There are certain major college football programs that have conquered the pursuit of the elusive combination of excellence and longevity, and the Notre Dame program happens to be near the top of that list. If you grew up in the era of Notre Dame football with Lou Holtz at the helm, then you were lucky enough to see the Irish win a total of 100 games over the course of 11 seasons, for a .765 winning percentage. A Saturday victory wasn’t just appreciated, it was expected, and that mindset permeated most everything during the course of of Holtz’ tenure in South Bend.
Irish players and fans believed they could and would win every time they hit the field, but that would all come to a grinding halt in 1996 as Holtz decided to leave the Irish program. Whether he was let go, quit because of tougher academic standards that were being implemented, or because he truly did not want to surpass Irish coaching legend Knute Rockne’s win total, the fact is, when Holtz left the program, the winning attitude and tradition left with him.
Failed coaching searches resulted in years of mediocrity for Notre Dame Football
Although the university tried to fill the void that was left from the departure of Holtz, Irish fans would soon become familiar with the term mediocrity, and how it painfully applied to their beloved football program. Names like Davie, Willingham, and Weis still bring excruciating pain to the soul of any true Notre Dame fan, and we won’t even begin to delve into the mess that was the George O’Leary debacle.
The rest of world was now mocking the Irish program for their antiquated ways and archaic way of thinking, and fans and media were lining up to take turns tossing proverbial dirt on the once storied program, and all Irish fans could do was point to past history as to why their program was still relevant. That was until coach Brian Kelly took the helm in 2010, and immediately reminded Irish fans that football in South Bend was still special.
Brain Kelly’s hiring in 2009 raised expectations for Notre Dame
Although the win totals may not have not reflected it right away, when Brian Kelly took over as head coach he brought a new level of expectation, and more importantly, started to instill a new level of confidence. Confidence in his players, in the university, and in the fan base. In the first year under Kelly the Irish won the first game of the year against Purdue 23-10, but then Irish fans would go on to see their team lose the next three games in a row to Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford, and the feeling of “here we go again” was prevalent throughout Irish Nation.
Even with a 1-3 start in his first year, coach Kelly kept preaching fundamentals and pushing his players further than they had ever been pushed before under the previous regime, and it started to payoff. The Irish would wind up winning seven out of their last nine games, which included a Sun Bowl victory against the hated Miami Hurricanes. Kelly and his staff had started raising the excitement level about Notre Dame football again, but there was still much to be done.
Progress was tough to see at first for Notre Dame under Brian Kelly
Kelly’s second season would see the same amount of wins as the previous year, eight, and after two years he would amass a total record of 16-10, which in comparison to former Irish coaches Bob Davie, and Tyrone Willingham, was right on par, and actually three less victories than Charlie Weis had accumulated over his first two years. So where were the improvements? They were there, but you had to be a true fan of the program to see them. The way the Irish were losing games in Kelly’s freshmen and sophomore years were not in the same fashion as what Irish fans had seen under previous regimes. The effort was there, the heart was there, but the talent and confidence level still sorely need to be improved.
Early in his time, Kelly expressed often the frustration he felt from the mindset that was left over from the Weis era at Notre Dame, and even chose the media to express said frustration. Claiming he needed to get the right type of player in his program to achieve the type of success that he himself, and fans wanted to see. While this was an extremely truthful statement, a press conference was probably not the best forum to make these claims, as the media ran wild with it, and it became a national story. It was obvious that Brian Kelly and his players were growing and learning together, and coach Kelly would be the first to admit that he has had to adjust his style in South Bend, just as he expected his players to do.
Three years later, Kelly has built a wining culture at Notre Dame
Not only was he learning how to handle the pressures of being the head coach at Notre Dame, but he was also teaching his players what it means to be student-athlete and the expectations that come with that title. This message had been lost for the last two decades, but was finally starting to reemerge in the form of better talent, better recruits, and better play, and better coaching on the field. Kelly has made South Bend a “sexy” destination again for recruits, and has top players from around the nation wanting to be part of his program.
So while some may not see Brian Kelly as the answer in South Bend, they would be hard pressed to present examples of how this program has not improved under his guidance. Kelly’s record at Notre Dame now sits at 28-11, but his presence runs much deeper than that. His way of thinking has not only been infused into his players, but has also penetrated the fan-base. He has started to raise the level of expectation again in South Bend, as Irish fans are already talking about realistically reaching double digit victories during the 2013 season. If Kelly wins ten games or more again this year, it will be the first time the Irish have accomplished this feat since the 1992 and 1993 seasons under Lou Holtz.