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The Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame: Part Four

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

Part I

Part II

Part III

"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."

What if Kelly Fails?

By Notre Dame's high standards, its last three head coaches have failed in South Bend. Stretching back a full decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, four out of the past five Fighting Irish head coaches have been unsuccessful in either maintaining the football program or rebuilding it.

Now, Brian Kelly enters his third season in South Bend after coming to Notre Dame with a strong resume and a long history of winning. Will he be subject to the same failures as his recent predecessors?

More importantly, what will become of Notre Dame and her reputation if a coach as highly esteemed as Brian Kelly was in 2010 walks the plank in five years or less?


Keys to Rebuilding: Blow Out More Teams

One of the more depressing factors over the past 15+ years has been Notre Dame's inability to blow teams out. They've let bad teams hang around into the late 3rd quarter, dropped some games after nursing a decent lead into halftime, and flat out not take advantage of numerous opportunities to bury opponents.

Since 1986, Notre Dame has defeated a team by 25 or more points on 60 occasions. 41 of those games (68.3%) occurred during the Lou Holtz era where he averaged 3.72 wins of such magnitude each season.

Davie accomplished this 6 times in 5 seasons, Willingham 3 times in 3 seasons, and Weis 6 times in 5 seasons.

Brian Kelly has done so 4 times in 2 seasons and is the only coach (along with Holtz of course) to beat a ranked team by 25 or more points.

Also, keep in mind that for the nearly decade and a half between Holtz and Kelly, the Irish only scored 50+ points on two occasions. Last season alone, Kelly doubled that figure.

In order to continue rebuilding, laying the hurt on weak opponents needs to increase and the Irish need to smell the blood and become mentally strong enough to go for the kill shot early and often.


With that concern in mind, Notre Dame is likely at a historical tipping point with Brian Kelly as head coach. Not that Kelly needs to be the savior of the program (we'd all be better off dropping "savior" from our vocabulary for a while), but his tenure has by far the most pressure on it than anyone since Holtz.

Kelly is obviously the latest Irish coach and thus is the furthest removed from the glory days---plus his coaching past gives the most hope for real recovery at Notre Dame. Added together, those two forces put a lot of pressure on Kelly, the administration, and the team to turn the program around.

If it doesn't happen, the results could be devastating.

Normally the mainstream media likes to jump on the bandwagon of a new Notre Dame coach as they have with the past three hires in South Bend. The difference with Kelly was that he was genuinely well received and thought to be a good-to-great hire for Notre Dame.

Without winning for 20 years, and without the most successful hire of the bunch being able to turn things around---where does that leave Notre Dame if Kelly fails and the school begins another search for a new coach?

Who's kicking down the door to coach at Notre Dame with all her warts then?


Keys to Rebuilding: Decrease the Amount of Blowout Losses and Bad Losses

From 1986 until today, Notre Dame has lost 15 games by 25 or more points.

Lou Holtz only suffered one such defeat---a 35-10 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl before Notre Dame ripped off a perfect season and won the school's last national title---while Bob Davie surprisingly only suffered one loss as well.

The remaining 13 losses all occurred in the Willingham and Weis era's with an astonishing 9 of those contest being defeats by 30 or more points.

There's been progress under Kelly in this regard, but there's still room to get better. He's only been beaten by more than 20 points once (Stanford 2010) and despite flops against Navy (2010), USF (2011), and to an extent Michigan (2010), he hasn't approached the truly wretched losses to terrible opponents like we saw with Weis and Syracuse in 2008.

Kelly has also lost 70% of his games to teams who ended the season ranked and 60% of those losses were by 4 points or less. His 8.8 point average in defeat is an improvement over Davie's 10.9 per loss and a massive upgrade over the wretched 18.4 per loss (Willingham) and 14.3 per loss (Weis) seen in the years prior to his arrival.

You can see some signs of recovery and Notre Dame hopefully turning things around, but Kelly will have to limit the bad losses even more in the future.


