Fighting Back Tears: Examining Notre Dame's Biggest Worry

IsmailAnalyst IMarch 1, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 11: Notre Dame atheletic director Jack Swarbrick (R) greets Brian Kelly as he is introduced as the new football head coach at Notre Dame University on December 11, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana.  Kelly most recently led the University of Cincinnati to two consecutive Bowl Championship Series appearances including a perfect 12-0 record this past season. (Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images)
Frank Polich/Getty Images

There's a problem deep beneath the surface for Notre Dame fans. It's an anxiety-filled worry that is best kept buried as the long winter months come to an end and spring ball awaits.


It's a worry that gnaws away at Irish fans in the most deceptive, yet powerful way.


It's not whether more power programs will be added to the schedule.


It's not whether Michael Floyd can stay healthy for an entire year.


And it's not whether QB Dayne Crist can step in as a leader this fall.


I’m talking about the biggest worry of them all.


What if Brian Kelly fails at Notre Dame?


This is a pill most Fighting Irish fans simply don't want to swallow, and it's one the Notre Dame administration simply cannot afford to.


Yet this fear hangs over the Golden Dome ever so quietly during the first few months of Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend.


After three failed coaching moves, one botched coaching hire, and nearly 15 years of mediocre football, the stakes are as high as ever for Notre Dame.


Brian Kelly could certainly be considered the most important hire in school history, and he is now a man who has hundreds of thousands of fans hoping and praying that he's the one to bring them back to national prominence.


Like many who came before him, Kelly will soon find out, if he hasn’t already, that it's an extremely heavy burden to carry.


Notre Dame has never gone this long without winning a national title, or at least being a contender.


The pressure to win is as intense as any in North American sports.


You can excuse Irish fans for getting overly-excited whenever a new coach arrives in town, but the past 15 years have also slowly taught the faithful to temper those expectations.


But one thing can't be denied: Brian Kelly is truly different.


Losing with Bob Davie hurts less since he’s been unable or unwilling to find another coaching job. He never had the head coaching experience so vital to the program’s success in past years.


Losing with Tyrone Willingham didn’t hurt as much because he was a scrambling hire in the wake of the school’s dismissal of George O’Leary. Willingham was never a proven winner, and didn’t put forth his best effort to lead Notre Dame.


Losing with Charlie Weis doesn’t hurt as much now that we’ve been able to take a step back and clearly see his glaring deficiencies. Like Joe Kuharich in the 1950’s, he was never able to adjust his pro-style mentality to the college game.


But how would we be able to explain Brian Kelly’s failure at Notre Dame if it does occur?


Maybe the past three coaches have lessened the excitement for a new coach, but most fans have to be smiling from ear-to-ear with the hire of Brian Kelly.


“Finally,” they say, “our Irish have an experienced head coach who is a tremendous leader and winner.”


For here is a guy who's steadily climbed the football ladder like Ara Parseghian, from player to position coach, to coordinator, and finally head coach.


Here's an experienced and knowledgeable guy whose clearly defined plan and system will get his players executing at the highest level possible.


And most of all, here is a guy who's won at every level of coaching, and has been successful with everything he touches.


In short, if the university could build its own football coach, the result would look an awful lot like Brian Kelly.


Notre Dame fans can learn to live with the futility from the Davie era until now because of those coaches' inadequacies, but really big trouble is on the horizon if the Irish faithful have to learn to live with Kelly losing too.


It’s as if Notre Dame has been bringing a Jetta, Prius, and Escape to a drag race in the past, only now they’ve got a Shelby Mustang.


How do you explain losing with a Mustang?


Some may say Notre Dame needs something more than a Mustang to win in 2010 and beyond. They say they need a Ferrari in the form of coaches like Meyer, Saban, or Stoops.


That may be so, and perhaps that will be the general consensus if Kelly ultimately fails. But the problem with Ferrari-like coaches is that they bring a win-at-all-costs mentality which doesn’t really fly with the priests at Notre Dame.


It's no secret that it's a more favorable situation to work at a public school in Florida than an academically rigorous Catholic school. Winning at all costs has been the norm for the former for years.


Further, any realistic expectations have to figure that a Ferrari won't be coming to Notre Dame any time soon.


But with Brian Kelly, he seems to be the absolute perfect fit because he doesn’t bring the win-at-all-costs mentality, but rather, a win-despite-the-costs mentality.


Now, the problem with this discussion becomes, what defines a failure?


Does nearly two decades of .500 football change the way Notre Dame fans view success under the Golden Dome?


Should Brian Kelly be judged based on comparisons to Weis and Willingham, or Holtz and Parseghian?


Will Kelly have to bring home a national title within the next five or six years, or will a marked increase in winning suffice?


Let’s say for arguments sake that Kelly delivers 36 wins over the next four seasons and gets Notre Dame to a bowl game each year. Let's also suppose Kelly is fairly successful and goes 3-1 in those bowl games, including one BCS bowl victory.


That would make Kelly 36-16 with a winning percentage of .692.


This record would be a discernible improvement over Davie, Willingham, and Weis, but would still be a step or two below other great Notre Dame coaches.


Would Notre Dame football be forever removed from elite status if its “dream” coach could not raise the program to greater heights with a roster full of tremendous players?


Is it lowering expectations to view 36 wins over four years as successful? If it's tolerated by the end of year four, will it be tolerated at the end of seven?


These are enormously difficult questions that fans, alumni, and the Notre Dame administration must weigh as the Brian Kelly era takes root over the next few years.


Defining success and failure inevitably brings about a gray area like the one mentioned above; there’s a chance Brian Kelly improves Notre Dame, but doesn't bring the program to true greatness.


How should this scenario be handled?


Even worse, there’s the chance Brian Kelly struggles just as much as Charlie Weis and ultimately, is unable to consistently produce.


It’s the fear of Kelly struggling that many Fighting Irish fans don’t even want to consider; Notre Dame football might truly be dead.


Then again, Kelly might take that theoretical Mustang and bring glory back to Notre Dame.


Or perhaps he’ll end up turning that Mustang into a Ferrari.


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