Notre Dame's biggest problems: perception, and this fall, coaching
Modern-day Notre Dame is a strange beast; the Irish are consistently mediocre
With games left against Utah, Army, USC, losing season likely for 4-5 Irish
ND hired Kelly, the hottest name, but he's made some mind-blowing moves
DISCLAIMER: This column is about Notre Dame football, but it is NOT about Declan Sullivan, the student who died last week when high winds knocked over the scissor lift he was standing on as he filmed practice. I spent a lot of time this past week thinking about Sullivan. I feel awful for his family, of course, and I also feel outrage. I have a columnist's instinct to blame somebody. And somebody probably DOES deserve blame -- perhaps coach Brian Kelly, perhaps others, perhaps a lot of people. But accusing somebody of causing a death is so serious, and there are so many unknowns right now, that I'm just not comfortable pointing a finger -- and I'm not comfortable absolving anybody either. I just hope his parents get answers. They deserve that much.
Anyway, this is about the infinitely smaller but still interesting matter of Notre Dame's football season and Kelly's performance. Please don't think I am trivializing Sullivan's death by leaving it out of the column. To the contrary: I am leaving it out of the column because I don't want to trivialize it.
We will get to Brian Kelly's remarkable coaching gaffe against Tulsa on Saturday in a minute. Just trust me, for now: This brain fart was so bad, they smelled it in China.
No, let's first step back and acknowledge that modern-day Notre Dame football is a strange beast. The obvious reason, as fans of every other college football team will tell you, is that the Fighting Irish have not really factored into the national championship hunt since 1993, yet they still receive an inordinate amount of media attention, still have their own TV network and still have a special seat reserved for them at the BCS table. That special seat sums up Notre Dame in this decade: It's like college football, officially, cannot believe Notre Dame has been mediocre for so long and expects the Irish to snap out of it at any moment.
Strange -- and maddening, as fans of every other college football team will tell you -- is that while Notre Dame teams consistently fade, the perceived importance of the program hasn't faded all that much. The more Notre Dame loses, the more people talk about Notre Dame losing, which means Notre Dame remains in the spotlight whether it wins or loses.
But there are some not-so-obvious reasons why modern-day Notre Dame football is a strange beast. Such as: Why are the Irish so consistently mediocre? Every traditional power has experienced a bad spell, but usually that only lasts for one or two coaching terms. Notre Dame's slide started at the end of the Lou Holtz era, continued under Bob Davie, got worse under Tyrone Willingham and got ugly under Charlie Weis.
And this is where Brian Kelly steps in. For the first time since Holtz was hired, Notre Dame went after the hottest name and got him. Kelly's built a Division II powerhouse at Grand Valley State, a Mid-American Conference powerhouse at Central Michigan and a Big East powerhouse at Cincinnati. He had Midwestern connections and an embrace-the-hype attitude, which is a prerequisite to succeed at Notre Dame.
And Kelly came in and ... well, it's early, but he looks a lot like Weis and Willingham and Davie, if you ignore the fact that those men actually look nothing alike and just go along with the metaphor.
Notre Dame is 4-5, and with a closing stretch of Utah, Army and at USC, a losing season is likely. That's bad by Notre Dame standards -- and not just traditional Notre Dame standards, but modern Notre Dame standards. The much-reviled Weis and Willingham each had just one losing season.
But it's not just that Notre Dame got to 4-5. It's how Notre Dame got to 4-5. Kelly, the offensive whiz, seems to lose brain cells every week. To put it bluntly: He has done one of the worst coaching jobs in the whole sport this season. His ratio of reputation-to-current-success is extraordinary -- officially, the ratio is 947-to-2, and I can say that with confidence because it's my fictional stat.
Almost every loss can be attributed, at least in part, to coaching. Against Michigan, Kelly gave up a chip-shot field goal at the end of the first half so he could have an inexperienced quarterback toss the ball into the end zone. That field goal could have been the difference in the game. (The Fighting Irish ended up losing by four, but it was a back-and-forth game that could have been very different if Kelly had taken the three points.)
Against Michigan State, it started to become apparent that Kelly didn't really know his team. He coached like his offense could blow people away, but he doesn't have that much firepower this year.
Notre Dame looked clueless defensively against Navy. Then came the Tulsa debacle. In the final minute, needing a field goal to win, with a second down on the Tulsa 19, the Irish ... had their backup quarterback toss a pass toward the corner of the end zone.
Needing a field goal to win, with a great kicker on his sideline, Kelly asked his backup quarterback to throw a touchdown pass. It was mind-boggling. It was indefensible. It was an amazing coaching mistake, and it had to give even the most faithful Irish fans pause. Kelly has won by building dynamic offenses. This year, he has coached like he has a dynamic offense, when he doesn't. If he builds that dynamic offense ... well, OK, maybe this will work out. But if his only game-day thought is to try to put up a bunch of points, this isn't going to end well.
Those are specific decisions and specific complaints. In the big picture, Notre Dame has no business being 4-5. Whatever you think of Weis, no reasonable person could argue that Notre Dame is running a talent deficit against Tulsa and Navy.
And it's not like Kelly came in and had a bunch of internal problems (Notre Dame's official graduation rate and unofficial behavior rate are perennially outstanding -- the biggest reasons I'd like to see the Irish succeed). It's not like Kelly demanded a huge philosophical shift -- like Weis, he is a passing coach.
It's very early in the Kelly era. His track record is excellent. It would not surprise me in the least if, by his third year, the Irish are a huge player on the national scene. But the early returns are not good, not good at all. And if Brian Kelly -- hottest coach in the country last year, builder of three successful programs -- fails, then maybe we should just assume that Notre Dame will never be the same again. A strange beast, indeed.