasons he's not going to coach at Notre Dame for very long, it's just that simple.

However, Irish fans are in no position to criticize those rebuilding keys as lowering of expectations after witnessing the Davie/Willingham/Weis years. If Brian Kelly ends up achieving most of those keys year after year but cannot win the big game and falters on the big stage, hey guess what, we're going to be in a far happier place and miles away from the 1997-2009 debacle we've struggled through.

It might be frustrating but at least Notre Dame will have a stable program that is back to winning a lot of football games. At least we'd know the Irish could march into any stadium in the country and have a legitimate shot at beating the best teams in the country.

It might make us anxious that a title was so close yet so far away but at least the position of head coach at Notre Dame will be immensely more attractive for the next hire.

I've often been asked if I think Brian Kelly is going to succeed at Notre Dame. For as low as this program was the majority of the post-Holtz era, I believe Kelly's success is mostly tied to him improving upon the rebuilding keys set forth with my 'Rebuilding Notre Dame' posts. So far, after two and a half years Brian Kelly is proving that he's got the skills, leadership, and drive to take this program up a couple notches.

Just look at those keys above. Outside of developing a quarterback---and don't you go sleeping on Everett Golson---he's done a wonderful job in just about every area. For Notre Dame in 2012, that means a whole lot.

I don't know if he'll ever win a national title because for every coach that involves a lot of good luck, but I've always had the sense that Brian Kelly's tenure is going to be a very positive one for Notre Dame.

A 6-0 start doesn't have me doing back flips that he's achieved greatness nor that domination is here to stay or just around the corner. Nor will 2 or 3 losses this season---particularly if they are close games---shake me of the belief that Brian Kelly will end up leaving the Irish program far better off than what he was handed in December 2009.