Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly sent shock waves through the Irish fan base when he interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The news, which came on the heels of a heartbreaking BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama, caught more than a few Fighting Irish faithful off guard.
Kelly's arrival at Notre Dame in 2010 was heralded as the dawn of a new era for the Fighting Irish. The coach, who had profound success at both Cincinnati and Central Michigan, was expected to engineer the Irish football program's return to dominance—and he did just that in 2012.
It comes as little surprise then that many felt betrayed after news of Kelly's interview with the Eagles became public mere days after he told Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter of ESPN that leaving Notre Dame "is not an option."
The interview clearly had a negative effect on Kelly's reputation among the Irish faithful. A poll in a recent article of mine showed over 65 percent of the 500 readers who voted felt that the interview had affected their perception of Kelly in a negative way.
Perhaps it should not have taken so many off guard, given that he left both Central Michigan and the Cincinnati Bearcats after three successful seasons, and, let's face it, not too many people walk away from Notre Dame by choice. But like it or not, Kelly has a history of abandoning successful programs.
Now that the dust has settled, can Kelly keep the fans on his side in 2013?
The most obvious thing Kelly can do to maintain fan support is to keep wining. If he can get the Irish back to the BCS title game next year, the vast majority of Irish followers will forgive and forget. It's hard to be mad at a coach who takes you to the national championship game two years in a row.
A second shot at the national title is entirely possible. Notre Dame has a very manageable schedule, the only serious contenders being Stanford, BYU and to a lesser extent USC and the Oklahoma, both of which have lost their star quarterbacks to the NFL draft. There are many potential trap games though—think Pitt and Arizona State—so Kelly will have to be on his toes.
The real test will be replacing the outgoing talent. This season the Irish will lose 28 seniors to the NFL, and junior star running back Cierre Wood has also declared for the draft. So in between avoiding trap games and contending with major opponents like Stanford, Kelly will have to put his coaching skills to use bringing up the next crop of Notre Dame players.
Beyond the obvious, Brian Kelly may want to consider being more transparent with his fans in the future. Many college coaches interview with higher-profile schools in order to leverage a pay increase from their current employer. And Kelly may have been doing exactly that by entertaining an offer from the Eagles.
Had Kelly been more open about his interview, I doubt the backlash would have been as strong.
On the other side of the conversation, fans need to remember that Brian Kelly has done a lot for Notre Dame and, frankly, we need him. He returned this program to the prominence that evaded us for a generation, and we should be grateful.
In summation, if Kelly wants to keep the fans on his side this year, he needs to keep winning and avoid any surprise meetings with the NFL. If he can manage those two things the Irish fanbase needs to forgive, forget and move on.
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