The majority of Irish eyes are smiling right now thanks to a strong finish on the field in 2010 and a strong finish on the recruiting trail five weeks later. One can’t help but be optimistic about the direction the Fighting Irish program appears to be heading after year one of the Brian Kelly era.
There was serious turbulence midseason, but Kelly rallied his troops and strung together a four-game win streak to close out his opening campaign, including ND’s first victory over a ranked team since 2006 and its first victory over Southern Cal since 2001. After thrashing Miami in the Sun Bowl, the staff kept the momentum flowing in the right direction by locking down the best haul of high school defensive linemen in the country, snatching them from the jaws of Florida State, Penn State and Georgia Tech.
Yes, Irish eyes are smiling right now and the consensus is that while it’s too early to christen Kelly as “the savior,” things are definitely looking up. But here’s the million dollar question: Does the previous sentence qualify Kelly’s first season in South Bend as a success?
The was no dramatic rise toward the top of the polls like Willingham’s Return to Glory in 2002, no BCS berth waiting at the end of the regular season like Weis’ first year. That being said, everyone now knows those campaigns represented the pinnacle of both coaches’ tenures (and how both ended with giant, eyebrow raising thuds in their respective bowl games).
The lows in Kelly’s first act were epically low. First came a three-game losing streak to close out September. Then Notre Dame was completely dismantled by a Naval Academy team they’d beaten 43 consecutive times from 1964 to 2006. The icing on the cake came the very next week when ND stacked a heartbreaking home loss to Tulsa atop the Navy debacle. This was an excerpt from a column I wrote the week following those back-to-back losses:
“This season has been a colossal disappointment and a complete and utter failure no matter how you slice it—and I believe it's largely on Brian Kelly. I'm not ready to call for his head and I still believe he's capable of righting the ship (though he's shown little-to-nothing this year to support that faith), but you have to call a spade a spade: this season is a disaster.”
But just when things were at their darkest, the team turned the corner.
The defense transformed into an absolutely dominant unit, completely shutting down three prolific offenses to close out the regular season. Despite being ransacked by injuries on both sides of the ball, the Irish spanked Utah and Army and then punched their nemesis in the mouth on its homefield. For good measure, Notre Dame tacked on another dominating performance in the Sun Bowl against Miami.
Was that turnaround enough to salvage the season for Brian Kelly? One school of thought says that no season that includes a beating at the hands of Navy and a home loss to Tulsa can be considered a success. When Notre Dame was a dominant team in the late 80s and early 90s, moral victories were counted for what they actually were: Losses. If this program wants to ascend to those heights again, then the bar needs to be set just as high. Using that standard, the 2011 season was a failure.
But consider the other side of the coin. At the start of the year, what if someone offered Notre Dame fans the following package:
“You’re going to have a couple bad losses, but you’ll end the year with eight wins (including a bowl win), a victory over Southern Cal and show incredible improvement over the second half of the season—especially on the defensive side of the ball. Just for the hell of it, we’ll throw in the fact that Rich Rodriguez is going to cry and sing Josh Groban in front of a bunch of Michigan boosters in an attempt to save his job…and he’ll still get fired.”
How many would have taken that? Everyone craved an Ara Parseghian “resurrection” season, but realistically, that’s a pretty good deal. The past two coaches have offered fool’s gold in their first seasons; what Notre Dame needed this season was a strong foundation for sustained success over the long-term. Was that achieved?
You could have never convinced me on November 1 that this would be the case, but I’d tend to lean much more heavily toward the “success” camp than the failure one.
The ultimate measuring stick at Notre Dame is national championships. Once that possibility was eliminated in mid-September of last season, the focus needed to shift. What was needed at that point was clear progress that suggested the Irish were moving toward achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a title contender again.
By the end of the season the answer was “yes.” When all was said and done, it was only a baby step in the right direction, but it was one backed by clear improvement and actual victories instead of moral ones.
Though it took awhile for Kelly’s plan to get moving, it appears things are full steam ahead. Chalk up season one as a bumpy ride, but ultimately a successful one. There are still plenty of questions that have yet to be answered, but at least the program is finally moving in a positive direction and the fanbase isn’t stuck in a pessimistic quagmire.
There are miles and miles to go before the Irish arrive; if all goes to according to plan though, that “arrival” will come sooner rather than later. The result will be Brian Kelly raising the bar high enough that discussions and debates like this about eight-win seasons will no longer exist.
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