With four games behind us, it’s time for a more strategic view with the first trimester of the season complete. Assume this is an “offsite” meeting for some company you worked for. We’ll cover five topics, some mundane, some relevant, and topic (2) is LONG-just like some yawners you’ve attended.
This year is different, but it is merely fruit of the tree. To go back to Sociology 101, building and maintaining a great program is more like farming than hunting. And that is precisely what we’re seeing here. First the production capacity (goose) was created and nourished and now production (wins or golden or gold and blue eggs) is the inevitable result. This process has gone on for a time (roughly 1,000 days). It didn’t just start this year.
But one preliminary note, and this one is very delicate and sensitive. If you are squeamish, turn away and skip (1).
(1) THE DEPARTED
Matt James, Declan Sullivan, Libby Seeberg, Xavier Murphy. Requiescant in Pace.
For teenagers (half the football team at any time) an initial-or unexpected-encounter with mortality can be disorienting and confusing. Grappling with that reality can dwarf other realities-and duties.
There were several odd cross currents in ’10 and ’11 but
this series, each with a different, and sometimes controversial, cause, was macabre and unsettling.
It is now history. But it was non-trivial in the last two years.
(2) BRIAN KELLY’S REGIME-FIRST 100 DAYS AND FIRST 1,000 DAYS
(this part is long) The MBA’s and business consultants among you will be familiar with the analytical effort, others not so much. All of human endeavor is not twitterable.
In evaluating leaders, you look for a few things.
(a) Do they understand the culture in which they are leading?
(b) Can they form and communicate a clear, shared mission?
(c) Can they establish a plan with guideposts to meet and complete the mission?
(d) Can they identify, hire, motivate and manage first rate managers to execute the plan at a high level?
(e) Are they unwavering, or constantly shifting the vision, the plan, the managers, the management and the execution?
(f) Is it effective (does it work)? Inundated by sports press, and awash in emotional drivel, sports speak, and ranting on internet sites (not UHND, of course……) we tend to not take words and statements at face value. It’s just the world we live in. Sifting through sports babble chaff to get to truthful wheat becomes stranger, rarer. The Tower of Babel was a mere warmup act. But keeping our standards in mind, let’s examine how Kelly rolled out his plan in his first 100 days.
(a) The Culture
From his first press conference Kelly talked with passion and reverence about Notre Dame, its uniqueness its history, its high bar, et cetera. You may think this not noteworthy, but he did not talk about advantages, schematic or otherwise he might bring. And he didn’t talk about the fine folk he’d met along the way at Cincy and Central Michigan. This was no throwaway. Lots of ND, less “I.”
Also, Notre Dame is a Roman Catholic institution. After all, that is the Messiah’s Momma up there on the Golden Dome. There are many powerful Catholic strands in Notre Dame’s DNA. Kelly mentioned that and his Catholic upbringing early and often. He was nurtured in Catholic tradition, embraces it, understands it, welcomes it. For some, Notre Dame’s Catholicism is alien, making those folks a stranger in a strange land.
Not for Kelly.
In his recruiting press conference, he made obeisance to Frank Leahy’s recruiting class of 1946. Just as Leahy never tired of revering Rock, no one ever loses focus by invoking Leahy and his Lads.
Leahy, Leahy, Leahy, a two syllable mantra that always soothes us.
(b) RKG’s-again, right from the first press conference. A pre-existing emphasis of Kelly, but it was perfectly portable to Notre Dame, and dovetailed with the University’s agenda.
For you neophytes, there is a University attached to the football program. It is the dog, and the football team is the tail. NEVER, EVER get confused.
(c) Defense as a priority-a repeated theme from the first press conference as a prerequisite for return to the top. This was not an offensive coordinator masquerading as a head coach.
(d) recruiting to profile-clear standards on taller, longer players, for reasons of leverage and ability to add weight more easily, particularly at the four outside positions in the 3-4.
(e) a different approach to position groupings-big, big skill and skill.
(f) A unique approach to the strength guy, Longo, who, perhaps for the first time, has status and pay commensurate with that of the offensive and defensive coordinators. A fiber in the coaxial cable of the team, if you will, not a thing apart.
(g) Player development-at all levels, personal, academic and certainly on the field. A key covenant when recruiting players. And a covenant different from, say, promising you’ll do all you can to get a player to the NFL.
