(Not that anyone was asking for this, but perhaps it can elucidate your own personal experience as a Notre Dame football fan.)
I already talked about this in my OFD introduction piece, but I grew up a Kentucky basketball fan. Being from Lexington made it easy to know who to root for. I never really supported UK football, though — mainly because I had no interest in the sport and they were always a basketball school with one of the worst programs in all of the FBS — until Mark Stoops got there.
I only got into college football as a freshman at Notre Dame, because what else is there to do on a fall Saturday in South Bend? And it didn’t take me long to see the parallels between Notre Dame football and Kentucky basketball: the storied pasts, the rabid fanbases, the pageantry at games and the significant droughts since their last national championships.
Here’s an excerpt from a story that The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker wrote last summer which summarizes the similarities between the two programs. It’s in the words of Joe Fredrick, former Notre Dame basketball captain (and co-creator of the “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirt) whose nephew C.J. currently plays basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats:
“What is the pinnacle? Notre Dame football and Kentucky basketball. ... It’s difficult for people who don’t grow up in the state to really grasp what it means to people, so I used to say if you took Notre Dame football, which is nationwide, and shrank that into one state, that’s Kentucky basketball.”
Suffice to say there’s a reason that Irish tight end Michael Mayer used to have Kentucky basketball Fatheads in his bedroom, as Pete Sampson wrote in his own Athletic story on the native of Independence, KY. Virtually everyone in the state bleeds blue.
But it’s not just the histories of each program that are similar. In the present, both teams are going through a bit of a reckoning. In South Bend, it seems to be for the better — Marcus Freeman is disproving just about every notion that championship-level recruiting is impossible at Notre Dame. In Lexington, it seems to be for the worse — head coach John Calipari is treading water with Kentucky fans as he desperately tries for one last grasp at glory.
It’s an interesting reality considering Calipari won UK a title just 10 years ago while ND has suffered through 34 years since their most recent one. But the truth is that the last time a UK coach won a natty and then went a decade without, it was Tubby Smith. He was promptly run out of town despite winning 76.6% of his games his last five seasons.
Contrast that with Brian Kelly, who never won a national championship in 12 seasons at Notre Dame with a 73.8% winning percentage, and yet the only time he was legitimately on the hot seat was after one 4-8 season. Suffice to say that seat cooled quickly.
So what’s with the different standards? Is it diminished expectations within the Notre Dame administration? Probably in part, considering the realities of modern college football and the fact that ND just needed a head coach who would make ND relevant again after the stretch of Davie, Willingham and Weis. Kentucky, on the other hand, had no such extended lull. Calipari was an immediate hit after just two down seasons under Billy Gillespie’s watch. And that’s honestly part of the problem for Coach Cal: he’s a victim of his own success.
Four Final Fours, one runner-up finish and one national championship in Calipari’s first six seasons set an unrealistic standard for success that was almost impossible to maintain. But it’s not just the rampant expectations that bite Cal; it’s the fact that he can’t get out of his own way.
Calipari is an ultra-successful yet abrasive coach from the northeast who worked his way up to coaching arguably the most storied program in the history of his sport. After finding success at said program, the reverence he once expressed for coaching there began to morph into complacency. He started talking down to fans and began using his personal “Cal-isms” ad nauseam. Sound familiar?
There are a lot of similarities between Calipari and Brian Kelly. To be sure, there are also some differences (the main one being that Cal is a dawg on the recruiting trail while Kelly is decidedly not). But, again, Kelly had one bad year and immediately righted the ship. Calipari, on the other hand, just followed up a 9-16 season — the worst mark in the ENTIRE history of Kentucky basketball — with a first-round loss to No. 15-seed St. Peter’s this past March.
If Lexington were Dunsinane, one more blunder is gonna set Birnam Wood on the warpath.
So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well, this started as little more than an opportunity to vent my personal frustrations with Cal (because my fanhood has subdued but still runs deep). But I think there are lessons in here for Notre Dame fans when it comes to Marcus Freeman, because there are also parallels between him and Kentucky’s head coach.
Freeman has been a breath of fresh air for Notre Dame fans (the Fiesta Bowl loss notwithstanding) just like Calipari was after the Gillespie years. Freeman is intent on winning every recruiting battle just like Calipari was. And I’m sure Freeman wants to do right by his players, and doing right by players is just about Cal’s last saving grace.
Freeman says and does all the right things. But what happens if he doesn’t win a national championship soon enough? Or what happens when he does win one but doesn’t build a dynasty, and then Notre Dame goes on another championship drought? Do fans stick with and support him? Even when they’ve gotten a taste of glory? Even when the rhetoric gets repetitive year after year?
I’m not saying any of that will happen. But if Freeman finds early success, I’d advise fans to savor it and keep expectations tempered. Freeman is defying the narratives imposed on Notre Dame, but those narratives are a byproduct of very real limitations. Winning a national championship is hard enough anywhere, but it will always be a steeper climb for the Irish.
And keep in mind that the next guy in charge can always be worse. It bears repeating that Brian Kelly was a very good coach. Success under Freeman feels inevitable, but championship-level success is never guaranteed. There’s a reason Calipari’s disappointments haven’t yet landed him on the hotseat like his predecessor: because Cal’s a Hall-of-Famer and those don’t grow on trees.
And, finally, here’s one last piece of advice for Notre Dame fans. Kentucky fans never — and I mean NEVER — let opposing fan bases take over Rupp Arena. So let that and the 2017 Georgia and 2021 Cincinnati games sink in for when Clemson, Ohio State and Texas A&M come to Notre Dame Stadium. Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably didn’t need to hear that.
Kentucky basketball rant finished (for now).
P.S., sorry not sorry about that 2015 Elite Eight game. At least you can take solace in UK and Cal’s choke job in the Final Four…