I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. It was the holiday season of 2009 and I was home in South Alabama visiting the family.
Once the presents were opened and the rook game was complete the evening drifted into watching some bowl game that probably shouldn’t be in existence between two teams no one cared about being played in some city no one wants to visit.
Outside of the occasional questioning of why this is even on TV or an inaudible noise by someone after a big hit, the game was merely background noise to the Monday morning quarterback conversation of college football in general.
How would Bama fair in the upcoming national championship game against the Longhorns?
Are the high-scoring West Coast shootouts really football or some circus sideshow?
How much did Auburn spend to buy an all-world quarterback?
Ok… Maybe that last one was discussed over the 2010 holiday season.
Then like following a script the conversation turned to Notre Dame. Why people in Alabama care about a team from South Bend, Indiana is a mystery, but Bama and Auburn fans both agree to despise the Irish. It’s as natural as picking a side of the Iron Bowl while still in diapers.
The Irish had just replaced Charlie Weis with Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly after a disappointing 6-6 record in Weis’s fifth season. Since the Big East was constantly featured on ESPN Thursday night games, the new head man was far from a mystery to the gathering.
Cincinnati had just received an invitation to the Sugar Bowl to face Florida and Kelly was the hot name in coaching at the time after a stellar three years with the Bearcats.
Prior to his stay in Cincinnati, Kelly had created a dominant Division II program at Grand Valley state and turned an abysmal Central Michigan team into MAC champions.
After the typical complaining about the unfairness of an exclusive TV deal and Notre Dame playing weak competition every year (true or false this is the belief of Alabamians), the imminent future of the Fighting Irish came up.
One simple statement by my father summed up the thoughts of the new direction of Notre Dame from a Southern football fan’s point of view.
“I hated to see Notre Dame get him. They’ll be hell to beat in about three years.”
Fast forward to three years later. After back to back 8-5 seasons resulting in two less than prestigious bowl appearances Kelly appears to have the Irish on the right track.
While the offense is still struggling to find consistency, the defense has developed into a unit that can compete with most any other in the country. Through four games, Notre Dame has destroyed Navy and found a way to beat three consecutive quality teams.
Let’s be realistic. Notre Dame isn’t quite ready to compete for national championships just yet. The offense needs more explosive playmakers and Everett Golson needs a bit more time to develop.
But make no mistake about it, Brian Kelly is a top tier X’s and O’s coach who is quietly stockpiling talent in South Bend. He demands players play to a high standard and has a clear vision of where he expects the program to be.
The prophecy spoken on a couch in Walker Springs, Alabama in December 2009 has indeed come to fruition. This season no one is walking into a game against the Fighting Irish expecting an easy victory.
But in the not too distant future we could very well have a season where Notre Dame turns the corner from “hell to beat” to just plain “unbeatable.”