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The Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame: Part Two

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

For part one, click here.

"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."

Is Brian Kelly Rebuilding?

Looking back at the tenures of Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis it's easy to say that they failed, underperformed, and were not able to rebuild the dynasty that is Irish football. If you're willing to admit that much (and I'm pretty sure everyone is) then you should be able to admit that Notre Dame needs to be rebuilt.

So, is Brian Kelly actually rebuilding Notre Dame?

Kelly is rebuilding and doing pretty well so far, but has plenty of room for improvement. He's targeted the team's major weakness (defense) and improved that unit rather remarkably, he's preached mental toughness and made some inroads there, his message (along with the rest of the staff) has been consistent, and the fundamentals in most areas have been much-improved.

Kelly has also brought a new sense of personal responsibility upon the players, demanded more from them in terms of attention to details both on and off the field, while also reorganizing the players' routines and stressing how important the strength and conditioning program is.

Kelly's experience and closeness with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo alone has been a major part to literally physically rebuilding the players and making sure they are full of energy and strength late in games and throughout a full season.

In short, the amount of improving fundamental issues so vital to rebuilding have been patently obvious for those who wish to see it. Winning more football games is the final and most important piece to the puzzle, but the rebuilding elsewhere has definitely started to take root.


Keys to Rebuilding: Avoid Losing Seasons

It's emphasized in this Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame far enough. A Fighting Irish program that can go 5 years, 7 years, or even a decade without a losing season will be a much stronger program---even if there aren't any BCS bowl games in there.

Forget about the empty Return to Glory™ dreams and a fast-track to major bowl victories and championships within a three-year period---think about the wonders it could do for Notre Dame when her enemies can no longer point to the Golden Dome every other year and say, "Look how far away they are from playing top-level football."


Thus, Kelly's rebuilding efforts should buy more patience from fans---not forever of course---but at this point in time there shouldn't be a coaching search underway because Notre Dame isn't lining up for a BCS bowl bid. Not when the line play has been drastically improved, the running game made big strides for the first time in a decade, the defense continued playing at a high level, and the Irish finished 2011 inside the top 15 in Football Outsider's FEI, S&P, and F/+ national rankings.

If you're not wrapped up in the belief that Brian Kelly needs to win 10 games in 2012 to save his job or that at the end of year three we'll know all we need to know about him, you will find that there have been a lot of positive trends happening in South Bend.

We'll have to see how the next couple seasons play out, but Kelly sits fairly comfortably with the way he's improved Notre Dame so far since 2010.

How Long Should Kelly Be Allowed to Rebuild?

Ah, the million-dollar question.

First, let me pose another question: What if Brian Kelly wins 8 or 9 games---no more, no less---for the next four seasons?

Is that unacceptable? Would six full seasons without double-digit victories mean Notre Dame is truly satisfied with mediocrity? Is that really mediocrity given Notre Dame's recent past in the internet age?

Kelly is going to get 5 years minimum and until there's a stinker of a season or obvious lack of development or crumbling of the rebuilding effort, the heat should be relatively low. We know that might not be the case, but that should be the reality for a program with so many .500 and below seasons since the end of the Holtz era.

Essentially what we're talking about with allowing Kelly to rebuild is the gray area involving 7 to 9 wins a season. Any seasons below or above that gray area and Kelly's future becomes much clearer.

But within that gray area, there should be much more patience and a willingness to forsake starting all over again with a new coach after 4 or 5 years versus allowing Notre Dame to build a foundation and identity through long-term stability.

If Brian Kelly does not end a season with 6 or fewer wins, the main goal should be to continue under his leadership to the point where Notre Dame is a stable program, free from disaster, and much more attractive to a new and more proven coach who may be able to get the Irish over the hump.

Everyone wants an elite coach in South Bend, but it's not as simple as calling up Bob Stoops and throwing the bank at him. We can go round and round with the circular argument that the administration doesn't care, and that's why an elite coach won't come to Notre Dame---or also that an elite coach won't come to Notre Dame because the administration has hired bad coaches in the past and simply can't or won't hire the best coaches today.

