Six days from now a coin will be tossed into the Indiana sky, a football will be kicked down the middle of a perfectly manicured field inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish faithful on the wooden benches and on their comfy sofas across America will be holding their collective breath, and finally the answers will be revealed. The answers to our questions, certainly. But that isn't what Notre Dame fans really want. What we really want is the answer to our prayers. From Iraq and Afghanistan to London, Dublin, Haiti, Peru, Tokyo and Sydney; from Boston to Orange County and from Pasquerilla East to Carroll Hall, the Loyal Sons and Daughters of Notre Dame have been praying for the next Knute Rockne to lift us out of the purgatory of football mediocrity and restore the Fighting Irish to greatness.
Will Brian Kelly be the answer to all those prayers?
Will Coach Kelly dramatically succeed where Davie, Willingham, and Weis so spectacularly failed?
I eagerly embraced Boob and Ty and Charlie. I bought into the idea that Davie was a defensive genius and that he would bring enough speedy ath-a-letes from Texas into the program to maintain what Lou Holtz had built. I was totally sold that Ty Willingham was a young coaching phenom and molder of men who, as a black man himself, would be able to recruit to Notre Dame the talented players from the South who are often reluctant to attend a very white Catholic school in the wintry Midwest. I totally believed that Notre Dame alumnus Weis, with his NFL pedigree and Super Bowl bling, would stock the program with future NFL players and would win titles with his decided schematic advantage.
Yeah, well, not so much.
But am I bitter? Have I become a complete cynic? Truth be told the years spent wandering in the desert with Davie/Willingham/Weis have left a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth. My heart has been broken enough times that it honestly is hard to close my eyes and jump back in with both feet and my rose-colored glasses. I'll admit to dark moments of doubt. Am I living the impossible dream? Has Big Time College Football gotten to the point where a program that genuinely cares about giving its players a quality education can't compete on an elite level? Is the true student-athlete as endangered as the Dodo bird?
But it's nothing a little winning won't cure.
Is Brian Kelly "The Guy"? Here is what we know:
- Coach Kelly has twenty years of experience as a college head coach.
- He won two NCAA Division II Championships at Grand Valley State.
- He coached the Central Michigan Chippewas to a MAC title.
- He took the Cincinnati Bearcats to two straight BCS Bowl games.
- I repeat - he took Cincinnati to back-to-back BCS Bowl games.
- Coach Kelly grew up the Catholic son of a Boston politician and a huge Notre Dame fan.
- He talks a good game.
He isn't a one-hit wonder, but he isn't necessarily a miracle worker either. When Kelly took over the head job at Grand Valley State in 1991, the Lakers were already a powerhouse, having gone 11-1 and 10-2 in 1989 and 1990. Under Coach Kelly GVS didn't crack the 10-win plateau again until 2001, Kelly's 11th season as head coach. But in 2001, '02, and '03 his team went 13-1, 14-0 (Div. II Champs) and 14-1 (Div. II Champs). Clearly, the years at Grand Valley State were the formative years for Brian Kelly as a head coach. He learned a lot of lessons, honed his craft, and built his "system." Whereas Bob Davie and Charlie Weis had to learn all the hard lessons of head-coaching while on the job at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly had thirteen seasons at GVS to figure it out.
At Central Michigan, Coach Kelly took over a program that had won 2, 3, 4, and 3 games in the four seasons prior to his arrival. A really struggling program. Kelly turned the program around, but it wasn't overnight. The Chips went 4-7 in 2004, just one win better than 2003. They went 6-5 in 2005, two games better than '04. And in 2006 they were 9-4 and won the MAC (although Kelly did not coach the Motor City Bowl as he had moved on to the Cincy job). But look at the progression: 1-game better in year one, 2 more games better in year two than in year one, and 3 more games better in year three than in year two. That is dramatic, accelerating improvement.
