Let’s get one thing straight: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is unquestionably the best coach the Fighting Irish have had since legend Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines years ago. It’s an objective, undeniable fact. But considering the combined winning percentage (.576) of Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, the response to that fact might very well be, “So what?” Such an attitude seems to be growing in intensity as Notre Dame continues its unexpected descent.
Notre Dame’s first ever match against No. 24 Louisville was to be different than the previous week’s startling loss to Northwestern, the worst defeat suffered under the Kelly era. This time, as reported by NBC prior to kickoff, patience had been wearing thin amongst the Irish coaching staff, and as a result the “a-word” everyone had been waiting for was finally uttered: accountability. If you’re reckless with the football, you’ll get the hook, which is a fair standard by which to judge every player.
Accountability is a buzz word for the Notre Dame faithful. My father has regaled me countless times with the story of Lou Holtz sending star running backs Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks home to South Bend for showing up late to a meeting mere hours before Notre Dame and USC played one another as undefeated, top-ranked opponents for the first time in both programs’ rich history. Notre Dame would win the game without its stars, 27-10, en route to a national championship victory over West Virginia.
If that’s accountability, the generation of Notre Dame fans like myself who have never seen the Fighting Irish as a college football power are all in. With that kind of lore attached to accountability, who knew what to expect against the Louisville Cardinals? After yet another turnover at the hands of starting quarterback Everett Golson, who now has 20 turnovers in an eight-game stretch – which doesn’t even include an additional fumble coughed up that wasn’t recovered by Louisville – Notre Dame fans were forced to see the truth: the statement about accountability from Brian Kelly was merely a hollow threat to shield himself from growing criticism. If there is to be any accountability whatsoever inside Notre Dame Stadium, it will have to be courtesy of the media during Kelly’s press conferences.
The biggest victim of Kelly’s brand of “accountability” is redshirt freshman and backup quarterback Malik Zaire. When Zaire first committed to the University of Notre Dame over programs such as Alabama and Ohio State, the Kettering, OH, native was asked why he would select the Fighting Irish when Everett Golson would still have three years of eligibility remaining upon Zaire’s arrival. The talented Ohioan’s answer was simple: all I want is a fair chance to compete for the starting position.
Zaire has been forced to watch from the sideline as Golson racks up turnover after turnover, and he’s had to do so all while hearing Kelly’s empty promises of accountability. What’s the magical turnover threshold Golson must hit before Zaire gets just one offensive drive to prove himself? Twenty-two? Twenty-five? Thirty turnovers? And to make matters worse, Zaire had to grin and bear it while Notre Dame’s senior kicker, Kyle Brindza, berated him for a hold on a missed 32-yard field goal that ultimately doomed the Irish against Louisville. Zaire did temporarily mishandle the snap, but that really is beside the point. Was Zaire to blame when Brindza muffed both field goal attempts against Northwestern last week when the Wildcats’ walk-on kicker outplayed him? Was it also Zaire’s fault when Brindza shanked a 34-yard punt in the second quarter against the Cardinals?
The real issue is that Brindza was allowed to yell at a fellow player at all on the sideline. Where is the accountability? When has it become permissible for a struggling senior to yell at a freshman in the middle of a game without a coach breaking it up? Not only is Kelly failing to impose accountability on his players, he’s failing to exert any kind of control whatsoever. The only thing Zaire has ever requested is a fair chance to compete. Instead, he’s been forced to watch as Golson turns the ball over at an unprecedented rate, and gets blamed when a senior kicker can’t fight through his slump. If there were awards for character, patience and turning the other cheek, Malik Zaire would be the unanimous selection.
There is no indication that Notre Dame is capable of escaping from the tailspin it currently finds itself in, and the threat of a five or six loss season is becoming more likely with each passing week. Notre Dame’s slide from relevancy in 2014 should coincide with Kelly sliding onto the coaching hot seat to start the 2015 season.
Is it fair to state that a head coach who has compiled a 44-19 record and one national championship appearance in five seasons should be on the hot seat? Absolutely not. But as witnessed by this season, fairness has no place in Kelly’s program.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected].