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Fixing Notre Dame Football: Part 1 Culture

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The Notre Dame football team needs some fixing. The first thing we can start changing is the culture of the program. It’s also the hardest.

Miami v Notre Dame

A little over a week ago, we published the prelude to this series. The title used the word, “broken” and some people lost their minds. While the thought of yet another “will Brian Kelly win consistently as the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish” type post sounds like a great idea (it’s not though), this series is going to be under the assumption that Brian Kelly will be coaching the Irish in 2017 and 2018. If we weren’t going under that assumption, this post should just be called: “Fire Everyone.”

Let’s be a little more creative than that.

We will break this down into four parts; Offense, Defense, Special Teams, and Culture. There could have been a fifth part that was dedicated to recruiting, but instead, recruiting will be incorporated into the four parts- as it always is. Today we start with the all-encompassing part... culture. This can be defined many different ways, and I’m positive that this post will not hit all of the culture points, but it should touch on most of the really important stuff.

What is the culture of a program?

Quite simply, the culture of a program is the way in which a program operates. How it does things, when it does things, and what priorities it makes. It’s very simple and yet extremely complex. Nick Saban like to describe it as a “process” while many other coaches say it’s “how you go about your business.” The tricky part, is that this isn’t just about players and coaches, it’s also about school administrators, program support staff, and even to a certain degree... students and fans. The even trickier part is that just because something works at one school it doesn’t mean that it will work elsewhere, and in this case, Notre Dame.

Academics are first.

Pre-Alabama 2012 Utopia
Screenshot of Proud To Be ND TV spot

Whenever Notre Dame starts to struggle on the football field, one of the many first reactions is that they just don’t have the “athlete’s” to compete. When that gets suggested, the first part about Notre Dame’s supposed lack of athletes is that they are unable to offer many of the best high school players due to high academic standards for admission. Many fans hold the belief that if the Irish were to lower their standards, they would get better players. They hold this belief and wish it to become reality.

The truth is, that Notre Dame’s academic requirements for football players is considerably lower than what is perceived. Take a look at the top 300 recruits each year and check out who Notre Dame offers. They absolutely are unable to offer a few kids, and some are just missing out in one degree or another (core classes). It’s not as bleak as one may think.

If you want some cold hard truth in your face, it is MUCH MUCH harder to gain admittance to Stanford as a football player than to do the same at Notre Dame. And as many people have pointed out, Stanford seems to be the model that Notre Dame should follow (even though they have still been unable to play for a national title in these golden years).

So what is the academic issue, and how can it be fixed?

Just as it is harder to get into Stanford playing football than it is to get into Notre Dame, the course load is easier while a player attends Stanford as compared to Notre Dame. I may get some of the details a little wrong here, but basically, football players are still required to carry a full course load at Notre Dame during the semester that they play ball. Have you ever wondered why the Irish always seem to play like crap around midterms? It’s because these guys are getting the proper rest and sleep that an athlete needs to compete at a high level. This year, ironically enough, midterms fell on Stanford week.

I remember players like DeShone Kizer talking about sleeping only a few hours a night that week. ARE WE INSANE? I know the goal is to have the football players have as much of the same experience as the student body- but we ask so much more from them.

I suggest that instead of lowering academic standards to get into Notre Dame, the University simply allows them to have a lighter load in the fall. Look, these guys are there in the summer taking classes and chipping away at their course requirements to graduate in 4 years- except a lot of guys are graduating in less than 4 years. This load is too heavy once you start weighing it against the rest of the country. This simple fix of allowing at least one course less than what they require now in the fall semester would not only help during that awful week of midterms, but down the stretch in November as the season beats them up mentally, emotionally, and physically.

I can’t help but wonder if the load was a bit lighter, would the academic issues that have plagued the Irish in recent years even have happened?

Shopping down a different aisle.

USC v Notre Dame
Steve Elmer is in a different grocery store.

I actually loathe that term. It’s used by Kelly to say that he has to recruit different players because of the academics, but as I stated before, it’s not like the aisle is bare. With that said, one of the great things about Notre Dame and one of its biggest selling points is the “4 for 40” mantra. You go to Notre Dame for four years to make the next forty years of your life great.

It’s a fantastic slogan, and one of the more unique ways to recruit a player (and his parents). However, there is an unintended downside that we can’t fix- nor should we. Some of these guys really are at Notre Dame to learn. GASP!

Mike Frank first turned me onto this concept years ago. Players that are going to Alabama and Florida State and USC are HUNGRY for football. It’s all they got in their life to improve their situation (this actually isn’t true at all, but it’s the reality that they make in their minds and drives them to be the absolute best they can be on the field). Notre Dame players have a sense of entitlement. Not the entitlement that you put in a negative light, but the one that they have that says, “I will leave Notre Dame with a degree and the keys to do anything that I want in my life and will be successful.”

It’s great and all- it really is, but it does allow for them to not make football as much of a priority as other players at top programs do across the country. Steve Elmer is a great example. Here’s a kid that has started since his freshman year, and after his junior year, he decides that he wants to pursue other things and get started on his career in life. Would a 3 year starter at Alabama not play his senior year because he wants to be a political consultant? No, he leaves after his junior year for the NFL. Elmer isn’t alone as other players such as Corey Robinson, Sean Cwynar, Tori Hunter, and others have done the same. There is more to life for these guys than football.