Kelly took over an improving Cincinnati Bearcats team from Mark Dantonio, who left Cincy to take the job at Michigan State. The 'Cats were 7-5 in 2006. In Coach Kelly's first full year there (he had coached the 'Cats to a win the International Bowl to end the '06 season), Cincinnati went 10-3 with a win in the Papa John's Bowl. That's a 3-game improvement in year one. The Bearcats went 11-3 and 12-1 in 2008 and 2009, winning the Big East, playing in a BCS Bowl, and finishing the season ranked in the Top 20 both years.
Looking at Kelly's history on the brink of his first season at Our Lady's University, one has to wonder: Is the task he faces at Notre Dame more like his challenge at Central Michigan? Or is it closer to what he inherited at Cincinnati? The Chippewas had been a bad football team for a number of years when Kelly got there, and it took a couple of years to really turn it around. The Bearcats, on the other hand, were an improving team under Dantonio and Kelly just jumped on the accelerator and was able to elicit dramatic improvement in year one.
While I am leery of leading with my heart, I think Coach Kelly faces more of a Cincy situation at Notre Dame than a CMU situation. While the team clearly under-performed in the Weis era, Charlie did do a pretty good job as a recruiter. There is talent in the program, and it just needs to be developed and coached. For all his woes, Charlie Weis took a team that was 6-4 in 2004 under Ty Willingham and went 9-3 in 2005. Charlie was on pace to leave a tremendous legacy at Notre Dame until he was hammered in 2007 by the voids in the roster left him by Ty Willingham. That isn't going to happen to Kelly. The cupboard in not bare in the wake of Weis' departure.
Although 2009 was bitterly disappointing, the 6-6 Irish lost six games by a combined total of 28 points. They lost by four points to Michigan in the Big House in a game they clearly should have won. They only lost to USC by a touchdown. And although Clausen and Golden Tate are gone from that team, almost everybody else returns. Dayne Crist was a highly touted quarterback recruit coming out of high school who many thought was better than Jimmy Clausen. Michael Floyd was every bit as good as Tate when healthy, and Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are play makers.
Can Coach Kelly take these players and close the gap? Can he figure out how to win the close games and how to finish strong in November?
Much has been written about the tempo, the speed, of football practices under Kelly. There is little doubt that he is maximizing the amount of work that can be squeezed from every minute of practice. And it certainly sounds like he is paying attention to the details, as he demands from his players. In the final practices of fall camp last week, the Irish were spending time on Coach Kelly's list of 49 unusual game scenarios, which he said has grown over the years from just 16 scenarios when he started at Grand Valley State. The scenarios run the gamut from how to call a timeout before a two-point conversion attempt, to the turtle punt, to taking a safety on purpose. I can't be the only one who remembers Jarious Jackson spraining a knee while taking an intentional safety against LSU in 1998, thus knocking him out of action for the USC game (a 10-0 debacle in the Coliseum).
I don't get to watch practices. There aren't any meaningful videos available of what the team is doing on the field. All we think we know about how the players are progressing comes straight from the coach's mouth. Coach Kelly says the team is working hard, and preparing well, and is close to being ready for Purdue. But with the exception of Lou Holtz, that's what head coaches always say.
One thing we do know is that the competition for a starting spot on this team is intense. Nobody can take a starting slot for granted. Or even a back-up spot. There is no seniority system, no undue loyalty to the upperclassmen. Talent will play. Fifth-year senior and Notre Dame law student Chris Stewart is being pressed hard by sophomore Chris Watt at left guard. Dan Wenger and Braxston Cave are neck & neck at center. Cierre Wood has blown past Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes at running back and is breathing down Armando Allen's neck. Walk-on Nate Montana appears to be #2 at QB, ahead of heralded recruits like Andrew Hendrix. TJ Jones is pushing Duval Kamara hard at the third WR position (and will pass him in my estimation). There is lots of competition at linebacker, with the vocal and talented Brian Smith on the outside looking in as he has been surpassed (for now) by Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming.
So we have some talented players working very hard and competing intensely for playing time. And we have a Head Coach who has a proven record of winning at the college level. It would seem that the ingredients for success should be in place. But now, with all eyes on Notre Dame Stadium in six days, it only remains to play the games.
Good Luck Coach Kelly.
Go Irish! Beat the Boilermakers!