When you set the bar at "hire an elite coach or it's a failure" or "you have three years to prove you're an elite coach" you're fundamentally misunderstanding how to rebuild and only digging a deeper hole for Notre Dame.

With the historical arc the Irish program has been on since Holtz left, the answer is not likely (at least initially) going to come from an elite coach (Stoops, Meyer, Saban, etc.) because those leaders will not come to Notre Dame with its track record of instability and impediments to quick success.

More than likely, the path to success will come from hiring a coach with a very good track record who comes to Notre Dame and raises the winning percentage, stops the bleeding of losing seasons every other year, and stabilizes the program to where it is attractive to the nation's best leaders.

Brian Kelly may be that coach.

The Power of Not Sucking

Irish fans love talking about mediocrity. The three levels in football (according to some) are domination, mediocrity, and sucking. Hence, why you see back-to-back 8-5 seasons described as utterly mediocre.

However, one of the major steps that needs to take place in a real rebuilding effort is eliminating the .500 or below seasons---in other words, removing the country's ability to point to a season at Notre Dame and say, "The Irish are falling apart yet again!"

Not only is a bottoming out once or twice a sign of bad coaching, it also reverses any momentum and rebuilding efforts that might have been undertaken. Right now, avoiding this bottoming out is much more important than reaching the upper-echelon of college football.

Today, fans should be tentatively pleased that there hasn't been a bottoming out under Kelly, but still some can't accept this and continue to persist that year three will define his coaching career in South Bend.


Keys to Rebuilding: Develop the Quarterback Position

This one is so obvious, especially in the immediate future of the program. Given Kelly's history, you have to like his odds at figuring out the quarterback battle over the next few seasons, but it's still a problem that needs to be addressed.

Kelly would also be wise to take the handcuffs off and run his offense the way in which he is comfortable---at full speed and without much hesitation.

He's deliberately turned away from a more explosive offense that takes it to the opponent in favor of a more ball-control oriented offense intent on slowing things down and focusing on the details in light of Notre Dame's strong line play and tough defense. However, Kelly might want to re-visit this decision and go all in with his "normal" offense.


What's interesting is that there's this great fear of Notre Dame sinking into mediocrity, passing each year with 8-5 type seasons, with recruiting falling apart as the university gladly rakes in the millions in revenue.

In the 11 seasons from 1999 to 2009, Notre Dame had 6 campaigns end at or below .500, yet somehow we're supposed to think 8-5 is "sinking" into mediocrity? 8-5 is a statistical improvement---yet leave it to some fans to say that improvement isn't good enough at Notre Dame.

The thing is, the Irish have suffered 9 seasons (when you count the years in which the Irish were one game over .500) since the mid-90's that were sub-par for most programs' standards, yet here the Irish are still standing with great facilities and a talented roster. Oh, how things could be so much worse.

I fail to see how stringing together a bunch of 8-5 seasons, and boosting the programs winning percentage along the way, would be a disaster and ruin Notre Dame's recruiting---not when we've just witnessed 15+ years of worse football and still with the roster talent far outweighing the team's results during that period.

Of course, one could argue that multiple seasons without a Return to Glory™ campaign thrown in periodically would hurt the program, but at the same time, we've never seen the effect of a stable Notre Dame in modern times without losing seasons littered all over the place.

This point can't be hammered home enough: When Notre Dame stops having poor seasons nearly every other season, then the program will finally be on the road to recovery. This has to happen to make the Irish head coaching job one worth an putting an elite leaders reputation on the line---it's not going to happen simply because "Notre Dame is Notre Dame" and there's all this history and tradition to look back on.

Coming up in part three:

Notre Dame as an Attractive Job Destination

Changing Expectations to Aid Rebuilding

What Role is University Leadership Playing?