Here we will attempt to evaluate the state of the Notre Dame Football Program in mid-October 2013 as if it were a private enterprise or business. There are a variety of ways to go here, and we must not conflate evaluation of input factors without output measurements or evaluations.
Many small businesspeople and salesmen and wholesalers, even if they are not entrepreneurs, have worked with some version of the following shortcut analytic tool:
Who are you?
What do you want to be?
What is your plan for getting there?
Aee you following (Executing) your plan?
Are results on track?
Brian Kelly’s Leadership
It’s been 45 months since Brian Kelly took the helm. Never forget the following: Ara has often said that he had thirteen years of head coaching experience when he took the job at Notre Dame and needed every one of them to succeed. Brian Kelly had 19 years of head coaching experience when he took the job at Notre Dame. This was not his first rodeo.
At the press conference announcing his hiring, Kelly talked less about himself and more about Notre Dame’s identity and traditions. The following words were said:
Q. First off, just on the staff, what is your timeline for assembling that? When would you like to have that moving in that direction?
BRIAN KELLY: I’ve got a plan in place. I clearly know where I want to go. Jack and I spoke at great length about that in the process. I know what that plan looks like. I want to make certain that I get a chance to talk to everybody involved in the process, my staff, the staff here at Notre Dame, and certainly both of these staffs. So that’s a process that won’t take very much time. I’ll get to work on that first thing Monday, and as I said, I’ve got a lot of those pieces already put together, but until I get a chance to talk to everybody, we won’t make any announcements until that time. We’re going to do it the right way.
Q. Also you mentioned the challenges of this job. In your coaching DNA, what appealed to you about coming here and taking on some of the challenges that are very unique in college football?
BRIAN KELLY: Well, first and foremost, restoring it to the traditions that we all know about and the history, and those aren’t 8 and 4 years; those are National Championship years. So any time you’re talking about restoring a program and the challenges, it’s not about winning the Conference Championship; it’s about winning championships and being in the BCS and being nationally prominent. And that’s a challenge. We’ve got to get to work on that. So when I refer to the challenge, it’s strictly obviously getting to that high bar that has been set at Notre Dame for Notre Dame football.
“What do you want to be?”
Clearly it is understood that at Notre Dame “it’s about winning championships and being in the BCS and being nationally prominent.”
What is your plan for getting there?
(1) Raise the Bar
(2) Establish defensive excellence
(3) get assistants who can deliver and are RKG’s also
(4) Recruit great athletes who belong at notre Dame and are RKG’s
(5) Keep them
(6)Develop them-physically, in terms of techniques and skills, then schematically
In other words, coach them up
(7) DON’T BLINK, BE TOUGH IN ADVERSITY
(8) play smart, don’t beat yourself.
END GOAL: GET RESULTS
We’ll now examine each of the eight elements in the plan, conceding that they are the input factors. But college football, despite appearances and what the commentariat would have you believe, follows much more closely the model of farming, rather than hunting. It’s gradual, not transactional. Plant, water, till, prune, reap, eat.
THE PLAN AND ITS 8 COMPONENTS
(1) Raise the Bar!
Kelly started here right from his first press conference. If that wasn’t enough just go back to his first recruiting signing day press conference, where he invokes the great success of Frank Leahy’s recruiting as the Gold (or Blue and Gold, if you will) standard. No caterwauling about the difficulty of lateness in the recruiting cycle or assembling a staff. Aim high all the time.
He’s done this throughout, including, perhaps especially AFTER the embarassing loss to Alabama, when he embraced both the championship game and the gap that yet remained, but kept drilling home that the team wantd to get back. It continued in the offseason when he counselled the team that IF they ONLY performed at the 2012 level, that the result might well be 8-5. To paraphrase an old Pacific Gas and Electric motto: “GOOD ENOUGH ISN’T!”
(2) Championship plan components-emphasizing defensive excellence
At his earlier stops, over those 19 years, Kelly had occasionally, even often, been able to win by outscoring the opposition. But Kelly knew that if Notre Dame were to return to championship level, that a GREAT defense was necessary. It would never be the offense’s stepchild, and would not be treated as an afterthought as it was previously at Notre Dame when a defensive coordinator was hired by phone and when subsequent defensive schemes, coordinators and roles were inchoherent and haphazard, what Lou used to, in polite company, call “grabbagging.”
Talk, as ever, is cheap, but there are some scintillas of evidence that Kelly and Diaco and minions were following through or “working the plan.” With respect to the plan:
FACT ONE: Recruiting Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams, shocking the world and Notre Dame “experts.”
FACT TWO: The performance of the 2012 defense
FACT THREE: fantasies are dangerous, and what ifs can destroy you but we had a puncher’s chance of this being our defensive line depth chart in 2014:
First String: Lynch, Nix, Tuitt
Second String: Sheldon Day, Eddie Vanderdoes, Alquadin Muhammad
Third String: Tony Springmann, Craig Hounshell, Jarron Jones
Swing players: Isaac Rochell, Jake Matuska
We climbed part way up that mountain, but there are miles to go.
