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Rebuilding Notre Dame Football, 5 Years Later: Part III

A crucial 2015 season might determine the next several years of Irish football.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

How do we know when Notre Dame has been rebuilt? For many it's not until the Irish are ‘back' in the form of a National Title. That's not exactly wrong, but it's a simplistic viewpoint all the same.

In the Guide I tried to stress a couple important points for rebuilding:

The constant backsliding needed to stop

This is why I mentioned several times how crucial it would be to avoid losing seasons. A low bar for Notre Dame's historical standards, yes, but an absolute necessity in order to rebuild.

At minimum Brian Kelly needed to leave the program several notches above where he found it

This second point may be the most important to the whole process. That's because in rebuilding you're not just looking at one coach's performance you're also looking to set up the program for the next several coaches.

In these two areas the Brian Kelly era has gone really well which is why 5 years later, despite grumpy detractors within the fan base, he is viewed as someone Doing Good ThingsTM by most national pundits and the leader of a program who can legitimately claim to make the College Football Playoffs in year 6 of his tenure.

However, this does suggest that the rebuilding is over. At least in the sense that the program has improved to respectable levels and stabilized itself. Now it is time to deliver something bigger.

On a much larger scale I think Notre Dame is on a long rebuilding and remodeling process that could last 20 years, but that's another article for another day.

We enter 2015 with those great expectations and a season described by many as make or break. Will it come to be a defining campaign for Kelly?

It's difficult to imagine this season not swinging the pendulum considerably in either direction. But even that oversimplifies the issue. Besides winning a National Title (obligatory mention that this is the goal every year!) the missing pieces for this program are multiple and/or consecutive 10+ win seasons, plus a victory in a major bowl game. If Kelly can get the ball rolling on the former and achieve the latter in 2015 he'll probably have enough mojo and cred to stick around until the job burns him out, as it has everyone, the closer you creep to a decade at the helm.

But if this isn't achieved in 2015--and we get another 9-4 or 8-5 season--things are going to get very interesting. The belief that we can do better will slowly begin covering conversations like a hazy fog. And once that takes hold it's difficult to escape.

In Part 2 of this series I mentioned how Kelly has brought Notre Dame to a level where a prospective new coach would be a lot less fearful of falling on his face. Let's say the next ND coach is currently 42 years old as of today. That would mean for the first time since he left college and entered coaching the Irish weren't constantly falling off the table and in turmoil.

The problem is this only takes you so far. It might make Notre Dame a little more appealing to the next Urban Meyer-type of coach, but probably not enough to take the job because those top-tier coaches already have enough confidence that they wouldn't falter anyway.

So what does Notre Dame do in this situation? Stick with Kelly for the long haul and hope for the best while deflecting cries of lowered standards? Or be super proactive and possibly open the door to a Nebraska/Frank Solich situation after a new hire?

I once wrote that Kelly was the most important hire in program history because he'd either show the world he could win in South Bend or he'd join his immediate predecessors in showing the world ND might be a black hole. Yet, Kelly really hasn't done either. So for now the ball looks like it's being kicked down the road. Can Notre Dame afford to go into the 2020's--some 35 years past the last championship--following Kelly up with another Kelly-type of winner, or worse a coach who returns the program to the trials and tribulations of 1997-2009? I'd have some serious reservations that we could still recruit at a high enough level by then and continue living off the ghosts of the past to ever become a major power again.

Interestingly, I think Kelly's legacy has mostly been written right now. I'd wager there's a large cross-section of people who feel like the bottom won't fall out under Kelly but neither will there be a return of glory years. As such, Kelly's legacy could largely be positive. If the next coach falls on his face we'll remember how much better things were under Kelly (although there could be some blame about how Kelly left the program, not an issue at present) or the next coach could dominate and we'll give Kelly credit for getting things back on track.

I think this viewpoint is really what deeply upsets some people with Kelly, though. The thought that he'd come in and change so much about the program while not delivering a high amount of success feels like a slap in the face to Notre Dame's traditions and a lowering of standards. That's understandable to a degree but two large points remain:

  1. Right now Kelly has the program in good, safe hands
  2. We don't have to be resigned to the next coach being a bum

I know it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees when we micro-analyze so many aspects of this program. Still, we're miles ahead of where were at any point over the last 15 years. That might not say much to some people but it's possible that the Irish are in the beginning phases of a long rebuilding effort to adjust to the myriad of changes that have slammed college football since the early 1990's.

If you look past measuring one season or using indicators like a title by year three there's a lot to be excited about. Notre Dame lost its way for a while but it appears to have found its footing again in the 21st Century. Now, imagine 3 straight quality hires in the coming years instead of the stink from 1997-2009. A lot of good things could in store over the next 10 to 15 years.

