NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly broke tradition on Friday.
Before Notre Dame’s final Stanford practice he gathered the team, at which point he usually lets a player break down the roster. It’s a simple juice move, clapping and chanting. It ends with “We are ND football!” and a mobbed high five.
Kelly wanted a piece of those good vibes, so he bit down on his call sheet, tucked a pencil behind his left ear and started to clap. He led the movement. And a strange thing happened. The players ate it up. Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell, Torii Hunter Jr., Cole Luke, Tarean Folston, guys who theoretically should tune out Kelly first in this lost season, beamed as their head coach tried to connect on a different level.
And a night later Notre Dame still lost as Kelly overthought the quarterback position, switching from DeShone Kizer to Malik Zaire and back to DeShone Kizer. In a season where nothing has gone right for Notre Dame, this was simply the next something.
“This is a bitter pill to swallow, certainly,” Kelly said. “You know, losing our fifth game now by one possession, everybody is … I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.
“It's one of those things where you just … you've got to keep fighting, and we'll get out on the other end of it. It's a tough spot we're in right now, but they're committed. Coaches are committed, and we'll find a way. We'll get through this rough spot.”
Two weeks ago Kelly put his coaching staff on a public interview, including himself. That makes the 17-10 loss to Stanford career endangerment as the Board of Trustees met this weekend to watch a head coach who’s been nationally skewered for the past month.
Less than a year into his six-year contract extension, Kelly isn’t going anywhere. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick won’t cut his losses seven games into this reinvestment. And that’s fine, just as long as Swarbrick has begun to make a list of possible successors. No matter how this season ends, it can’t end without Notre Dame being prepared to change.
Would it be shocking for Kelly to leave Notre Dame after seven years? Of course. Would it be shocking for Kelly to start 2-5 with an NFL quarterback? You know that answer too. At this point everything has to be on the table because it’s been a season of unthinkable madness.
“New week, same story,” Hunter said. “Just not finishing. It’s tough. That’s all I got to say.”
The problem is everything, which is much more daunting than the small course corrections being sold as solutions.
“It’s just small things we gotta fix and when there’s so many small things you don’t know, you lose sight of every small thing that needs to be fixed,” said defensive tackle Jarron Jones “That’s our mindset.”
If you think the coaching has gone stale, you’re right. If you think the talent is substandard, you’re right. If you think playcalling has spoiled, you’re right. If you think Notre Dame asking for peak performance during mid-term week is foolish, you’re right. Short of advocating Notre Dame joins the ACC or creates football majors, basically any argument you make to fix this program is worth a listen.
This all leaves Kelly without another button to push. He’s played the part of maniacal head coach. He’s played the cool CEO. He’s blamed himself. He’s blamed the coaches. He’s blamed players. He’s defended the defensive coordinator. He’s fired the defensive coordinator. He’s rotated quarterbacks. He’s stuck with one quarterback. He’s relied on old talent on defense. He’s overplayed young talent on defense. He’s kept the practice schedule the same to be consistent. He’s changed the practice schedule to spark a change.
Nothing has worked.
Now we’re talking about confrontations with Stanford strength coaches and what Jerry Tillery likes on Twitter. It’s been that kind of year. And there’s five games of it left.
Yet the roster believes that’s a good thing.
“You can tell where people are at mentally with the way they go and prepare,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “There hasn’t been a dip in that at all. Each week we’re amping up the energy and guys are excited about what we’re doing.
“We understand that we have the capability to put games away that we should put away. You gotta keep the energy up and finally finish that out. The mindset on our team isn’t changing because we have great kids across the board in our locker room, great leadership from the coaches.”
Take the roster at its word that it will keep working against Miami, Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC. In a season of brutal surprises, that fact the Irish haven’t flinched feels like a twistedly positive one. But that’s where the program is.
The problem is we’re having this discussion about Notre Dame’s unwillingness to quit on a season in mid-October and celebrating that. It’s essential to anything getting better. It’s also the barest of bare minimums for a head coach to cultivate in his program.
“A lot of teams would turn on each other,” said linebacker James Onwualu. “But you don’t see that with this team after losses, many losses, guys are still patting each other on the back, complimenting each other, trying to hold each other up.”
That’s all the Irish have now.
There is no quick fix. The question is if there’s a fix at all.