This is a synthetic summary of the seven points (it’s just an innocent bystander’s summary, not Kelly’s), but let’s try this:
“We will pursue football excellence and championships consistent with Notre Dame’s principles by bringing in young men who are appropriate for the university and the football team. Our warrant to them is total development, on and off the field. We will always target a top defense, we will recruit players in three main categories, stay consistent with size profiles, have cutting edge fitness and conditioning, blending all into a cohesive, high trust team.”
This was all set forth in the first 100 days. Talk. Let’s now examine the walk of the first 1000 days.
First there is the consistency to Notre Dame principles. This may seem unremarkable, but for Kelly, Notre Dame is not “them” but “us” and he has integrated himself, his family, his coaches and his players into the University stream of consciousness and activity. It is big things and little things, but it is natural and authentic and not contrived. And here is just one little pixel.
When he was discussing Tuitt earlier, he mentioned, matter of factly, that Tuitt had about a 3.5 in the summer session. Can you imagine Dabo Swinney, Lane Kiffin or Mack Brown doing that?
Kelly has his vectors aligned with the university. There is a near zero coefficient of friction. A wag who was a college assistant once mentioned that most football programs relate to the university administration, at best, like a man to his mother in law. Cordiality, the perfunctory, cold peck on the cheek at Thanksgiving. The mom-in-law looks at the guy, wondering how he will screw up her daughter and HER grandchildren next; the son looks at the mother in law, wondering if the “harpy” gene is genetically transmitted. This does not describe the Kelly regime’s rhythm with the larger pulse of Notre Dame.
On RKG’s, you can just see it in the players and the recruits coming in. I liked Aaron Lynch, will root for him and his family, his NFL success. But you have to wonder if it really wasn’t the RKG emphasis that may have nudged him out. Would Tuitt have been as free to go for this “domination” quest on all levels if Aaron had stayed? This year, the RKGism seems to have reached critical mass, and the best dividends, for everybody, are yet to come.
Well, Brian how’s that working out for you? 9 points a game. NINE!
On the commitment to defense, he has been consistent throughout. The first year, they were behind the recruiting 8-ball, but then the action of getting Lynch, Tuitt and Williams was louder than any words. There is an undercurrent in the coaching fraternity that some coaches who are on the offensive side of the ball, despite their long term best interest, are so in love with their offense, that they, even if subconsciously, resent a defense that shows them up in practice.
Not here. He is balancing his roster on all fronts, but we are just two more cornerback recruits from achieving roster balance across the defense next this Fall.
This defense is very young. Only three starters, Manti the magnificent, Captain Kapron and Zeke leave this year.
RECRUITING TO PROFILE
This team is getting very large in certain positions. If you had Tuitt and Jones at DT and Ishaq and Councell at OLB, nobody would be shorter than 6’5″ This will soon be one of the biggest teams in the country.
GROUPINGS of BIG, BIG SKILL and SKILL
Consider three players: Niklas, Farley and Russell Troy Niklas came in and got immediate PT as an OLB. Played well and looked like a future star. Last winter he shifted to TE. Now he is a great blocker, developing receiver and a future star at TE.
Matthias Farley-even last summer, 2011, Kelly identified Farley as someone who might surprise. Last year he was slotted as a WR
but did not play. This year, he shifted to safety and is now a starter, and a capable one.
KeiVarae Russell-recrutied as an rb, initially spent some summer time as a WR, now a starting cornerback bristling with potential. He is farther along in learning to play CB than most ND fans are in spelling and pronouncing his first name.
LONGO AND CONDITIONING
The difference is visible. Think Billy Crystal’s turn as Fernando on SNL addressing the team “You look—–mahvelous.” They seem quicker, fitter and more agile, though this is anecdotal and not documented. Ask yourself, except with Denard Robinson, have you felt that the Irish had a “quickness gap?”
The Ernest Jones hire was very wise. His position is not duplicated in many programs. And he brings the football expertise along with the other elements in his total development coordination duties.
On the field, just look at film of Spond, Shembo, Fox and Motta from two three years ago. That’s what “player development” looks like on the football field.
SINGULARITY OF FOCUS
Many are familiar with Napoleon Hill. He was the guru of singularity of focus, dogged persistence and follow through.
Simply, Kelly and his cadre have done what they said they would. No one element of it is magic. But it is execution of a football program at the highest level. Farming, not hunting, methodical, not spectacular.
