The drama is over. For now.
Brian Kelly thought about a job in the NFL but ultimately returned to Notre Dame to coach his 4th season with the Fighting Irish. By now, most have heard the story and tried to dissect what happened between Wednesday through Saturday of last week. I'm not really interested in giving my interpretation of the events because, as this episode clearly showed, most people have preordained beliefs and no amount of evidence, reporting, or press statements will change their views.
Whether Kelly seriously entertained an offer from the Philadelphia Eagles, how much time he took off the grid debating the decision, how much love he has for Notre Dame, and if he was leveraging the University for his own personal gain---I don't want to dwell on these things.
Yes, I think the whole incident was enormously overblown by a panicked fan base, but some of that panic was to be expected, even understandable.
One of the larger issues moving forward now will be Kelly's desire to leave for the NFL and if this will become a recurring theme over the next off-season or two. If he continues to be successful in South Bend it may very well be and most fans would like to see such a distraction put to bed.
I can't answer the question if Brian Kelly truly wants to coach in the NFL. I do think it's in the back of his mind as a possibility as it is with nearly every coach but I believe he'd much rather be at Notre Dame right now than with the Eagles---and for a myriad of reasons.
We'll never be able to get inside Kelly's head both now or in the future but it may be instructive to understand why he might leave. It may be that Kelly is simply waiting for a better situation than what he has at Notre Dame and once that NFL offer comes he'll be gone. He may leave after a half dozen years satisfied that he rebuilt the Fighting Irish in to a contender. He may also leave after feeling burnt out by the pressure cooker that is Notre Dame football.
I've been steadfast that Kelly is a college lifer and although that theory took a dent this past week I think if he does ultimately move on to the NFL it will be because of the latter two above reasons more so than the first.
Yet, the biggest reason Kelly may move on the The Shield at some point down the road is frustration. A recent interview by Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick with the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen may shed some light:
Hansen: Is there an extension and raise for Brian Kelly and raises for the assistant coaches in the works?
Swarbrick: When I sat down with Brian in the first week of December as we always did, I told him that I wanted to redo his contract and make some adjustments to the assistants' contracts, and I've been working on it since the first week of December. Yes it's in the works, but it would be wrong to connect it to this week.
Hansen: So if the Eagles offer had never happened, we're talking same terms, same money? This was already in motion?
Hansen: When will there be resolution with that?
Swarbrick: It's going to take some time. I think I said earlier. I don't see it as weeks or days. I see it in a longer time frame and it's going to -- certainly weeks -- but I don't know. We've been working on it for a while.
When news of the Eagles discussion(s) broke it was believed to be a leverage move by Kelly in order to secure a raise for himself and the Irish assistants. Swarbrick responded:
"We already had started the process before this very actively," Swarbrick said. "We always use the first week in December, had a lengthy meeting to initiate this and we have continued it since. So, no, I understand the perception of that.
"But here's the interesting thing, if somebody is leveraging you, there's not really a risk they're leaving. And so for people who were upset he might leave, you can't also claim he was just leveraging.
"I'm absolutely certain this was a thoughtful, honest evaluation by Coach of an opportunity. And he never used it in any way to try to lever me or the university.
If we assume this wasn't a leverage move by Kelly (and I'm willing to accept that) the program is nevertheless running in to some age old issues that have affected Irish football for nearly 100 years.
Notre Dame football is getting good again and that will make many of the priests, the Board of Trustees, and the faculty concerned and apprehensive.
The head coach is winning, he's popular, and he's powerful.
This makes the leaders at Notre Dame uneasy. Always has, always will.
Brian Kelly and his staff have earned raises among many other perks of leading a successful Division-1 football program. According to the AD they are coming, but when?
Of course the raises should be coming in weeks' time and in the grand scheme the waiting isn't an issue. However, how much money will the coaches be receiving? What other amenities have Kelly & Co. asked for that the University is dragging their feet on or balking at giving out?
Since Kelly's brief dalliance with the Eagles there are concerns that he's lost trust with the school, that he doesn't understand what makes the University special, and that he's disingenuous. I personally think it's ridiculous if people feel that way but if the leaders at Notre Dame do it won't make Kelly's attempts to strengthen the football program any easier.
A lot of folks believe that since there's been a training table instituted and the Gug has been built then Irish football is set for the future. But this program is always in danger of falling stagnant and neglecting to join the arms race to keep Notre Dame competitive both on and off the field.
Brian Kelly is the type of coach who is going to push those boundaries in a healthy way. He's going to make demands on the University---he won't get all of them---but he has to be able to push back with authority.
Kelly may want a much higher salary for himself, elite salaries for his coaching staff, continual additions to the Gug, and improvements to the strength and conditioning program plus staff. I don't expect the school to budge on other issues (academics, admission) but how much will they be willing to concede in those other areas?
This brief flirtation with the Eagles will play a part, but the real issue ahead for Notre Dame football is that the classic power struggle between the program and University is here much sooner than expected. The Irish just completed a 12-0 regular season and are poised for a strong run over the next several years---now is not the time for the administration to rest on their laurels and Kelly knows that.
Kelly doesn't need to mend fences with the fan base or with the press---he needs to maintain a healthy relationship with Swarbrick and the Board of Trustees. How this past week affected those relationships is what's important moving forward.
Who knows at what stage or how strong the power struggle is but history has taught us that once a Notre Dame football coach becomes successful this internal battle will rear its ugly head. The fact that it has taken nearly 2 months (and could stretch for weeks longer) to ensure raises for the football staff shows how difficult these things can be at Notre Dame.
In the end, we all reserve the right to fear that Brian Kelly will leave for the NFL because he wants to fulfill another goal in his life. We even reserve the right to be angry or disappointed should he ultimately do so. But while he's here it is imperative that he's not pushed away by the impending power struggle that looms with a winning Irish football team.
If his heart isn't in it at South Bend, what can anyone do? There's always going to be pressure and anxiety that comes with the territory of this job and it got the best of many successful Irish coaches in the past too. It would be a shame if that pressure was amplified because Notre Dame didn't want to spend $4.7 million more per year out of $80+ million annual profit to keep the Irish football team competitive.
It would be disappointing if that drove Brian Kelly away.