1 – Stability over Ability? Jack Swarbrick’s bye week announcement that Brian Kelly would “lead the Irish through the tunnel” in 2017 has temporarily quashed the “Next Coach In” chatter that had permeated the Notre Dame fan base over the last two months. Barring a ridiculous turn of events (the coupling of a 2-10 or 3-9 finish plus post-season Athletic Director edicts refused by Kelly), 2017 will be the head coach’s eighth at the helm.
Whether you believe Kelly deserves another year or not, it’s worth noting that forthcoming foe and fellow former college football power Miami will be led next Saturday by its third head coach over its last three meetings with Notre Dame – a squad coached each time by Kelly.
Change isn’t a panacea. It is necessary, at least from my purview, if Notre Dame is to return to the relative elite (more on that below), but it’s admittedly unlikely that the program’s next head coach will win more games in his first six seasons (55) than did Kelly.
2 – Metaphorically Speaking: With the World Series upon us, I figured it would be fitting to use batting analogies to describe Notre Dame’s coaching hires of the modern era.
-- Ara Parseghian: Grand Slam
-- Dan Devine: Double (albeit with the bases loaded)
-- Gerry Faust: Struck out swinging
-- Lou Holtz: Home Run
-- Bob Davie: Struck out looking
-- Ty Willingham: Popped out into a game-ending double play with two outs while attempting to lay down sacrifice bunt
-- Charlie Weis: Lined out hard to left-center
-- Brian Kelly: A two-out triple
3 – The 8-Win Mirage: Included on Kelly’s ongoing Irish resume is the reality that the head coach is the only in program history to win “at least eight games in his first six seasons.”
But it’s also true that Kelly joins Joe Kuharich and Gerry Faust as the only Notre Dame head coaches to lose five games in four different seasons.
He likewise joins Faust as the only head man to lose at least four games in five different campaigns, and he’s in danger of joining Terry Brennan, Kuharich, Hugh Devore, and Charlie Weis as the only Irish coaches to finish a season three games below .500 since football became a sport.
So let’s leave the lauding of “eight wins” in the rearview, because in reality it merely paints a picture of accepted mediocrity.
4 – Player Development an Unexpected Issue: Equanimeous St. Brown, James Onwualu, Chase Claypool, Daniel Cage, Nicco Fertitta, Kevin Stepherson, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride – that’s my list of Irish players that are better than I thought they’d be (relative to my own expectations) through the first seven games.
Add Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Hunter Bivin (limited sample size), Jonathan Bonner, and Te’von Coney to the short list of those who rank about where I thought they would. The rest have fallen short (again, relatively speaking) from my purview.
Let’s see your lists, Irish fans?
5 – Medicine Ball 2016: Saturday October 22, 2016 stands among the proudest days of my life as the Hilton Garden Inn on St. Mary’s campus (also the site of my wedding reception eight years and four days prior) served as a venue to honor my dad, Dr. John O’Malley and the man that hired him in 1971, Dr. Tom Troeger – co-founders of the IU School of Medicine (formerly the South Bend Center for Medical Education) on Notre Dame’s campus.
Teaching both undergrads and medical students from 1972-2007 (continuously) and intermittently since, two among his hundreds of students educated will be immediately recognizable to Irish fans: Reggie Ho and Pat Eilers. (Weis-era defensive back Leonard Gordon was also an undergraduate football player that braved Musculoskeletal Anatomy.)
A special thanks to my dad’s “best-ever” undergraduate student (at least according to the seven O’Malley children that constantly heard his name and the requisite “99” associated with each test score), Dr. William “Bill” Rozzi, for attending to make the evening uniquely special.
6 – Every Dog Has Its Day, Except… Penn State beats No. 2 Ohio State. Louisville beats No. 2 Florida State. Ole Miss beats No. 2 Alabama (and No. 3 Alabama, to boot). Arizona beats No. 2 Oregon. Houston beats No. 3 Oklahoma.
And on, and on…
Those upsets – six off the top of my head – each occurred in the last two calendar years. The same exercise was far more difficult to ponder for the only college football team I’ve covered (9 seasons) or followed (35 seasons).
Meaningful upsets by the Irish aren’t easy to recall because they’re infrequent (and in the distant past). For the record, these mark the last time the Irish defeated No. 1 (FSU 1993), No. 2 (Miami 1990), No. 3 (Michigan 2005), No. 4 (1993 Cotton Bowl), and No. 5 (Michigan 1998).
Nothing better than a win over a No. 5 (or No. 6, to boot) since 2005 despite 10 such opportunities. (No more will present this fall.)
At least one is crucial next season. It’s long overdue.
7 – Why he can: Can Kelly guide Notre Dame to the playoffs in 2017-18 or beyond? The glass half-full argument is as follows:
- He’s Adapted: Eschewing the up-tempo, pass-first attack that failed during his initial 2010 campaign (a 4-5 start), shifting to a downhill power running game, utilizing a move tight end (Mike Ragone) as a lead blocker en route to a 4-0, defense-first finish.
- He’s Bounced Back: Rebounded from 1-3 (to finish 8-5 in 2010), 0-2 (to 8-5 in 2011), 2-2 (to 9-4 in 2013) and an ignominious 0-4 November (to conclude with a Music City Bowl win).
- He’s Overcome: The loss of his 2015 offense’s rudder, Malik Zaire, to finish within a snap of a playoff berth last fall.
- He’s coached the best Notre Dame team of the last two decades: 2012 and 2015 (throw in 2005 as a solid No. 2 or No. 3).
- 23-4: His record with a rookie quarterback in South Bend. (Brandon Wimbush would qualify next fall).
- Tommy Rees with Pro Talent: That’s DeShone Kizer, the 2017 senior, should he elect to return next fall.
8 – Why he likely will not: And conversely, a collection of reasons why we might already know what we need to know:
- A plague of turnovers has destroyed three of his seven seasons (2011, 2014, and 2016)
- A poor running game has presented in three separate campaigns (2013, 2014, 2016)
- A defense that performed below reasonable expectations has surfaced on four occasions (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)
- Repeated red zone failures have permeated the offense (inefficient in 2010-11-12-13), to cataclysmic (2014) to the 96th-ranked present.
- Fatal Special Teams flaws and/or failures have been omnipresent throughout the units:
-- Punt Return 2010-11-12-13
-- Punt/Punt Coverage 2013, 2016
-- Kickoff Return 2012-13-14
-- Kick Coverage 2013-14
-- Field Goal 2011, 2014, 2016
9 – Define Irony: For 2015, Kelly adopted the motto “Culture Beats Scheme” for his 2015 Fighting Irish. They finished among the nation’s Top 10 at season’s end.
To begin 2016, by his own admission, Kelly instead chose scheme over culture, leading to the too-late firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
I’m curious as to why? And if we’ll ever find out.
Until next week, Irish fans…