Memo to Kelly Doubters: A Change at Notre Dame Would Come with No Guarantees
Dump Brian Kelly? Get serious.
The discontent with Kelly that flared up after Notre Dame’s debacle at Michigan won’t be soothed by ND’s narrow 21-20 escape from Virginia Tech.
At least the Wolverines have the trappings of a dangerous opponent. The Hokies do some things well. But they were a 17½-point underdog. The way the Irish got that win does not inspire confidence.
That said, this was a classic hangover game for the Fighting Irish.
They had had their faint College Football Playoff hopes crushed in the cold rain of Ann Arbor. The doom and gloom around a program that has no conference goals was palpable. At Notre Dame, it’s national championship or bust.
Virginia Tech has the defensive skills to give ND’s offense problems. That was especially true because the Irish were down to two healthy offensive-line starters.
This was a win that kept Notre Dame’s possibilities for a New Year’s Six (Cotton) Bowl alive.
But it won’t deter the doubters who want to move on from Brian Kelly.
To which I say: Be careful what you wish for.
The guy is 87-37, a .702 winning percentage, in his 10th season at ND. He’s had only one losing season (4-8 in 2016), but has bounced back with 10-win seasons the last two years and is, at 6-2, in the hunt for a third straight 10-win season, with four beatable opponents remaining.
Under Kelly, the Irish played Alabama for the national championship in 2012 and played Clemson in a national semi-final last year. Yes, they got thrashed in both. And yes, they tend to get thrashed in their biggest other bowls.
But there are reasons for that, and they go beyond coaching.
What people, especially Irish fans, need to understand is that Notre Dame, for all its past glory, has a ceiling in this era. And it’s pretty difficult to break through that ceiling.
The world has caught up to ND in glamour, television appearances, opportunity for players to showcase their skills to the NFL. At the same time, Notre Dame has raised its academic profile.
In short, the issue that keeps the Irish from going toe-to-toe with College Football Playoff perennial contenders isn’t so much about coaching as it is about luring uber-elite players.
Maybe another coach could raise the Notre Dame talent level to the monumental levels that Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and a few others have. Maybe not. Especially with ND’s current academic rules.
But maybe another ND coach would have other issues.
Brian Kelly won’t be at Notre Dame forever. It’s a very draining job. He figures to wear out at some point along with wearing-out his welcome—say, within five years.
But hiring coaches who can excel at the level Notre Dame expects is a very tricky business. In between Kelly and Lou Holtz (100-30-2, .765 winning percentage, and the 1988 national championship) came Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, who were a combined 91-67.
Notre Dame can be expected to have better luck with its next hire, when the time comes. But that is not a given.
And this talk about dumping Kelly now for Urban Meyer is pie in the sky. For one, why would Meyer, who passed on ND when he took the Florida job, be interested? For another, despite his many successes, he has enough baggage that it’s difficult to see why ND would be interested.
The larger point, though, is that we have no indication that Kelly is going anywhere—that he wants out, or that ND officials are tired of him.
One thing Kelly has shown is tremendous resilience. In bouncing back from that 4-8 season by retooling his staff, he showed impressive CEO skills. That’s important at a place like Notre Dame, where staff turnover is a regular occurrence.
Here are the problems that won’t go away at ND:
Expectations are through the roof. At a program with Notre Dame’s mystical history, that will never change. The lack of a conference keeps everything pinned on an increasingly unrealistic national championship.
And being independent makes that goal more difficult because ND doesn’t have a conference championship game—or the stability of a conference schedule. Some years, Notre Dame’s schedule can be prohibitively difficult. Other years, it lacks the strength-of-schedule to prove itself.
Bottom line: Maybe the next guy will do better than Brian Kelly when the time comes for a change.
But given all the issues involved, don’t be so sure about that. When you start saying 10-win seasons aren’t enough, you’re in dangerous territory.