Brian Kelly’s thankless first year

June 23, 2010

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.

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Notre Dame Football? The problem is not the coach.

December 8, 2009

Okay, sports fans, here is something you will never read in The Blue and Gold.  Not because it hasn’t crossed their minds but rather because they need ongoing access to the players and coaches and I don’t.  They can’t afford to offend the administration.  I can.  You can thank Al Gore that this discussion can even take place.   But here it goes…. the real problem with the Notre Dame Football program is not the Head Coach.  It is not the past couple of Athletic Directors.  It is the administration post Theodore Hesburgh.

Blame Malloy and Jenkins and their team.  The administration had to go along with the subtle campaign against Lou Holtz, punching all of his buttons, hiring Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis.   It was this administration that gave Charlie Weis his extended contract, which was deadly to him and the program.  The lack of administrative maturity and business common sense after Hessburgh is clear.  The brand of Notre Dame football has outgrown their competence.  They are in over their heads.

Now, I don’t blame the administration for its failings, it has a different agenda.  Its commitment is to the Church and its corporate and spiritual mission as an educational institution must take precedence over football.   When you are serving God and dealing with issues eternal, four or five years is not a big deal.  And football is certainly not a big deal.  Yes, the money can help God’s cause but if there is a mistake, well, “all things work together for good to them the love the Lord.”

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is our misfortune to be fans of a football program whose overseers are conflicted and therefore their program is destined to be flawed.   Meanwhile, some of us,  carnal and immature mortals that we are, care more about their football team than they do.

Twenty years ago, when college football was not a zillion dollar business it didn’t matter.  Now, these conflicts, academic and spiritual and business, can be the difference between success and failure.

At Ohio State, the football team and the school mission is synonymous.  Winning football means students and alumni money which translates into better academics and renown.  There is no spiritual dimension or even much of a conflict if a football player gets a bit of an academic pass.  There may even be a moral argument that it is in the best interest of students and teachers and the institution if the football player is given an edge.  To be tough on this special student could hurt many thousands of needy young men and women.

The point is, what would be “wrong” at Notre Dame could be considered “right” at Ohio State or Florida State or Texas.

Taking it one step further, it is far more likely that a recruiting coach from Southern California would send a prospect out to eat with a bunch of sexy co-eds than it would be for such a thing to happen in South Bend.  I am not saying it doesn’t happen in South Bend.  Top prospects are popular guys.  I am just saying that it is less likely to happen there.  And a coach who “let” that sort of thing happen would not last too long.

Now, I don’t want to take this too far.  I mean, this administration hired a guy whose every other word begins with “F.”  So they are surely trying to stretch a little, for the sake of Our Mother, of course.  And they have negotiated and renegotiated that golden ticket, the NBC contract, no small feat.  I’ll bet there are some good stories behind that.  I am just pointing out that by their very nature they are going to be less focused on this football business than many administrators because they have higher considerations.  Some of them may even resent or look down on their lucrative football income, as a necessary evil, in the true sense of the word.  This is what comes off as arrogance to many.

So, like I said.  I don’t blame the administration.  I understand.  I just wish they could find a way to resolve this.  I can see why they wanted Tony Dungy.  Their program needs integrity, in the sense of leadership that integrates all of these complex elements.  They can’t keep careening from the advice of one Alumni advisor and donor to the next.  Because none of them have the whole picture and they are assuming that the men in black are doing their due diligence and not just having knee jerk reactions.

It’s our fault for being stupid enough to get dragged into becoming fans of an institution that is so conflicted.   They want the money, after all “the wealth of the ungodly is laid up for the righteous,” and they can do great things with it, but they want much more than just a great football program per see and they believe that they have a higher calling and therein lies the conflict.

Alabama has no higher calling.


Notre Dame’s New Coach

November 17, 2009

A new coach for Notre Dame.

Charlie Weis did so many things right that it took us a long time to figure out it wasn’t a fit.  He gave us great anecdotes to add to the legends, like the dying boy who called the opening play of his coaching career, “pass right.”  And he corrected a lot of mistakes like bringing back Rudy and honoring him, while the stuffy, self righteous leaders of the college had ignored him, even though the movie about his life had done more for recruiting than any coach or athletic director had ever done.  And Charlie showed ND how to get first downs again, after some pathetic offensive years.

What we liked about Charlie Weis was that he called the unexpected plays, like a general ordering his armies to attack where the enemy least expected it.   When it worked it took our breath away.  When it didn’t work we thought it was idiotic.  There is a reason why the opponent was expecting a run, because a pass is stupid right now.

Charlie Weis exploded on the scene because he had the one thing that the team at that time was so desperately missing, namely good offensive schematics.  And then he was a brilliant recruiter.  But all the other things that were in place were not of his making and after they wound down he couldn’t seem to get them back again.