Having said that, you know we can't help but micro-analyze! Here are 5 key topics that are surrounding the future of Notre Dame football:

When & How Will Kelly Leave?

Kelly mentioned in the past that he'd be sipping Mai Tai's on the beach when the Texas A&M series rolls around. But that's 10 years from now and it's highly unlikely he stays at Notre Dame for 15+ years. No Irish coach has lasted more than 11 years and unless Kelly gets a title soon I doubt he'll make it to a decade nearer to Rockne's wins record (Kelly is 60 wins away, still pretty far away but only 7 more years of 8.5 wins per season).

kelly age

Using history and a dose of reality Kelly has roughly 4 to 5 years left with Notre Dame at max. Is he ultimately fired? Does he step down and effectively retire from coaching? Will a NFL team come calling?

My feeling is that the NFL is the least likely of the choices and whether he's fired or not I'm starting to see a future in broadcasting as the most likely scenario. Kelly's well received by the media, does a good job in front of the camera, and could make a few extra million before landing on an island with those Mai Tai's.

It's All On the Line for 2015

Expectations are as high for 2015 as they've ever been during Kelly's tenure, and even stretching back to the summer of 2006 when the Irish started the season ranked No. 2 in the polls. The new quarterback is confidently saying this is the year, Showtime is following the program, and fans are looking to see a reversal from the 9 losses over the past 2 seasons.

Further, the Blue Chip Rate is down for the current commit class and the staff is banking on a ton of wins ending the upcoming National Signing Day with a bang.

If the team falls short it's going to be very difficult to continue selling a super bright future at Notre Dame. There's no denying that Kelly & Co. are all in for 2015 but with that comes immense pressure to succeed since this isn't year 2 anymore.

What is the Program's Ceiling?

If not 2015 then when? That's a topic we may be struggling with very soon, if we aren't already. How do we react when so many are predicting 10, or 11, or 12 wins and that doesn't come to fruition? How much blame will fall on the staff versus macro-level thoughts that Notre Dame's ceiling is irrevocably damaged? Could this be the final domino where the Bruce Feldman's of the world no longer would predict the Irish in the playoffs--and what kind of trickle down effect will that have?

For the purposes of raising Notre Dame's ceiling, a 9-3 season will not be good in any way. And that's being kind. Even with post-season victory to get to 10 wins it would be in a Russell Athletic or Belk Bowl game against an okay but not great team. This would bring about the king of bickering off-seasons where everything is gray and there's no black and white. This needs to be a breakthrough season for Kelly and Notre Dame, if not, the perception of a limited program ceiling and a staff stuck in neutral is going to have some lasting repercussions.

Who Are the Future Candidates?

Anyone who says it's easy to hire a new and better coach is lying. You can use the best search firm, use fancy metrics based on the most traditional proven methods, and most of the time you're at the mercy of dumb luck and fateful timing.

The answer to the question "can we do better than Brian Kelly" is not likely to be an easy one. One, because Kelly has shown a level of competency Notre Dame would be foolish to throw away without serious thought.

Two, because as things stand right now the national landscape is bereft of numerous coaching candidates who are looking to break out as stars. There have been so many new positions filled over the past few years that we're about to experience a couple off-seasons with a small pool of new coaches. For example, 99 out of the current 128 coaching positions have experienced new hires since 2010.

Furthermore, with the changes to the conference landscape recently it just became that much more difficult for a non-Power 5 coach to impress enough over the next 3-5 years where we'd be looking at him as an upgrade.

Therefore, the most likely candidates are currently at Power 5 schools and under the age of 50. Here's a list of these coaches who are also over .500 in their career:

  • Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  • David Shaw, Stanford
  • Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
  • Dabo Swinney, Clemson
  • Bret Bieleman, Arkansas
  • Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
  • Dave Doern, NC State
  • Butch Jones, Tennessee
  • Dan Mullen, Miss State
  • James Franklin, Penn State
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers
  • Steve Sarkisian, USC
  • Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
  • Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
  • Dave Clawson, Wake Forest

It's possible that Notre Dame could bring in a coach currently in their 50's (Patterson, Strong, Richt, Petersen) although it'd go against the grain bringing in someone pushing 60 and close to the age of the departing Kelly. Some of those on the under 50 list are easily crossed off, but the odds are one of the left over candidates could be the next Irish coach.

Where is Swarbrick in a Few Years?

We can't have all these discussions without mentioning the athletic director.

Swarbrick has been in his position for 7 years and is entering his 8th football season as AD. Yet, he's already 61 years old and has only hired one football coach at Notre Dame. Most would agree his time in South Bend has been invaluable to so many facets of Irish athletics. Is he even around for the hiring of the next football coach, though?

And while we're at it who the heck will be the next AD?