Why would Notre Dame lock up Brian Kelly to a contract extension after consecutive 8-5 seasons? Because Irish AD Jack Swarbrick sees what's happening. The system is starting to take hold. Kelly is making progress.
And he wants everyone to know it.
The first question in the minds of Irish fans across the country: Why?
It's not for financial reasons. Kelly's current deal already takes him through 2014. His performance so far has been good but certainly not commanding of a raise on his already substantial salary.
It certainly isn't for recruiting purposes. The past actions of jet-setting coaches like Nick Saban and Todd Graham have all but eliminated the credibility of coaching contracts.
Could Swarbrick be afraid of Kelly following the lead of coaches like Saban and Graham and jumping ship?
Even in the face of a recent history, that doesn't match up to the program's glory days.
Notre Dame is undeniably one of the top jobs in college football. Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from 10-20 jobs that might be considered better than the gig in South Bend, but at present, none of those jobs are open.
Kelly, who grew up as a huge Notre Dame football fan, has every reason to stay and no incentive to leave. He said it himself at his introductory press conference back in 2009:
"I'm at Notre Dame now, and this is where I want to be."
So if not for any of those reasons, why add two years to Kelly's deal?
To tell him he's doing a good job.
That's what makes Swarbrick's gesture so meaningful. It's completely unprovoked, an act of institutional altruism.
By making the move soon after Notre Dame's devastating loss in the Champs Sports Bowl, but prior to the announcement of its (presumably) highly ranked recruiting class, Swarbrick adds an extra hint of credibility.
It's a slight detail, but making the move now not only says "We're excited for the future," it also says "We're excited because we saw signs of success in 2011."
Nuance isn't easy, especially in a sport where won-lost record holds more value than any other. Yet, Swarbrick is embracing the gray areas.
He's sending a message to Notre Dame's observers, assuring all that he has faith in the direction, regardless of what the outcomes might dictate. It's the same message reverberating from Irish fans on the comment boards across this website.
"Yeah, 8-5 kind of sucks, but there's real progress being made here."
It's easy to slough off an financial gesture coming from a university whose endowment tops $5 billion, but this move certainly rings louder than any public vote of confidence could.
Swarbrick saw what happened during the end of the Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham eras, when the Notre Dame fanbase collapsed on its own team. He doesn't want to see the student section pelting the sideline with snowballs again, nor does he was to see a repeat of the home loss to Syracuse that prompted the frozen deluge.
This is the best way he knew to unite Irish supporters behind their coach. It was a pre-emptive strike against a 2012 season with a murderous schedule and may once again yield a disappointing record.
Swarbrick knows that next season won't satisfy the fans' craving for a national title, but he's confident that there will be progress once again.