Reading the tea leaves of Tom Pagna’s revealing columns over the years, we can guess that Charlie didn’t know how to adequately teach college level football to high school graduates, took for granted the basics of blocking for the offensive line, didn’t reach out enough for counsel and information from his own coaches and staff and considered motivating his team to be sophomoric and unnecessary.

Charlie tore down players, cussed them out on national television.  I guess he thought that it would build character.  And while he obviously had no control over his own temper he professed amazement when his team on the field lost it and personal fouls cost yards.  Maybe such boot camp anger works on multi-million dollar players in the NFL, who need to be shocked into reality.  But maybe it doesn’t work for 19 year old kids, who are still battling acne and low self esteem.

He was terrible at the expectations game, putting enormous pressure on his teams.  Typical was the prediction that Monti Te’o would have a field day against Navy.  I suppose Charlie thought it would inspire the youngster.  Needless to say, it didn’t.  In that respect, Charlie was the anti-thesis of Lou Holtz.  Lou would go into a game making it sound as if ND was playing a team out of its league, that it was an impossible, uphill task.  The boys would be loose, have fun and usually won.  Then Lou would brag about the magnificent upset.  Charlie on the other hand went into games fearlessly, unimpressed, “we should beat them,” and only bragged on them after he got beat.

So now what?  Who is the best coach for Notre Dame?

He should be someone with college coaching experience.  Lee Corso made that obvious point last Saturday when he said that the odds were against Charlie from the beginning, that no one should come to Notre Dame as a first year college coach.  Dan Devine, who came from the Green Bay Packers and led ND to a national championship, had coached at Missouri and Arizona State.  Parseghian had coached at Northwestern.  Holtz had coached at William and Mary, North Carolina State, the New York Jets, Arkansas and Minnesota before coming to Notre Dame.  So yeah, a little experience is a good thing.

He should not necessarily be a Catholic.  Frank Leahy, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz were Catholics, but Knute Rockne came to Notre Dame as a Lutheran, Ara Parseghian a Presbyterian.

There is speculation that Jon Gruden will get the nod.  I hope not.  Anyway, he signed a two year contract extension as an analyst for ESPN.  Gruden has a very complicated pro style offense.  Who does that remind you of?

Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech?  A Baptist at Notre Dame?  And he has those wonderful  triple option schemes that worked so well for Navy and now for the Yellow Jackets.  Problem?  The black suits of Our Mother could take a Lutheran, maybe even a Presbyterian but never a Baptist.  And it’s just as well.  His options plays would virtually guarantee annual top ten finishes, even without five star recruits, but it would be such boring television that the school would lose its glorious NBC contract.

Most now speculate that it will be Bob Stoops of Oklahoma.  He is Catholic, like most of the others on the ND fan wish list.  He has been the head coach at Oklahoma.  But if you talk to Oklahoma fans they are a little miffed over his last three bowl game losses.   Still, the university likes someone who wants badly to come and Stoops is already campaigning for the job.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has bad mouthed Notre Dame, which ironically makes him attractive to some.  And they like the last coach who came from Northwestern.  He brought two national championships to South Bend.

Kirk Ferentz of Iowa would be hot.  And he is Catholic, which would please the black suits.

Gary Patterson of TCU would be hotter and he is supposed to be Lutheran.  Remember, the last Lutheran head coach at ND was Knute Rockne.

Some want Jim Harbaugh of Stanford.  (Gee, could we get him before we play them?  Maybe we could win that game. ROTFL.)

Chris Peterson of Boise State is very popular with many.  His record is 45-4.  Imagine?  If we only lost 4 games a year we would be happy.  And Peterson’s current salary is $850,000 a year.  On the boards many are saying he is not Catholic, that he is in fact into Scientology.  But I suspect that these posts are being planted by Bob Stoops’ mother.   Anyway, if the religion is so important, they should bring back Jerry Faust, and tell all Catholics worldwide to pray.  Heck, if they brought back Faust even I would pray and I am a Protestant.

And finally, there is my favorite Brian Kelly of Cincinnati who has landed his team in the top ten with only two and three star talent.  It’s got to make you wonder what could he do in South Bend?

Oh sure, at Notre Dame they believe in miracles, so someone is bound to stop by the Grotto and light a candle and pray a prayer for Urban Meyer.  They had him you know?  He was quarterback coach for Bob Davie but got dumped.  If Davie, who developed some good defensive teams, had kept Meyer on staff he might still be the Head Coach at Notre Dame.

But barring that miracle, I vote for Brian Kelly.  An Irishman leading the Fighting Irish?   Now that’s an idea.