LIVING IN AN ALTERNATE REALITY
Notre Dame’s losing habits, mixed with the actions of Brian Kelly, have brought out the national critics of the Irish head coach, led by long-time Southeastern Conference analyst Paul Finebaum, now with ESPN.
“Let’s think about what Brian Kelly has done here in the last couple weeks,” Finebaum said. “He blamed everyone on his team a couple weeks ago. He said he’d be re-evaluating.
“He blamed his defensive coordinator and fired him. He blamed his quarterback, who’s had a really nice year. And (Saturday), he called out the center, saying he had been snapping atrociously in the middle of a hurricane. You know, I’m beginning to wonder, who’s next for Brian Kelly to blame? Donald Trump?
“(Kelly is) a miserable human being and blames everyone but himself.”
One writer referenced Kelly’s “abrasive personality.” His program has been referred to as a “train wreck.”
One website sided with Finebaum and declared that Kelly “never seems to accept blame.”
Train wreck? That’s certainly an apt description of the 2016 season so far. Not only was Brian VanGorder miscast as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Kelly allowed players on both sides of the football that he thought should be playing to stand idly by on the sideline. He allowed VanGorder to run a style of defense – particularly the ill-advised 3-3-5 alignment against run-oriented Texas – to go unabated.
There are many things that can be said about Kelly that are accurate, or at least valid criticism, such as an over-emphasis of the passing game in general, but in particular in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
But anyone who says Kelly is “a miserable human being” with an “abrasive personality” simply doesn’t know Kelly.
The worst accusation and most inaccurate, along with miserable and abrasive, is the notion that Kelly has not shouldered any of the blame for the way his team has played.
While there’s no doubt that Kelly has dumped much of the blame on his team, it’s ridiculous to say Kelly has blamed everyone but himself.
That is selective hearing at its most biased level.
Following the Michigan State loss, he lumped the blame on himself and his coaching staff. He repeatedly called himself “a 1-3 coach” following the loss to Duke, the next day during his teleconference, and again on Tuesday of Syracuse week.
“That’s poor coaching,” said Kelly after the Michigan State loss. “We’re not coaching it well enough. Obviously, if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top with the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders and we’re not getting that done.”
Of the aforementioned blown coverage, Kelly added: “We’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough.”
In fact, most of his criticism following the Michigan State loss was directed at himself and his football team.
When the Irish fell to 1-3, he did indeed turn on his players as an incredulous observer of their lack of passion. But that’s when he called himself “a 1-3 coach.”
To say Kelly has not shouldered the blame for the abysmal start to the 2016 season is selective listening and only tells part of the story. It’s a lie of presidential debate proportions.
One could argue that Kelly has made a more passionate plea against his players than himself. But it is irresponsible reporting to say that he hasn’t blamed himself, which is what makes national reporters commenting on teams with little to no access such an incomplete study.
Some will argue that Kelly’s inclusion of himself in the blame as insincere. I can’t argue something left up to interpretation and perspective, particularly something that is determined largely because everything he says is sifted through a six-losses-in–the-last-eight-games filter.
But “miserable human being,” based upon the man the local media has known for seven years, is wrong. “Abrasive personality” is absurd. And more than anything, saying that Kelly has not been accountable through his words is an out-and-out lie. There have been eight, 10, a dozen public examples to discount that perception.
There is plenty for which to question Kelly as the string of losses to opponents that Notre Dame should vanquish continues to grow. You don’t have to make up falsehoods to prove the point that Kelly and his staff have failed on highest level this season.
Just get the facts straight.
KELLY: PART II
The Notre Dame coach, particularly when he’s lost six of the last eight, is under tremendous scrutiny, in bad times especially. Nothing Kelly can say is right in the team’s current state.
Kelly meets with the media four times a week during the season. It’s not easy to answer all those questions without using careful language that doesn’t reveal too much about his team, his players and the game plan. It’s almost impossible not to contradict oneself when you’re picking and choosing which version to offer the public. Kelly’s not alone. All coaches have to do that in some form.
Certainly admonishing center Sam Mustipher for three or four bad snaps in a quagmire is a sign of frustration and not a real wise course of action.
The only yelling and public chastising that really matter are that which impact the team. If it negatively impacts the player, and thus, the team, then it’s counterproductive to the goal.
He’s won a lot of games his way. He’s slow to change, although he’s not given nearly enough credit for how he adjusted his sideline behavior after the South Florida opener in 2011.
Some say he’s stubborn to change from the tried-and-true of 10-to-20 years ago. There certainly have been examples to question with regard to intent, philosophy and game-day decision-making, and the list seems to be growing lately.
Add it all up: the six straight bowl games, the national championship run, the string of six eight-plus-win seasons, the vastly improved overall structure of the football department, and all the perceived mistakes in his handling of the program/team (which dates back to his “my players” comment after the loss to USC in 2011) and in-game decisions.
That said, Brian Kelly will be the head coach at Notre Dame in 2017.
WHY BRIAN KELLY WILL NOT BE FIRED
Of the 61 players listed on Tuesday’s depth chart, including the starting kicker and punter, 55 players have eligibility at least through 2017. Not all will use that additional eligibility, but an overwhelmingly vast majority of the players will be back in 2017.