The Irish are 4-0. We’re not where we want to be, we’re not where we need to be, we’re not where we’re going to be, BUT WE ARE NOT WHERE WE WERE. And the best is yet to come……
Pretty good first 1,000 days.
Oh, you want some INDEPENDENT TESTIMONY, not just from your humble scribe?
SIDEBAR FOR DADS
All are welcome, but this will resonate more deeply with fathers, especially those with sons.
Think about your son. From when you first saw him in the hospital, through when you fed him, changed him, tied his shoes and held his hand as he learned to walk. How you taught him to bless himself and say the “Our Father.” How you answered his endless questions-WHY? How Come? What if?
How you taught him life’s lessons. How you taught him about good people and situations and about bad people and situations. How you hoped that he’d have it even better than you did.
How you watched him grow and think for himself and make decisions. How you cherish his strength and independence, but how your heart soars like a hawk when he, independently, chooses good things that reconcile with your values and wisdom. Man he is now, and will be, but ever your boy.
Now think about 6 other dads: Chris Collinsworth, Phillip Daniels, Terry Hanratty, George Atkinson, Tori Hunter and David Robinson. Their seven sons are or will be at Notre Dame. NOTRE DAME! How do they feel about that? How do YOU feel about that?
(3) ROSTER ATTRITION AND REPLACEMENT
Shepard, Lynch and Prestwood-leave program for transfer. Carrico and Roberson-career ending injuries. Collinsworth, Wood and Slaughter-out for the year. Rees and “my people” Calabrese-drinking suspension for two games. Wood and Utopu-one game suspension. 12 players transferred, career over, out for the year or suspended.
Not to go too Phil Collins, but this is the world we live in, these are the hands we’re given. Kelly and the team get no bonuses or gold stars for “Next Man in” and going forward. Kelly is nearly cold-blooded, in a good way, about moving on after a defection or injury. The Irish have been smooth and facile in moving on, as they should.
Now, 12 is about par for the course. When the rites of roster attrition start again next Spring, the Chicken Littles will start cackling and panicking. But our football team will not.
This is how they live and breathe.
(4) BOISE STATE- A CASE STUDY
Boise has won two BCS games in this century, Oklahoma in 2006, TCU in 2009. It has spoiled the season opener f teams like Virginia Tech (2010) and Georgia (2011). Since 2004 Boise has been 6-2 against teams in the Pac-12.
In the last five years, Boise has achieved the following ranking in Rivals team rankings, from 2008-2012, respectively: #89, #72, #82, #53, #59.
How do they do it?
The expertariat suggest the following apply to Boise State
(1) Careful prospect identification, for suitability for the school and the football program
(2) first rate coaching and player development
(3) first rate fitness and weight training
(4) disciplined, smart football. Boise does not beat itself.
(5) great team unity and trust.
That’s how the cognoscenti think Boise gets it done. Now, we would not dare to hint that there is one scintilla of comparison between Boise State and Notre Dame. But infer away, as you choose.
If you examine those five standards, they’re not bad things to have attributed to a football program. They seem simple and tautological, but many teams just do not execute them.
You have to ask yourself: What if Notre Dame, with the talent level being recruited, can, by following principles similar to those Boise is using, achieve a similar multiplier of “overachievement”?
(5) SEPTEMBER SCHEDULE
For all the caterwauling about the schedule, it has been twice a blessing.
Pressure makes diamonds. The quality of opponents forced Notre Dame to play at a high level. Things that would be adequate against hyphenated and directional schools would have been fatal against our early opponents.
But the sequence and site choice was a second blessing.
The opener in Dublin was a remarkable way for the team to bond. Remember, these freshman had an initial football experience that was 4 days, TOGETHER, in the Emerald Isle. Next was the home opener against Purdue, then an away game at night in hostile East Lansing, followed by another high pressure night game against Michigan.
A month ago, few were highly confident of 4-0. The team should enjoy this, and Kelly knows it. For this team has exceeded expectations, and now, that cannot happen again.
But right now, it’s a sweet spot for coaches and players, the newness and exhilaration of a honeymoon. Going forward the path is longer, more pedestrian, more grueling, and with a different kind of pressure. THAT pressure, at last. The pressure for Notre Dame to, once again, be Notre Dame.