We were ahead of the defensive schedule in 2012 but regressed to the mean in 2013.
(3) get assistants who can deliver and are RKG’s This is where coaching experience shows its value. The initial staff was not assembled in a herky-jerky fashion and each understood the dual roles of recruiter and coach. Of course, there was a coaching change after 2011 and in came Hiestand and Elliott. There’s something else about this staff and we must include Longo here, as he is paid and perked and treated on the same level with Diaco and Martin. No police blotter. Now, we wish the best for Mike Haywood and Corwin Brown, but facts are facts. Further, there is less frenetic changing of roles, less, to use the Holtzism, “grabbagging.”
Look at the coaching staff. Which is the one you’d identify as the least appropriate to represent Notre Dame? How does that make you feel?
(4) Recruit great athletes who belong at Notre Dame and are RKG’s. This staff has elevated its recruiting howitzer a little more each year. Even in Fall, 2011, for USC weekend we had Shaq Thompson, Zach Banner, Keith Marshall, Bryce Treggs, Tee Shepard, John Theus, Gunner Kiel and many, many more.
Now, many mouthed the platitude that Notre Dame should stick to “Catholic Schools in the Midwest, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” Sure, that would have worked.!
But the staff was doggedly persistent is starting from the slime up to clear air in Florida, Texas, and California. If you look at the 2014-2015 attendees at the Shamrock Series game against ASU in Arlington, you’ll see we’re a long way from harvesting just Jalen Brown and Cam McDaniel from the Lone Star State.
The California visitors will arrive in force for the USC game, and we’re farther along than for the aforementioned 2011 visitors.
Facts, once again, are facts, and the last four commitments we have received are Grant Blankenship (TX) Corey Holmes (FL) Richard Yeargin (FL) and Matt Dickerson (CA).
Further, don’t sleep on the Louisiana foray. Tillery is the first. We’ve already swung and missed on Brosette and Moses, but we got offers in. The four year ranking are 14, 10, 20 and 3. This year will, most probably, finish in the top 10.
Recruiting balance-in areas like quarterback, running back, tight end, offensive line, wide receiver safety, cornerback and OLB we are building serious roster depth. The 2014 DL roster will be shy a few bodies and ILB is a crisis.. But this team is stronger, deeper, in more areas than any time since 1993. Regarding ILB, it’s like Roseanne Rosannadanna, if it’s not one thing, it’s something else. But the strength in MANY strong areas can compensate for a weak area.
The RKG factor is important. The kids are ALIGNED with Notre Dame’s values and culture. Yuri Wright need not apply. The kids are not FIGHTING the environment and emphases (maybe Lynch was and perhaps not an RKG). We’ll discuss turnover below, but RKGS tend to have less attrition, and cause fewer off and on field problems. How active was the football team’s police blotter in the Spring of 2013?
The roster is getting more talented. The 2013 roster, across the entire roster, is more talented than the 2012 roster. With this year’s recruiting, the 2014 roster, across the entire roster, will be more talented than this 2013 roster. This staff is relentless and never take time off. They are already well down the path for 2015.
(5) Retention. Yes, there is work to do here.
Let’s get to the high profile ones:
There is a clear pattern here (some claim the essence of intelligence is pattern recognition). In each case there were switches, often multiple commits, decommits. Now let’s not paint these kids as villains. But maybe the parasites who run recruiting services,gnawing at the uncompensated host of college football and teenage kids and recruitniks who fund their parasitism just make these teenagers crazy.
But is this the lesson? Just walk away from a kid who has shown indecision, particularly manifested by multiple commitments and decommitments.
Case in point: And I love Elijah Hood, the person and the player. Is discretion (and retention) the better part of valor, and do you just leave him alone, even if North Carolina’s Tarheels are a wreck? Either answer is plausible.
Otherwise (and we exclude 2010 as transitional) the departees have been Tee Shepard (explicable, and poignant) Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal. That ain’t bad! Kids will be kids, but the attrition rate should get even closer to zero.. Further note the number of players who have been dismissed, (rather than furloughed to study football on a beach in California) for academic or disciplinary reasons. Prequalifying Notre Dame RKG’s goes a long way.
(6) PLAYER DEVELOPMENT. Kelly talked this from the day he arrived, and his early emphasis on Longo’s role seemed curious at the time but now makes more sense. In terms of physical development, just look at the tape of the 2010 Stanford game, when the Cardinal tossed us around like Irish linen dolls, and 2012 Stanford, when we slugged it out toe to toe with the most physical non-SEC team in the BCS. And again, if you have doubts, merely observe the physical matchup against Stanford this Thanksgiving Saturday. The players are leaner and stronger. In terms of skill development, we were improving each year as tacklers until 2013. Let’s observe the rest of the year carefully. (remember, lack of quickness to GET to a player is a different sin from poor tackling position, technique and wrapup.)
Overall player development? In 2012 it was astounding how much Spond, Fox, Motta, Jackson, Nix, Tuitt, TJ Jones, Riddick and Eifert had improved. Lads, this is player development!!
Consider this: a year ago, when they did that film before the Shamrock Series game against Miami, Davaris Daniels and Troy Niklas were listed as struggling to make it. While Daniels has still room to reach his (high) ceiling, he is the go-to deep receiver, and Niklas is likely to get some mention as a possible early draft entrant. There’s not as much evidence on the defensive side, but KeiVarae Russell is certainly a different player from a year ago. With the talent at this time tilted toward the underclasses, expect further powerful evidence of player development in the years to come.
(7) Don’t Blink, Be Tough in Adversity. Brian Kelly dealt with this:
Not all travail is foreseeable, but in dealing with these four different, and unusual, tragedies, each emotionally gutting for the aggrieved families in many different ways, was more than any other Notre Dame coach ever had to deal with.
“Next man in” is a Kelly mantra, and it is now chanted by his team. Brian Kelly’s greatest week of coaching may have been this Spring in the week following the announcement of Everett Golson’s departure. This board has much caterwauling about our starting quarterback. But Kelly had chosen another starter who then deselected himself from the 2013 roster. Know who the perp was know who the victims are. But Kelly was masterful at walking his “next man in” talk. After a couple of days he anointed Tommy Rees as the 2013 starter. And then he and Chuck Martin got busy preparing to live in a world without designed quarterback runs, without roll outs, without scrambles and without the Golsonian highest and best use-scrambling, resetting and looking downfied to complete the pass. Losers wallow in self-pity, winners don’t. Or “Winners never whine; Whiners never win.”
Similarly with injuries. In 2012 it was the secondary: Collinsworth in Spring Practice, Lo Wood in pre-Fall and then Jamoris Slaughter early. Next man in. Don’t Blink. This year, the front seven. First Hounshell, the Springmann, then Spond, then Day, now Grace.
REMEMBER THIS: This is the world we live in, these are the hands we’re given. It happens to most every team, most every year. (In 2012 Maryland lost FIVE quarterbacks) And it will happen to Notre Dame again, We know not the place and the hour…….. But this staff, these coaches, these players will understand the battle. They say the stock market climbs a wall of worry great football teams and programs climb a wall of adversity per omnia saecula saeculorum.
This Winter, we will most probably endure a right of passage: Stephon Tuitt departs for the NFL. He is the first robin of that particular early departure Spring. but GET USED TO IT. We need 2-3 players each year to enter the draft after their thrid year at Notre Dame. Until that happens. we will not yet have arrived. But you can bet that this staff will handle it like champs and winners.
There is another element of not blinking, and it is no being haphazard with your plan. The 3-4 defense with the tilt toward recruiting to profile with the OLBS DES and CBs has not changed, unlike the previous misadministration. The offensive plan is mainly in place with the adjustments to the core principles being more reliance on the multiple TE sets the addition of the pistol, and a hold back on up tempo play until next year. But nothing scatterbrained or INSECURE.
(8) Play smart, don’t beat yourself. Maddening in the first two years, coaching changed the team’s HABITS. Turnovers lost per game:
This is no accident, and skill players now understand that they have sat themselves on the bench if they turn the ball over.
Okay, that’s it for the INPUT factors. They are important. The all build PRODUCTION CAPACITY (The Goose) and on the efficient frontier, Production Capacity results in Production (Wins or the Golden Eggs).
IS THE PLAN PRODUCING RESULTS?
Two years before Kelly arrived
Record : 13-12 (52% winning)
Excruciating Losses:North Carolina, Pitt, Boston College, Syracuse
Navy Pitt Uconn (SEVEN)
Kelly’s first two years: 16-10 (61.5%) 9.5% better
Excruciating Losses: Navy, Tulsa, South Florida (THREE
Kelly’s years three and four:
Record 16-3 (84%) 22% better than previous two, 32% better than 2 years before arrival
Two answers here (None-by the standards used above)
Excruciating Losses: Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma
Now,when Chuck Martin got here he said it was nice to come to a place where if you went 10-2 there’d be a lot more focus and discussion on the “2” than the “10.” Voila! The natural order has been restored. Even though in these recent two years we have split with Oklahoma and Michigan, the losses STING because Kelly has brought us back.
In life, in raising children, in business, in football, there are no stepwise discontinuous functions. You must climb every foot of that mountain. But we’ve come a long way. A short time ago, we were losing AT HOME in 12 months to Syracuse, Navy and UConn. Then we produced winning records. Then we got to the National Championship game and got clobbered. But we were one of only two teams playing in that last game. Were 4-2, and I personally bow low to Kelly and his staff for having delivered us from Navy, Syracuse and Uconn and having, in true Notre Dame fashion “spoiled us” by subjecting us to losses to two teams like Michigan and Oklahoma.
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!
This program is in the best shape its been in since the Fall of 1992 some 21 years ago.
And its going to be a lot of fun going forward.