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The Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame: Part Three

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

Part I

Part II

"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."

Notre Dame as an Attractive Job Destination

It is vastly underrated how more attractive the position of head coach at Notre Dame would become if the poor seasons were wiped out for an extended period of time.

In their desperation, many fans wish to prematurely anoint Brian Kelly a savior or failure---it's part of the Irish DNA at this point. This black and white picture that is painted is the kind that keeps the country's best coaches away. For why would a coach put his reputation on the line without enough levelheadedness surrounding him?

In the past there has been a lot of remorse at the fact that Notre Dame couldn't or wouldn't hire the best and most experienced coach when the opportunity presented itself. Never mind the university's perceived lack of effort for a moment---tell me why a Bob Stoops or Urban Meyer would want to coach at Notre Dame?

In some ways Notre Dame still remains Notre Dame, but this is a What Have You Done For Me Lately business.

And what has Notre Dame done lately to deserve, nay, demand someone like Stoops or Meyer?

Further, Notre Dame has struggled nearly every other season before men like Stoops and Meyer were even head coaches. This rough stretch doesn't exactly stretch back to when they were forming impressions as young kids, but they've grown up as coaches, made a name for themselves, and won championships, all in a world where Notre Dame falls flat on its face on a consistent basis.

Until the Irish stop making a face plant such a common occurrence, you can bet the elite coaches will stay away.

The only way to attract the best of the best in the coaching world is to rebuild the program to the point where the losing seasons are a thing of the past; where the risks of regressing every other year are severely diminished. Do that, and the Notre Dame head coach position will become incredibly more attractive.

Changing Expectations to Aid Rebuilding

No matter how you try to explain it, changing expectations usually comes off as a quest to lower the standards at Notre Dame. But this line of thinking incorrectly assumes that changing expectations means the standards will be lowered forever.

It also fails to take into account that rebuilding a program is a process, that there are steps to be taken to sustained growth, and that screaming at the top of your lungs "give us excellence now" is utterly counterproductive to future goals.


Keys to Rebuilding: Maintain Healthy Depth Across the Entire Roster

A major key to rebuilding the program is making sure you have the tools to do so---and that means recruiting evenly and filling in holes on your roster where depth is weak.

Right now Kelly has done a great job boosting the defense, but did come up a little short on pure corners in this cycle. Still, he's restocked the depth about as well as possible through two seasons.

What he can't afford to do is miss badly at positions (needing 3 DL, only getting 1; needing 2 QB's, getting none) like his two predecessors did. Sometimes that means making a couple reaches and having to develop them into quality players, but it has to be done for the health of the program.


In fact, I've never really quite understood the fear and revulsion to rebuilding and changing expectations in the short-term.

You would think Notre Dame was 155-28 over the past 15 years and fans are irrationally supporting a coach because "they like him" and willingly allowing the program to suffer because of some personal attachment.

Certainly Irish fans are passionate and no doubt some become attached to a coach and wish him the best. At the same time, I don't think there are many who really want to keep a coach around precisely to lower expectations.

That is to say, if we were able to look into the future and see the coach following Brian Kelly winning a national title, how many people would say, "But I really like the lowered expectations and less winning, so let's keep Brian Kelly around anyway."

No one would act like that.

The issue isn't the fans who irrationally support a head coach at Notre Dame, and if it is, they're being drowned in a giant sea of vocal anti-coach supporters anyway.

I'm talking about the fans who demand excellence within two years, demand Notre Dame win playing a certain style of play, and demand the Irish follow a predetermined path from history.

These are the type of fans that think because they discovered Charlie Weis wasn't the answer in October 2007 and you didn't give up on him until October 2009, that they're the one who wants to win and you're the one who wants to lower expectations and is satisfied with losing.

These are the type of fans who love calling the other fans naive and uncommitted to winning, but it's not quite that simple. There will come a time when a coach proves more or less that his time at Notre Dame has run its course---but as far as rebuilding efforts are concerned, any Irish coach deserves a prescribed amount of time.

Just because someone jumped ship late in the Weis era doesn't mean they didn't want to win---and you can put the university's actions right up there with that "late" jump too.

What matters most today for Notre Dame is being patient and letting a coach install his system and see what becomes of it. It's true that Notre Dame may have been better off in the long run letting go of Charlie Weis in 2008 or 2009, and it's also true that his program building efforts were poor at best, but the risks of firing him that early versus keeping must be weighed carefully.

Would an elite coach want to step into a situation where the last two Irish coaches got only three seasons each? Would a coach come to South Bend after witnessing that with those two previous leaders going a combined 29-9 over half of their tenures that they were still axed?

