Notre Dame’s new football coach, Brian Kelly, has a thankless job this coming season. If he turns the program around and has a winning year it will not inspire much more than a yawn from some of the fans. They have seen it before.
Bob Davie chalked up a 7-6 winning season his first year with a 9-3 record in his second season. But the fans watched the program slide to 5-7 his third year at the helm and by 2001, after another losing season they were finally done with him.
Tyrone Willingham stepped in and knocked out an amazing 10-3 record his first year, earning a long term contract and high hopes from Fighting Irish fans, only to see the program slide to 5-7 the very next year.
Charlie Weis was the second coming of Knute Rockne, doing everything right, on and off the field. His 9-3 first year record allowed Notre Dame to rank 9th in the nation. And his second year record was 10-3. But in 2009 he plummeted to 6-6, losing his last 4 games and that was the end of that.
So if Brian Kelly has a big year he won’t get much credit and while most Notre Dame fans will want to believe there will be many more stubbornly withholding judgment.
Why have recent Notre Dame coaches followed this same pattern? In some cases they coached spectacular first seasons because they were providing a missing piece of their predecessor. And they eventually slipped because they didn’t have some of the other pieces their predecessor had carefully developed.
Davie, whose specialty was defense, showed some imagination after years of a predictable, run, run pass. And that little spark seemed to work. But Davie could not match the player development, motivation, training and recruitment of Lou Holtz. As the program slipped many Notre Dame fans grew nostalgic over the dependable coach whose teams were always in the hunt.
What was missing, some said, was the “West Coast” offense that was the rage of a new generation of high school recruits who saw it as their best ticket to the NFL. Stanford coach, Tyrone Wellingham, fit the bill and brought his program to South Bend. And Wellingham turned in one spectacular recruiting year as well. And then the familiar slippage began.
Charlie Weis took a Wellingham recruited team and turned in a thrilling year. What was missing, some said, had been good offensive schematics. Weiss was a genius at that. But others said he did not know how to develop college age players and that his defense never emerged.
Which brings us to the Notre Dame dilemma. If they are looking for a good defense they are back to a coach like Bob Davie. There is always a missing piece. Round and round it goes. And if they need a coach who can develop players, like say, Brian Kelly, well they aren’t going to know for sure until the third year anyway.
So barring a national championship, or a combination of 10 wins and a victory over USC and in a Bowl Game, Brian Kelly’s first year will not be much of a test for some jaded Notre Dame fans. He can probably even survive another 6-6 season. It is the third year that will be the charm. It will be a long wait for Notre Dame fans who haven’t seen a national championship since 1988.