A Plea for Patience

After two seasons the arrow is pointing in a northwardly direction, but Kelly still has plenty of areas for concern and room for improvement.

Notre Dame didn't improve upon its record from 2010 and it was the first time in 15 seasons for Kelly that this didn't happen at one of his new jobs. The Irish continued to blow several 2nd half and 4th quarter leads, while the killer instinct isn't there yet to bury teams when they're down.

The record against ranked teams is still lacking, recruiting took a small step backwards this cycle, and Kelly could work a little bit on his comments to the media---which he should know will be parsed to death under the Notre Dame microscope.

Further, Kelly has struggled somewhat with his playcalling, has altered his offense to mixed results, and may very well be the type of coach who is not able to thrive in the bright lights under the Golden Dome.


Keys to Rebuilding: Recruit Football-First Players

This doesn't mean start recruiting players who could never survive academically or culturally at Notre Dame. The key is to find those rare players who are serious about academics and all that the university has to offer in that respect, but which also are hungry as famished wolves to succeed on the football field.

A big problem at Notre Dame is recruiting kids who are no doubt talented, smart, and engaging, but who nevertheless aren't willing to lay it all on the line with football.

Finding kids who truly care about winning on the football field but are also academically strong is hard to do, but it has to be a main focus for Fighting Irish recruiting.


Nonetheless, there are some very encouraging signs to consider through two years with Brian Kelly.

The fundamentals have improved, the strength and conditioning improvements have made the team stronger, and there's far more accountability than under his predecessors.

The win-loss record isn't sparkly, but it's an improvement over the three years before he arrived, plus the advanced stats are pointing to a vastly improved Fighting Irish program.

Perhaps best of all, Kelly has actively built up the lines on both sides of the ball, recruited very well at the difficult defensive line position, and improved the overall effectiveness of the defense from the charred remains of the abysmal 2009 defense.

Say what you will about Kelly's mishandling of the quarterback position---at least he's answered his critics to a large degree in recruiting and building a tough and stingy defense. Given Kelly's history, he's likely to figure out the quarterback position and if he does the future could be very bright for Notre Dame football.

The smart move is to have a lot of patience, drop the unnecessary bravado surrounding Irish football tradition, and support a true rebuilding effort---even if it is slow and sometimes painful.


Keys to Rebuilding: Develop Team Mental Toughness

It's difficult to define, but such a necessary component to a resurgent Notre Dame program. For far too long the Irish football teams have been lacking in this area and it has infected the entire culture surrounding the program.

Being mentally strong in football means shaking off a bad penalty and continuing right on with the gameplan. It means making proper adjustments after a bad half and coming out with a strong second half. It means taking lessons from a bad loss and not letting the defeat infect the next game or the rest of the season.

It means always trying to get better and not cutting corners. It means taking advantage of opportunities when presented and attacking opponents with fervor when they are down. It means staying resilient and strong in your beliefs that you will succeed no matter how intense the heat or scrutiny.

The Weis-era teams were arguably more lacking in mental toughness than any in Notre Dame history. Think about all of their big wins---almost all of them are early in the season before anything negative has happened to the team, and they were often followed by massive let downs to boot.

Although the USF game was a let down, and the Michigan loss this year gut-wrenching, notice how strong the team came to play against Michigan State? The Irish were punched in the face early against USC this year too, and in the past that game might have been a huge blowout, but at least the team fought back and made it a game. Last year, they were embarrassed by Navy, but followed that up with a rampage against the Middies in 2011.

There are encouraging signs in the mentality of the program right now for sure, but it is something that needs to be continually worked on over years and years---especially at a place like Notre Dame where it's been missing for damn near 20 years.


Brian Kelly hasn't earned the right to hold the Notre Dame program hostage for years and years without a certain level of success or progress in rebuilding---but he still has plenty of time and enough rope given how the first two years have gone.

Remember, rebuilding Notre Dame football, re-setting expectations, and being patient right now isn't about making excuses just to keep a staff around. It's about setting the program up for future success for the current staff and for the coaches who will follow Brian Kelly.

Go Irish.