One of the most difficult tasks a coach has when taking over an underperforming program is changing its culture. While a clichéd phrase used far too often in sports, it’s used in nearly every sport and at every level because of its accuracy. Just ask Kansas head coach Charlie Weis when he recently engaged in a football practice without his seniors in order to “develop younger players for the future” after a horrid start to the Jayhawks’ season. Mike Leach at Washington State also has first-hand experience in culture conflict. After struggling throughout the early phases of the Cougars’ season, Leach criticized his seniors publicly, saying, “Some of them have had kind of this zombie-like, go through the motions, everything is like how it’s always been, that’s how it’ll always be. Some of them quite honestly have an empty-corpse quality. That’s not pleasant to say or pleasant to think about, but that’s a fact.”
The symptoms Leach described are ones I have experienced first-hand. Though Division I football is light years ahead and a sport removed from high school baseball, I played for a losing program. The worst memory of my high school athletic career involved taking a 25-8 lead against a conference opponent and the helpless feeling that followed as we watched the opposing team rally to a 28-25 victory. I stood at second base, mitt in hand, eyes lowered and zoning out at the infield dirt, shaking my head. As run after run tallied, all I could feel was inevitability, and all I could think, “Here we go again.” Confidence is nearly impossible to measure but absolutely necessary in the recipe that is winning. Hoping to win when taking the field is not enough – expecting to win is a must.
After twenty years of disappointment and “successful” seasons that truly lacked foundation, perhaps no program in all of college football was in such dire need of cultural adjustment as Notre Dame. Brian Kelly accepted the challenge of turning an Irish squad who had gone 16- 21 the three previous seasons into a winner. To highlight just what a challenge twenty years of mediocrity truly is, there were devastating tumbles. A blowout loss to Navy. A last second defeat at the hands of Conference USA member Tulsa. An inept showing against South Florida that set the tone for a season that failed to live up to expectation. All harsh lessons in how difficult change can really be.
Now, in Brian Kelly’s third season, the Irish are learning lessons of a different kind. Notre Dame realized they’re capable of winning close contests with their two-minute victory over Purdue. Michigan State taught ND the belief they could win on the road at night. The Michigan game showed one player, despite Denard Robinson’s amazing gifts, is not invincible and can be beaten. The Hurricanes provided the Irish secondary with confidence it could stop an explosive aerial attack. Stanford illustrated the Irish could win a battle of brawn, and BYU gave the Irish an opportunity to win within the confines of a trap game.
Should it, then, surprise anyone that Oklahoma quarterback and former Heisman candidate, Landry Jones, was grounded and literally looking up at current Heisman finalist, Manti Te’o, after a sack? Or the fact the Sooners’ coach, Bob Stoops, was the one turning purple on national television and not Brian Kelly? That Oklahoma’s players, such as wide receiver Kenny Stills, were the ones losing their composure and being flagged for pushes? That Irish safety Zeke Motta, when a Sooner wide receiver decided to challenge him with a war of words on the field, refused to be intimidated and stood his ground?
To quote Manti Te’o after Notre Dame’s victory, “Today is no surprise.” While the Irish football team was not caught off guard by its demolishing of Oklahoma, it certainly surprised the college football world, highlighting the next evolution for the ND program. The culture at Notre Dame has changed – now it’s leading to a national identity.
Las Vegas had the Irish as double digit underdogs. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, only a season removed from labeling Notre Dame’s defense a “high school defense”, summed up the national attitude toward Notre Dame on College GameDay hours before kickoff. Herbstreit’s crystal ball told him ND’s front seven would have to dominate for the Irish to “even compete” against the Sooners. The Irish defensive line didn’t have to dominate to win – they had to dominate to even compete. Lack of national respect can only be rectified in one way, and that is to continue winning to the point you cannot be ignored.
Notre Dame walloped the Oklahoma Sooners despite their previous 79-4 record at home the past 14 seasons, and they did it in front of one of the largest college football audiences of the season, with the Notre Dame-Oklahoma matchup beating out the World Series in key demographics. Oklahoma came into the game averaging 200 yards per game on the ground, and they were only able to muster 15 total yards for 0.6 yards per carry against the Irish. The Sooners were averaging 45 points per game, and Notre Dame held them to 13. Bob Stoops had built his Sooner reputation on his stingy 15th ranked defense and the Irish brushed them aside as if a bug on Notre Dame’s windshield to national relevance, rushing for over 215 yards on Oklahoma.
Notre Dame’s culture has changed and they believe they can win against anyone. And the Irish seem hell bent on making the national media believe it too, even if it means dragging pundits like Kirk Herbstreit along for the ride.