On Solid Ground

Tuesday's contract extension will allow Irish head coach Brian Kelly the opportunity to build Notre Dame's program from the ground up after a string of quick fix failures.

I wasn't surprised that two camps quickly formed regarding Brian Kelly's two-year extension.

Message board subscribers – at least ours at Irisheyes.com – appeared largely in favor of the notion. Support for Kelly remains strong with caveats for the team's 10 losses in his 26 coached games ranging from the relative mess he inherited along the team's offense and defensive lines, to the need for a quarterback to run a true read-option, to the nauseating adage that he needs "his players," etc.

The other camp, the vocal majority of South Bend, my own alumni-based Facebook friends, and the weary masses of Irish fans simply sick of losing, has decided early into the coach's tenure that nothing has changed at the program, that debacles such as Tulsa 2010 shouldn't be forgiven, and that Michigan 2011 was worse (editor's note: that's probably true).

And that losing four of the team's five marquee games this fall is a portent.

I'm not in the wait-and-see category, though I admit I still can't believe Tulsa's combo-error of omission and hubris, and I can't conceive that the 2011 Ann Arbor implosion happened, either.

But an extension to allow Kelly to coach his program through 2016 is the right call for many reasons.

Short-term reasoning flawed

I've read the extension helps Notre Dame on the recruiting front in the near future, the theory positing that an extended coach is safe for the duration of a given prospect's potential tenure in college.

He (nearly any coach, not just Kelly) is not "safe" of course. Coaches are fired following extensions all the time with recent examples at Notre Dame including Charlie Weis, for whom the former brass ripped up a perfectly fine 5-year deal and turned it into a 10-year inconvenient truth just two months into his first season; and Bob Davie, who was canned one year after signing up for a five-year vote of confidence in 2000.

I hope Kelly's extension had little to do with recruiting purposes – assuaging a 17-year-old's notion that things won't change over the next five years is an exercise in futility, not to mention a maddening practice, as if one or two vacillating prospects could bring Notre Dame out of its 18-year malaise.

No, the person that needs to bring Notre Dame back to the fore is Kelly. I stated it two years ago and will reiterate it now: If Notre Dame doesn't win multiple BCS bowls under Brian Kelly, than it won't happen again at the program…for a very, very long time.

Two, three, four…it doesn't matter

Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz – each Irish deity won a national title in his third season. Kelly probably won't.

Stoops, Meyer, Tressel, Chizik – each college conquering hero won a national title in his second season at a new program (Oklahoma, Florida, Ohio State, Auburn).

Kelly was out of the running to repeat the feat roughly 30 game minutes into the 2011 season (though he might have turned the two-year title trick with either Cam Newton as his triggerman).

The 2012 season will be Kelly's 22nd as a collegiate head coach; nearly a full score of them could be categorized as successful, though probably neither in South Bend. But both the first and second seasons of Charlie Weis' tenure were (surely the first). The first of Tyrone Willingham's was, as was the second of Bob Davie's.

Each ex-coach fielded a team within two years of his arrival better than either of Kelly's 2010-11 squads. But none of the quickly-deposed trio built a program.

"We have instant coffee, instant tea, and instant restaurants. Everybody looks for a quick fix. There isn't any. You build it day-by-day. You don't panic. You don't overreact. You don't change your principles. If you preach the same thing over a period of time, and it doesn't change, one of two things is going to happen: They are going to believe in you or they are going to leave."

The words of Lou Holtz two decades ago ring true in South Bend today. The 2012-13-14 Irish appear structurally sound, built not on flash and dash, but upon where football games have always been won: up front.

To wit:

  1. The team Kelly and his staff inherited had just produced two of the worst three rushing attacks in the history of the school. Conversely, Kelly's 2011 team averaged more yards per carry than any team at the program since the Holtz era.

    Were the 2011 Irish a great running team? Of course not, but could they possibly have been considering the recently linked past? Of course not. All-time poor rushing attacks don't become dominant in a matter of months...

  2. The team Kelly and his staff inherited had just produced two of the five worst rush defenses in program history. The 2010-11 squads held nine of 13 foes a full yard per carry below their season average.

    Were the 2011 Irish a dominant rush defense? No, but it was a full yard per carry better than prior to the new regime's arrival. That hasn't happened at the program since the 10-1-1 Irish of 1992 – led by juniors rather than freshmen – improved upon especially poor 1990-91 defensive campaigns.

The Bottom Line: 16 up vs. way too many down

There's no need for a Devil's Advocate stance if it simply focuses on the 2011 season. You'll get no argument from me that Notre Dame was:

A.) Sloppy – far too many turnovers and penalties
B.) Flawed – nice special teams, sheesh…
C.) Undisciplined – red zone ridiculers, line up here
And D.) Regressed or at least failed to improved as the season progressed – the polar opposite of the hope presented at the end of 2010.

Kelly hasn't developed a quarterback in 25 months on the job, he alienated more than half of his roster prior to Game #20 in his tenure, and hidden within his 16-10 record is a mere 11-8 W-L mark vs. BCS conference opponents.

But for the better part of 20 seasons he's been a successful football coach. He built three programs into champions, with his fourth and current the most daunting task by a considerable margin (there's no Eastern Kentucky or Southeast Missouri State on a Notre Dame schedule for a reason).

"While Coach Kelly and I are focused on the additional work that must be done to reach our goals, I am very pleased with the progress we have made during the past two years." said director of athletics Jack Swarbrick Tuesday.

"Our football team's performance on the field, in the classroom, and in the community reflect Coach Kelly's commitment to building a program that will be able to sustain success in the long run, and to doing so in a manner consistent with Notre Dame's values and tradition."

I don't know if Notre Dame can win a BCS Championship in the near future, but it's better for the health of the program that Brian Kelly will be afforded the chance.


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