That’s awesome, and it makes for a great story, but it’s not the best thing for a football program. This part will never change, but we still need to address it because it causes issues on the field.

The Weight Room

No, I’m not talking about the actual room, I’m talking about what the players actually do in that room. Look, I’m not qualified enough to speak intelligently on all the ins and outs of a strength and conditioning program that coincides with the nutritional program. I am qualified to say that whatever they are doing- isn’t working come November.

Players are losing a ton of weight and look extremely winded. Add that to a long list of injuries these past few years, and something has to change. It sounds like Kelly is going to make that change this year, although nothing official has come out yet.

One of the more disturbing things is hearing players say that guys just don’t want to be in the weight room, and perhaps weight room discipline is a problem. YIKES! A weight room should be like a sanctuary for these guys, and a strong work ethic in there goes a long ways on the field. None of these guys are Bo Jackson... weight room training matters, and it has to be amended.

5th year?

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at New York Giants
Better off in South Bend in 2016?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Another complaint that Irish fans have about the program is the perceived lack of development with its “5th year program.” They have a point. Is there any doubt that Romeo Okwara should have been redshirted his freshman year (you know, seeing as he was only 16 when he got to Notre Dame). Without a doubt, Okwara comes back to ND as a 5th year in 2016 instead of having a great rookie year with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent. It’s mistakes like these that really hurt a program, and when it’s a position of great need such as the defensive line- it’s almost fatal.

Notre Dame can’t protect its young freshman with junior college transfers to pick up the slack for a year or two, but they can be smarter about who they use and where they use them. A freshman defensive lineman has no business being on special teams unless he is in a rotation on the line itself.

Notre Dame also loses some guys to the graduate transfer rule. At Notre Dame, a player must get into a grad school to play a fifth year. I’m uncertain as to how many decided to transfer because of this rule, but I’d venture to say that there have been a few over the years.

I can’t help but think that Notre Dame’s accelerated graduation plan helps moves these guys out quicker. Also... Notre Dame has had a lot of players head to the league over the past 7 years (more than they were putting in) and that could have some effect. Basically, the staff has to come up with better ways to identify those that could use a year to adjust to college and then develop them over the course of their time at ND. The development part is what seems to be lacking the most.

Other odds and ends the program could help change for the better.

  • Develop more accountability with the coaches and the players. Ownership... have some.
  • Have less generals and more lieutenants. Even after DeShone Kizer declared for the NFL Draft, Notre Dame still has 6 captains going into spring ball. That includes a walk-on and Quenton Nelson (the second OL). That number should be no higher than 4. Manufacturing leadership is more detrimental than manufacturing fun.
  • Forget “sticking the dagger” into an opponent. Notre Dame has to break out a full Blood Eagle. Brian Kelly has had more than his fair share of close games at Notre Dame. A large majority of those were against lesser opponents. The Irish have to start laying waste to teams and send a message to both the country and their own team.
  • Either bury the Shamrock Series altogether, or make it more than just a fashion show super promo for Notre Dame and Under Armour. My personal feelings on the Shamrock Series aside, the game has to matter for it to matter. It needs to be grander than the venue. Go play a top 10 team on the road and win the damn thing.
  • The bleeding heart UND loyalists will probably curse me for saying this, but stop singing and swaying to the Alma Mater. If we are looking for a team that plays with more attitude, heart, grit, and borderline recklessness... reigning them in to sway and sing a slow song is a buzz kill- especially after a loss. We’re not talking about a long-standing tradition here.
  • A pep rally should be held, but stop making this such a public display of marketing. These should be for students.
  • I have no hard stance against the new (2011) player walk, but anything that preceded that South Florida catastrophe should be up for consideration for a line item veto.

Odds and ends that we spend too much time discussing.

Here are some things related to the whole culture thing that we obsess over a bit too much and either has no chance of changing, or has less impact than what is perceived.

  • Uniforms.
  • Jumbotron.
  • Fieldturf.
  • Ticket prices.
  • New Irish Guard rules (which are THE WORST).
  • Piped in music.

Culture is shaped by things or events that directly impact the program on the field- not the fluff. Fluff is an amazing side dish though, and can really highlight and complement the main course.

Cast not your stone... we are almost finished.

I undoubtedly have forgotten something here despite the great length of this article. My bad. This isn’t an indictment of me, nor is it an indictment against you. When it comes to a subject as abstract as “the culture of a program” there are far too many variables to list in one setting, and I doubt every person would have the same type of list. And that’s okay.

I’ll leave you with this thought... good coach or bad coach, the head coach will always do something different to help change the program for the better according to who they are. Even coaches that win a lot of games have been questioned about how they do things or why certain traditions are started, forgotten, or changed. It’s the best coaches that are the ones that are willing to change their own ways to better the program. In some ways, Brian Kelly is doing some of that right now. How much it helps in the long run remains to be seen.

(*Next up in Part 2 will be about the offense where we can dig into some nuts and bolts. Look for that next week.*)