Rally sons of Notre Dame, Sing her glory and sound her fame...
With the familiar words and tune of the Notre Dame fight song reverberating in our collective skulls, Brian Kelly, the coach of an undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats team on its way to the Sugar Bowl, jettisoned his team to accept the coaching position at the venerated Indiana institution earlier this month.
At the time, it seemed to be a tough, but logical choice for Kelly.
Tough because he had to abandon a Bearcats team that he led to an undefeated regular season, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance.
Tough because this Bearcats team has achieved despite adversity, including losing their Heisman-quality and NFL-bound quarterback Tony Pike to injury for several games this year.
Tough because this is a Bearcats program that traditionally has played second fiddle to The Ohio State University in their home state, and who Kelly has brought to the forefront with a second major bowl in as many years.
Logical, however, due to the fact that it was Notre Dame.
Unlike Cincinnati, if Notre Dame goes undefeated, there’s pretty much no question it’ll be playing for the BCS title.
They still have the aura and mystique of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome, and don’t have to play second fiddle to anyone when the recruiting wars come about. On top of that, Notre Dame has the richest television contract in college football.
Instead of being happy with a crowd of 40,000 or so, the Irish sell out their 80,000-plus Notre Dame Stadium for every game, with over 200 consecutive sellouts.
So, as hard as it was, Kelly took the job at Notre Dame.
But maybe he moved too quickly, because a position just came open at the University of Florida.
With Urban Meyer now stepping down due to health concerns, Florida will be looking for a new coach.
There are several reasons Kelly might have been a better fit at Florida than at Notre Dame.
1. The Current Florida System Matches Kelly’s Style, Especially on Offense
Kelly has made his mark as an offensive coach, featuring multiple formations and lots of passing. Meyer's system at Florida, and previously at Utah, was similar, and therefore would mean a much faster learning curve for the players.
2. The Athletes at Florida Are Also Better Suited to Kelly’s Offensive System than the Current Kids at Notre Dame
As Rich Rodriguez has found out at Michigan, it can be tough to put a square peg in a round hole. Trying to get a bunch of players recruited to play straight-ahead, smash-mouth, Big Ten power football to a system that features speed and versatility is not easy.
The Irish have a team that was recruited to play a balanced offense with power between the tackles, not multiple-formation run-and-gun. Kelly may need a few years to recruit his type of players at Notre Dame, while they are already on the field at Florida.
3. Nothing Succeeds Like Success
Florida has had it lately. Notre Dame has not.
And the natives in South Bend are neither happy nor imbued with an overwhelming amount of patience. Kelly will be on the hot seat from day one at Notre Dame. At Florida, while expectations would have been high, he would have had a bit more leeway initially.
The Gators are set on defense. As an offensive coach, Kelly has never demonstrated the ability to build a strong D, including the past few years at Cincy. At Florida, he would inherit a good, strong D. Not so much in South Bend.
Due to the circumstances of Urban Meyer's departure, Kelly could have retained most of the staff that Meyer had built at the Florida program. In South Bend, the demonstrated lack of competence means he’ll have to get some replacements, pronto.
6. The Sugar Bowl
While he obviously could not known Meyer would be leaving, if Kelly had delayed accepting the Notre Dame position, he could also have finished this season with his players.
Thus, he could have had the honor of leading Cincinnati to an undefeated season. As it stands now, he has left the team and university stranded with a lame duck to coach them for the bowl, which is far from optimal.
Would Kelly have been a better match for the Florida program? At this juncture, we’ll never know.
But something tells me that his days at Notre Dame will not be easy, especially the initial seasons. Until Kelly recruits and stocks the program with the kind of players who thrive in his system, progress may be limited.
Of course, being Notre Dame, it is not like he is working from ground zero. He has plenty of blue-chip athletes on the roster.
But I would be very surprised to see the Irish get more than eight wins in Kelly's inaugural season.
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