Eleven days later, Notre Dame named the 2009 Coach of the Year as its 29th head football coach. New head man and former Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly has won 34 of his last 40 games, a span of success not achieved at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz's 1991 Fighting Irish won on September 21 to improve to 35-5 over a 40-game period.
Holtz's 40-game run began with a season-opening win in 1988 and included one national title; a second-place finish in the quest for another; and ultimately a last-minute Orange Bowl loss while fighting for a third.
That run of success is the modern standard-bearer at Notre Dame, and while two of Holtz's teams challenged for national honors shortly thereafter, no stretch at the program has approached that level of excellence since.
Kelly inherits a team stocked with upper class, skill position stars. He also walks into a program that hasn't challenged for a national or BCS title since late November, 1993.
Notre Dame's two most recent coaches both took the helm ready to steer a team bereft of quality depth, but with a group of solid front-line players already in place. Kelly's 2010 squad boasts the added advantage of youthful talent while 29 of its 36 top players reside in the team's backbone: its junior, senior, and (potential) 5th-year classes.
Under the proper tutelage, the Irish can hit the ground running in the spring despite the loss of record-setting QB Jimmy Clausen and WR Golden Tate to the NFL draft and the graduation of 10 regulars that helped define the end of the Weis era.
August camp should yield a healthy Dayne Crist (torn ACL on October 31), a quarterback whose skill set could blossom in Kelly's impressive spread offense.
The Irish offensive cupboard boasts two players (Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph) that rank among the nation's best at their respective positions, as well as a quintet of running backs and the likely presence of three offensive linemen with 56 aggregate starts on the interior line available to pave a path. The '10 Irish offensive arsenal includes two veteran tight ends and five additional talented receivers with a new lease on life and a chance to compete for a role in Kelly's offense, one that finished sixth nationally in 2009.
Then again, few are concerned about Kelly's ability to score or Notre Dame's talent base at the show positions. Can the team's new leader guide the maligned Irish defense to an acceptable level of execution next season? To a BCS level in the near future? Will "missed tackle(s)" continue to define the final seconds of every opponent snap?
Regardless, Kelly won't have to start from scratch as 16 of the defense's 23 main contributors should back in uniform next year with at least five more youngsters ready to challenge for spots in the rotation.
From a sheer talent standpoint, the 2010 and 2011 Irish are not a typical rebuilding project, at least not at the level of your standard team that finished with a 13-12 record over its previous two seasons.
But there are additional, notable obstacles not recently overcome.
Critical analysis shows a 16-season gap. 16 years since Notre Dame was a national player by the time the first snowfall hit South Bend. Sure there were paper contenders in 2002 (ranked #3 in the BCS heading into a November 2 debacle vs. Boston College) and the fun-though-flawed 2005 squad that was an epic push by Bush away from participating in a nationally televised slaughter at the hands of Texas' sublime QB Vince Young.
A few additional BCS qualifiers received certificates of participation along the way as the 1995, '98, '00, and '06 teams fought their way to major bowls only to fall short on game day.
But those weren't "contenders." Not by any litmus test offered from experienced fans of the program. Not to those of us that saw what a true powerhouse Notre Dame could be with a stocked talent base that had benefitted from multiple seasons of top tier guidance, as the 1988-93 squads were an aggregate 63-9-1 with four Top 5 finishes, five major bowl victories, and 17 wins over teams ranked among the nation's Top 10.
Since 1993, Notre Dame has finished one September without defeat (2002) and suffered 22 separate two-game losing streaks. It's dropped at least three consecutive decisions on 10 separate occasions and fallen short in an astonishing 34 of its last 100 home games including 11 of its last 20 in the shadow of the Dome. The program has won 3 of its last 14 games played in November and finished undefeated in that critical month in just four seasons over the 16-year span.
What's Important Now?
Question: What are blocking, tackling, toughness, and execution?
Answer: Four essential elements of the college game that in no way relate to Faust Fever; Return to Glory, bumbling clock-management decisions, or (fill-in-your-choice of) slogans and unfulfilled boasts, as staples of Notre Dame football.
Rhetoric and unfulfilled promise have accompanied four of the school's five previous hires, each of whom forgot or never learned what the fifth preached:
Lou Holtz's mantra, What's Important Now (WIN) wasn't a catchy phrase designed for media attention but rather, a way of life for Holtz and his football players. Discipline, dedication, belief in each other (and make no mistake, insane talent) were the cornerstones of his 11-year tenure, the only successful stretch in South Bend since the aforementioned and overlooked Devine left campus following the 1980 season.
Brian Kelly will have his detractors, regardless of the on field product next season. If successful, short-sighted critics will state that "he's winning with Weis' players." Of course, Weis didn't win with those players, but that makes for poor copy in mid-October.
If he struggles early it will fuel the momentum and national media belief that Notre Dame can no longer compete at the highest level in modern college football.
Whether Kelly was your dream coach, your fallback plan, or the one you hoped Mr. Swarbrick would avoid is irrelevant. The program is at the crossroads of an era in which every relevant team finds its way onto a TV screen, and no future college football player was yet conceived when Raghib Ismail rocketed to stardom for the school in South Bend.
Today's hire is the most important in program history; a beacon for die hard Notre Dame fans that can no longer stomach the mediocrity that continues to cast a pall on their 12 Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings each fall.
Good luck Coach Kelly. And cheers from this '95 grad who hopes to file a standard bowl game practice report rather than yet another program eulogy five years from today.
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