The 2-4 record is a result of player inexperience in several areas and the poor overall job of managing the situation by Kelly and his staff.
But very few football programs in America would cut short a seven-year run of moderate-to-great success (albeit brief greatness) without allowing the good-if-not-great head coach to take advantage of the vastly improved depth and playing experience next year.
Anything that has Jack Swarbrick’s fingerprints on it is a deal that couldn’t possibly have the financial consequences that Charlie Weis’ contract did. I’m not familiar with the specifics of its contents, but Swarbrick is too savvy to be backed into a corner without stipulations that protect the University he represents.
So as far as how Kelly’s ultimate dismissal (or his decision to depart) will impact the University’s decision to replace him, the contract likely won’t be an overly inhibiting factor.
As bad as the negatives have been at times and have been perceived by a rightfully-impatient fandom, they’re simply not viewed the same way in the real world. In the real world, Kelly is the head coach in 2017.
While I don’t expect the extreme failures to continue, the past success, the young, developing team and the prospect of a solid, consistent defensive coordinator with a solid class of defensive linemen enrolling make this a relatively easy decision.
In the real world, this program has functioned too well to pull the plug after one bad season. He’s built up more than enough equity to continue his tenure at Notre Dame.
A CASE FOR MIKE ELKO
Any time there is a coordinator position open at Notre Dame, the names of the best in the business surface. Replacing Brian VanGorder with Dave Aranda (LSU) or Todd Orlando (Houston) is unrealistic for Notre Dame, particularly at a time when things are so volatile and Kelly, in theory, could be striding toward another job in the not-so-distant future.
A more realistic option would be someone like Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko, a 1999 graduate of University of Pennsylvania and a success at various stops in the FCS as well as Bowling Green of the Mid-American Conference and the Demon Deacons of the ACC.
• Wake Forest held Notre Dame to 282 yards total offense – 181 yards under its 2015 season-long average and 123 yards less than its next-lowest production (405 yards vs. Ohio State)
• Elko’s 2014-15 defenses at Wake allowed 364 and 369 yards per game while coupled with a Demon Deacon offense that averaged 17.4 and 14.8 points per game. His 2016 defense is 42nd nationally in total defense with an offense that’s 101st in scoring. He has maximized the talent at Wake Forest.
• Elko held Florida State’s 2015 offense to 329 yards (95 under its season average) and Clemson’s to 361 (154 below its season average). Seven of Wake Forest’s 12 opponents in ’15 were held to 370 yards or less, including five to 317 yards or less.
• Prior to his arrival at Wake Forest, he served as Bowling Green’s defensive coordinator for five seasons. His last two defenses in the MAC allowed 16.8 points per game in 2012 and 15.9 in 2013. Those two defenses had 68 sacks combined.
He’s young and he’d likely jump at an opportunity at Notre Dame that other more highly-touted coordinators would not. Our sources tell us that he’s on Brian Kelly’s radar. He would appear to be a very, very solid choice.
WONDERING OUT LOUD…
• If Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame captains/leaders must face the music after a tough loss, why not the coordinators/assistant coaches? One can use the “one voice” argument, but why would players be more qualified to answer the questions than the assistant coaches?
• Do people realize how good Virginia Tech – Notre Dame’s 11th opponent this season – has been under head coach Justin Fuente? The Hokies (4-1) are No. 2 in the country in passing yards allowed per game, No. 2 in completion percentage allowed (40.8), and No. 2 in yards per pass attempt (4.7).
Those numbers have not come at the expense of the rush defense. Virginia Tech is No. 17 versus the run (105.4 yards per game) and No. 15 in yards per attempt (3.05). Only 11 teams have allowed fewer than the Hokies’ four rushing touchdowns.
Yes, they allowed 45 points to Tennessee, but just 16 first downs and 330 yards total offense. Three of the Vols’ touchdown “drives” were seven, five and four yards.
Virginia Tech hasn’t faced a gauntlet up to this point of the season. These numbers have been accrued against FCS Liberty, Tennessee, Boston College, East Carolina and North Carolina. But there seems little doubt that the Hokies will shoot past their seven victories of a year ago with the following opponents still on the slate: Syracuse, Miami, Pittsburgh, Duke, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Virginia.
• (Disclaimer: The inclusion of the information below should not be interpreted as a statement for or against either of the presidential candidates. It is mentioned only because of the football reference.)
Donald Trump’s area of expertise was expanded to the realm of football this week. When a woman fainted at one of his rallies, was knocked unconscious and later returned to the audience, Trump spoke of her toughness…and the lack there of in today’s football. (Reported by ESPN.)
“Concussion…oh! Oh! Got a little ding on the head, no, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season!” Trump said.
In January, Trump said: “You used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch. Now they tackle – ‘Oh, head-on-head collision, 15 yards’…the whole game is all screwed up. You say, ‘Wow, what a tackle!’ Bing. Flag.
“Football’s become soft. Football has become soft.”
Just a little “locker room talk” from the campaign trail.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Following our first losing week of the season (1-2), here are this week’s picks.
• Over 67 Mississippi @ Arkansas
• Over 63 Kansas State @ Oklahoma
• Houston -21½ vs. Tulsa
Season record vs. spread: 13-6