For a brief moment in time, while the laconic coaching search was just beginning to germinate, some Notre Dame fans were devising scenarios in which Urban Meyer is suddenly brought low by the realization that he has reached his apex at Florida and becomes coach of the Fighting Irish in order to take on a new challenge.
This scenario might or might not involve a chariot ride down the streets of South Bend.
As a Michigan fan, I can tell you that it is nearly impossible to tear a coach away from a major program, as such was the case with Les Miles, even if he has a deep fidelity toward your school.
After Lloyd Carr retired, Michigan faced down the precipice of a deep and gouging identity crisis for the first time since 1968, back when Bo Schembechler took the reigns of an uncertain future, which was a period so tumultuous that even pop-art impresario Andy Warhol was nearly assassinated.
But even if Rich Rodriguez doesn’t work out, I will never come to regret the hiring decision. His records at Glenville State and West Virginia were impressive, as he came in, changed the culture, and dramatically improved the fortunes of the teams, and his potential dismissal would only represent the alienation of a man who’s a victim and oddity of circumstance at a school where he couldn’t cut it.
Notre Dame, however, has made so many bad coaching hires that their penitence can only be assuaged by a Catholic priest.
If you truly want to know the efficacy of the Brian Kelly hire, then ask Notre Dame’s rivals, and in my mind he represents the best hope since Lou Holtz for a return to consistent national prominence. It’s almost compulsory to see as threatening Kelly’s capacious track record because it’s laced with so much impressive football collateral. Like Rodriguez, Kelly’s ascendency at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati presages good things to come, whether or not he eventually succeeds. It is the principle that matters.
Notre Dame’s failure is not rooted in any specific approach because there has never been an easy color-coded formula. The safe approach is usually to reach below the football firmament and take from the less relevant teams a coach—this is what happened with Urban Meyer, who went 39-8 at Bowling Green and Utah, even as both programs acted just as glorified butlers that were serving Meyer up to the next team—but other hires might include a college coordinator like Bob Stoops, who arguably helped cultivate Florida into a top ten defense by 1998 despite the fact that Florida's offense scored about a billion points a game and played football like it was hot potato, and the totally unconventional hire, like Pete Carroll.
There is no guarantee that a hire will work—Pete Carroll may even look like a good recruiter in practice and certainly in reflection, but the unknown still represents a huge variable.
What Notre Dame can be faulted for is a failure to measure the whole arc of their search. They get caught up in the moment and become reflexive and impetuous, so that their cure is palliative but never lasting.
Look no further than their last three misses. Bob Davie may have been an acolyte of favored coach Lou Holtz, but a coach hired from within is just as likely to succumb to his own perspective as an insider and become slavishly devoted to the fundamentals of the prior regime. Even though Lloyd Carr was a successful in-house hire, what was his biggest criticism? He did things Bo's way (Michigan fans might still blame Carr like Democrats blame Bush, but some of it is the truth: The recruiting slowly rotted toward the end of his tenure, and he failed to adapt to modern college football). That perspective is not always tailored to the changing situations of the program.
Notre Dame also confused Ty Willingham’s Rose Bowl run as a sign of a man who could actually coach, even though it should have rightly been seen as an aberration; Notre Dame once again lost sight of the whole picture.
With the Weis hire, perhaps Notre Dame thought that they could plunder the brilliant minds of the NFL and find their very own Oppenheimer or Einstein, a man who is looking to immigrate, but they failed to understand the kind of sensibility that wins in the college game. With his manner, his aberrance, and his conduct, Weis is better left repatriated as a coordinator without any managerial or diplomatic duties. By giving Weis a contract extension after a 34-31 loss to USC, which is still probably his defining moment as coach, Notre Dame saw only what they wanted to see, but not what they would get.
Notre Dame might have lost out on Brian Kelly, also—in spite of the way in which he handled the incident at CMU, he’s still the most alluring coaching candidate this year—if the school had been too reactionary about the team’s defensive liabilities or Kelly’s pro-choice stance.
Notre Dame also had to be torn between the necessity of firing Weis, a lame duck coach, and finding the perfect coach just sitting there and incubating, ready to leave for South Bend. Had time run out on Texas and vaulted Cincinnati into the national championship game, Notre Dame might never have had the opportunity to hire Kelly.
But now that Kelly is in the fold, Notre Dame is like Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, sitting in the back of the bus blank and listless—I’ve got the girl, but what do I do now? For the near future, Kelly might have the difficult task of rebuilding. Even though Notre Dame has a quarterback who can step into the void, so much depends upon the ACL injury, and the exodus of offensive talent and the slow, corrosive degradation of the defense have left the incoming coach with a large vacant sign that promises large space and a lot of unrealized potential in which to room.
It might take some time to repair the damage and replenish the talent supply—whether they're better or worse next year depends largely on Kelly's talent—but it also doesn’t take very long for the Notre Dame job to extract a terrible toll on the psyche; just ask Jimmy Clausen’s black eye. In 1953, Frank Leahy retired after an undefeated season and four national championships during the course of eleven years because he felt like he was no longer wanted.
Irish fans aren’t likely to be quite as selective, having spent over fifteen years wandering the college football wilderness, but if fans can tolerate a recession in the next year or two, then Kelly might just get his opportunity to shine.