If you've fired two coaches after three years each, how does that affect the pool of available coaching candidates? Of course you want to move on from a coaching failure, but who's ready to walk through that door behind that failure?

In most situations (the Willingham era clearly wasn't one of them), preaching patience and re-setting expectations are the keys to rebuilding a struggling program, but getting Notre Dame back on track is never as easy as picking up the phone and bringing in an elite coach.

Like so many things in life, hiring and firing a head coach must be weighed against the risks and rewards. It's a lesson that brings harsh realities to economics, government, and even college football---and its one that people in their Give It To Me Now sensibilities often forget.

What Role is University Leadership Playing?

I realize that having this discussion about rebuilding within our OFD community and on the internet seems pointless at times.

We arguably have little to no influence with the administration and powerful alumni---they are the players holding all the cards, and they are the ones who ultimately oversee the rebuilding process.

For years there's been the belief that the Notre Dame administration simply doesn't care anymore about winning at football and is only concerned about the revenue the team can generate for the rest of the school.


Keys to Rebuilding: Push the Envelope with New Technology

Notre Dame has a problem of making its margin for error so small due to a variety of factors (academics, no gray shirting, no over-signing, etc.) and has done itself no favors in the past by relying almost exclusively on tradition as the main selling point for the football team.

Notre Dame was behind the curve when it came to state of the art equipment, in the locker room, with a training table, and inside the stadium. This isn't about demanding a video board or FieldTurf right this moment, but instead cautioning the university from turning its back on technology and progress now and in the future.

The university has been turning the rusty gears more often in recent years with the new Gug athletic complex and welcoming different ideas into the gameday atmosphere as examples, but it must be on-going like much of the rebuilding process.

There's no room for complacency in the world of college football where big money and research is giving teams all over the country that new cutting edge. At Notre Dame---where let's be honest, every little edge can matter---it is best to keep an open mind about new advancements in all fields and support various ways to help the football team succeed.


Your eyes are closed if you don't think there's some division between the football team and the school, that the relationship between the two sides has been contentious at times, or that the university has always done its best and put its full power of resources behind the Irish football program.

At the same time, the tin foil must be well positioned on your head to think that there's an institutionalized policy of apathy towards the football team from the entire university leadership, or even a majority of leadership.

No doubt we can look back at many decisions over the past 15 to 20 years and lament some very poor choices by the Notre Dame administration. Further, a solid case could be made that in the past certain high profile leaders (not the entire leadership) were indifferent (or at least not very rabid in their support) to the success of the football team.

However, I'd like to make three points:

1) Most people want to take something inherently complex (a large collection of leaders who are mixing social, educational, religious, athletic, monetary, and ethic responsibilities) and make it simple, when it is clearly not so.

This leads to a lot of generic blanket statements about a diverse group of people, as well as oversimplified statements such as, "The administration needed to hire Coach X, but they did not, therefore they do not care about winning."

While certainly deserving of plenty of criticism then and now, this oversimplification can be a gross distortion at times. Those in leadership positions at Notre Dame are easy and convenient targets, but most times it's simple to criticize their job while completely free from their responsibilities.

2) The jobs for the leaders at Notre Dame is incredibly difficult

As far as taking care of the football team and setting it up for success, Notre Dame isn't Alabama. Unless you want to change the core identity of the university, it will never be as simple as throwing a ton of money at a coach and all of the problems will be magically solved.

Further, it's not discussed enough that Notre Dame is filled with good people who are trying their best---but given the circumstances, pressure, and difficulty of their jobs---have made honest mistakes, hired the wrong people at times, and failed to understand the amount of effort and precision it takes to rebuild Irish football.

3) Their performance has improved in recent years

If the leaders of Notre Dame have to live with the the disappointments of the last two decades, then they also should be commended for their efforts in recent years.

President Jenkins and AD Jack Swarbrick are significant upgrades in their positions and have made positive moves for the football team since taking their posts, and this is a very good sign for the future.

Switching to the 6-5-1 scheduling model, navigating the conference realignment waters and staying independent, bringing back night home games, fixing the helmet color, adding traditional powers to the schedule, instituting the training table, airing the spring game on national television, bringing in high profile transfers, trying to get Amir Carlisle to play in 2012, and yes, hiring a coach with only 56 losses over 20 years, a 78% career winning percentage, and coming off an undefeated season---these are all decisions that put an emphasis on football and making a winning program a top priority.

Coming up in part four:

What if Kelly Fails?

A Plea for Patience