"Champions Believe in themselves even if no one else does." -- unattributed
Prior to his third spring in charge of the nation's most storied, and today, it's best football program, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had six motivational banners affixed throughout his team's chief meeting room, the Isban Auditorium inside The Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
Three of the six explain his off-season creation "A-Team" philosophy for the program, the name of a veteran laden advisory council that asks each member to subscribe to and espouse to teammates the following:
- Accountabilty:"The willingness of team members to remind one another when they are not living up to the performance standards of the team."
- Appreciation: Broken into three parts, offering that "Ability is God-Given; Be thankful" that "Praise is man-given: Be Humble" and that "Conceit is self-given: Be Careful."
- Achievement: "Excellence Going far beyond the call of duty, doing more than others expect…This is what excellence is all about, and it comes from striving, maintaining the highest standards, looking after the smallest detail and going the extra mile, excellence means doing your very best, in everything, in every way."
A fourth banner contains a telling quote from former rough rider Theodore Roosevelt, while a fifth proclaims an old sports adage with the word "TEAM" capitalized six times descending above a lowercased "me."
But it's the sixth banner with a 10-word sentence noted atop this page that more than nine months later encapsulates Kelly's remarkable 2012, undefeated Fighting Irish:
"Champions Believe in themselves even if no one else does."
"This was another indication of how we got to 12-0," said Kelly following Saturday's workmanlike win over formerly formidable USC. "Our guys have an incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win. That's all we talk about, we don't talk about style points, we don't talk about anything else. Just find a way to win.
"I'm so proud of our players, I'm so proud of our coaches, and of our grit and toughness."
The latter adjectives serve as his team's identity on both sides of scrimmage. Its true the team is great defensively -- both statistically and in terms of its mental focus, and both at an historical level. They're reliable if not explosive offensively, at least against peer teams. They run the ball consistently, physically, and with purpose. And when in rhythm, move the ball through the air, at least until the red zone barrier strikes.
They're only average at best in the tide-turning third portion of the game, special teams, though Saturday night in the Coliseum they won that battle, too, scoring 16 of their 22 total points by kicking a football between the pipes and limiting the nation's best duo of playmakers to but one return of consequence.
Notre Dame is, for now, the best team in the nation. They'll either prove that again on January 7 or fall victim -- as six consecutive other programs have -- to the seemingly indomitable force that is the big, bad SEC, where you're apparently either (at least cosmetically) a top 10 team or in the midst of a semi-annual coaching search.
The 2012 Irish are, regardless, the best team in a quarter century at the University and one of its handful top groups of all time.
They have a final step to secure program immortality, already having ascended to the status of never-forgotten but just-short-of-championship legend such as the 1974 Irish with end zone heroes Tom Clements and Robin Weber; the '64 crew, Ara Parseghian's reclamation and Resurrection project; and notably, next to Lou Holtz's oft-referenced '93 squad that similarly overcame doubters, but fell one win and a faulty vote short of the crown.
On January 7, Notre Dame will play for a national championship under its third-year head coach just as it did under the guidance of Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, and Holtz. Each captured the crown.
Brian Kelly's remarkable 2012 Irish have just over 40 days to reach program immortality and stand as the first-ever 13-0 squad in 125 seasons of Notre Dame football.
But win or lose, they already perfectly embody Roosevelt's quotation that rests on the west wall of The Gug, one doubtless chosen by a prescient Kelly, who recognized naysayers would dominate the outside noise surrounding his third Irish team, slating them for failure before they took the field.
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
At Notre Dame, and for its legion of fans and doubters alike, truer words have never been spoken.