Notre Dame is set to take on Alabama tonight for the BCS Championship – the first time the Irish are playing for the national championship since 1988 – but it wasn’t too long ago that such a scenario would only have been imaginable for the most rabid and perhaps delusional Notre Dame fan.
When Brian Kelly took over the head coaching duties for Notre Dame after the firing of Charlie Weis, Notre Dame didn’t have a training table, hadn’t beaten USC in nine years, had won just one bowl game in the previous 16 years, and hadn’t been in contention for a national championship in 17 years.
Three years later, the Irish have a training, have beaten rival USC two out of the last three years, won a bowl game in Kelly’s first season, and are playing tonight for the program’s 12th National Championship against defending champion Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
That is quite the turnaround for a once proud program that had fallen under tough times under the previous three coaching staffs (four if you count the brief tenure of George O’Leary). That turnaround, however, was not without a few road blocks and stumbles along the way by Brian Kelly and the entire program.
Much has been written about the turnaround job that Kelly has done in his brief tenure at Notre Dame, but before things got better, they got worse. During Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame the Irish lost three of their first four games. Then there was the embarrassing loss to Navy in the Meadowlands when the Midshipmen flat out dominated the bigger, stronger, faster Fighting Irish and the infamous Bob Diaco press conference the week after. A week later there was the Declan Sullivan tragedy and ensuing loss to Tulsa in which Notre Dame was in position to kick a game winning field when Kelly called for a pass to the endzone from a freshman quarterback, Tommy Rees, playing for the first time in place of the injured Dayne Crist that resulted in a game losing interception.
That is about the time that things bottomed out for Kelly. The Irish were stumbling on and off the field and even the most loyal Kelly fan had to be questioning whether or not the new Notre Dame head coach was in over his head after his previous head coaching stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati brought less pressure and spotlight.
Something happened in between the meltdown against Tulsa and Notre Dame’s next game two weeks later, however. Only the Notre Dame coaches and players know what exactly took place during that bye week, but when the Irish took the field the next time, they were a different team. The Irish took down a top 10 ranked Utah team on senior day, crushed an over-matched Army team the following week, and then went into Los Angeles on Thanksgiving weekend and beat USC for the first time since 2001 all with a freshman quarterback no one thought would see the field in 2010 when the season began.
Notre Dame closed out that 2010 season in resounding fashion with a beat down of Miami in the Sun Bowl catapulting the Irish to a strong finish in recruiting and setting up what everyone thought would be a big year in 2011.
The road to South Beach, however, would not be smooth in 2011. Notre Dame fell out of starting block last season with losses to both South Florida and Michigan in games where they dominated the stat sheet but turned the ball over repeatedly beating themselves more so than there opponents getting the better of them.
After turning things around with a four game winning streak, the Irish were set to propel themselves forward when USC came to town for the first night game in Notre Dame Stadium in 20 years. Well, we all know how that one ended.
Throw in a pretty good beating from Stanford to close the season, a collapse in the Champs Bowl against Florida State, and a disappointing close to the 2012 recruiting class and it is easy to see why it seemed almost unfathomable that Notre Dame would find itself in the position they find themselves in today.
Oh yeah, and who can forget about Kelly publicly calling out the players he inherited from Charlie Weis compared to the players that he and his staff recruited. That episode, which could have completely broken this team, ended up laying the foundation for the championship run that will end tonight one way or another for the Irish.
This occurred because Kelly changed during the off-season. He may downplay the changes that he made, but to anyone who has watched every play of the Kelly Era, that change is clear as day.
Gone is the screaming, purple faced head coach chewing out his quarterback on the sidelines and defiant comments in post game press conferences. Remember his “get used it” line after the loss to Tulsa? Seems like a distant memory at this point.
As Kelly has grown in his role as the head coach at Notre Dame, he has evolved as a coach and his team has evolved along with him. The 2011 Fighting Irish would have found a way to lose the Purdue not game instead of marching down the field for a game winning field goal with a cold quarterback rallying the offense in the final two minutes.
The 2011 team would not have made it to overtime against Stanford let alone stuff the Cardinal in an epic, game winning goal-line stand to seal victory and propel the Irish on the championship run they find themselves on now. That team wouldn’t have stormed in Norman and hung with the Sooners for three quarters before taking during the final 10 minutes. And last year’s team would certainly not have found a way to escape with a triple over time win against Pitt to preserve their perfect season.
This year’s team, however, did all of those things. This year’s team played the best defense we’ve seen out the Irish in decades. They played fundamentally sound football and eliminated the mistakes that plagued this team a year ago in each and every loss. And who can argue with the results?
Much has been written about the time off in between in each team’s last game and how the long the fans on both sides have been waiting for tonight’s title bout.
It hasn’t been 40 some odd days or however many days it’s been since the Irish took down Troy on Thanksgiving weekend though. It’s been an almost 20 year wait for Notre Dame fans to be in this position – 20 long and frustrating years.
Will that wait come to end later tonight with Brian Kelly hoisting that crystal ball that has been so elusive for Notre Dame? Only time will tell. Regardless of the outcome tonight, however, Notre Dame fans can’t be anything but pleased with the results Brian Kelly has generated that should have the road paved for a smoother ride for another title run in ’13 and beyond.