Reality Check for Notre Dame Fans

It was ugly. It was hard to watch and even harder to stomach, and it’s abundantly clear adjustments have to be made moving forward. Based on Notre Dame’s triple overtime victory over Pittsburgh, it would be easy to assume the above descriptors are attached to the poor showing of Notre Dame’s football program. Wrong. It was Notre Dame’s fan base that was the embarrassment on Saturday and is in need of a new direction.

As the Irish team stormed the field to celebrate its come-from-behind victory, the ND fan base had a much different tone. If a college football enthusiast was looking for an argument to be had that Notre Dame does not belong in the upper tier of college football, there was no need to turn on ESPN – strolling through the plethora of Fighting Irish online media would more than suffice.

“I will never root for him [Kelly] again,” one fan opined. Another agreed, acknowledging that though the Irish had prevailed, Kelly proved against Pitt he’s not an elite coach.

Those are tough, force-fed criticisms as Notre Dame’s football team moved to 9-0 for the first time in 19 years. And in another sign of just how difficult it is to coach at the University of Notre Dame, no one bothered to ask Brian Kelly in his post-game Q&A how he felt about becoming only the fifth coach in Notre Dame history to start a season 9-0. Kelly now joins a list of former coaches spoken in only the deepest of Irish reverence and lore, with names such as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz (all national championship winners). Not even the great Dan Devine, who won a national title with the Fighting Irish in 1977, ever managed a 9-0 start. But there was no time for such trivialities. The true question on many Irish fans’ minds was how Brian Kelly was going to fix his offense when Notre Dame quarterback, Everett Golson, is “clearly not there yet” as a leader, as another Irish fan lamented.

Indeed, the Irish offense flat lined throughout a great portion of Notre Dame’s tough-fought victory over Pittsburgh. But when the game, and ND’s BCS-capable season, was on the verge of collapse and the Irish defense finally needed the offense to carry them, Golson’s golden helmet shone as bright as his future. The Irish signal caller threw for 2 TDs and 105 yards in the air, and chipped in another 66 yards, 5 first downs, one touchdown and a 2-point conversion with his legs. All told, Golson racked up 171 yards, 3 TDs (including the game-winner) and one must- have 2-point conversation in just a little over a quarter. Perhaps, as is the case in life, some would rather focus on the three quarters of lethargy rather than the clutch offensive firepower shown by a freshman quarterback when his team needed him most.

At ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut, former Notre Dame coaching legend Lou Holtz was no-doubt offering a knowing smile as Brian Kelly, instead of celebrating another Irish milestone achieved this season, was answering tough questions about the Irish’s lackluster performance. Holtz has been under the glaring lights of the national media and brutal expectations of Notre Dame fans, and his description of the pressure, in his always-witty manner, is fitting.

“The expectations here at Notre Dame can change a little bit as you go along. When I first started, everybody said they just wanted us to be competitive. That first season in 1986 we went 5-6 and lost five games by a total of 14 points. But people said, ‘No, when we said competitive, we meant we want you to win.’ So the next year we went 8-4 and played in a New Year’s Day bowl. But they said, ‘No, when we said we want you to win, we meant win them all.’ So the next year we did win them all. We went 12-0 and won the national championship. But they said, ‘No, you don’t understand, we meant we want you to win big.’ That’s the way it goes at Notre Dame.”

In the every-move-you-make-is-watched-and-judged environment that goes along with Notre Dame football, many relevant stories go unnoticed. Like the fact #7 LSU, after falling moments short of beating #1 Alabama, only held a 17-9 lead against Division I FCS Townson earlier in the season. Or that #2 Kansas State had a similar bout of sleepiness earlier in the year with a 9-6 halftime lead against Division I FCS, Missouri State. The angry outbursts didn’t reach a boiling point when the #5 Georgia Bulldogs squeaked by a one-win Kentucky Wildcat team, 29-24. And no one questioned whether Urban Meyer was the right hire at Ohio State when the undefeated Buckeyes trailed the University of Alabama-Birmingham, 12-7, deep into the second quarter.

Winning at the collegiate level isn’t easy, and while the Irish eked out a win over Pitt that failed to meet the expectations of many Notre Dame fans, the fact is Notre Dame and Brian Kelly did something this past Saturday that only 0.05% of the college football landscape has been able to accomplish: they remained undefeated.

Brian Kelly has a 24-hour rule after victories. The players and coaches spend 24-hours enjoying their win and then immediately get back to work to see where they can improve the following week. Perhaps the ND fan base should take a page from their “non-elite” head coach to see how they can improve for this week’s night game against Boston College.