The only thing I felt was numb when Connecticut running back Andre Dixon rushed into the endzone to secure a 33-30 triple overtime victory. The fact Connecticut had only been a Division I football program for less than a decade made the deafening “U-C-O-N-N” chant I was hearing from the Huskies fan base inside a deathly silent Notre Dame Stadium much, much harder to take.
“Are you okay?” my then-girlfriend kindly asked, squeezing my hand on that dark day in 2009 while we watched the Connecticut sideline celebrate, and all I could muster was a quiet, “No.” It was at that moment I knew Charlie Weis was going to be fired. I didn’t know where or when it would take place but I knew it was a certainty, and the thought of yet another coaching search and an endless horizon of futility was simply too much to bear. The lone holdout of hope I allowed myself was with then-Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly. As a Michigan native I had followed his career for decades and I knew he was the man for the job if Notre Dame could somehow get him into the fold. He had to be. If he couldn’t turn Notre Dame around, who could?
On Saturday, as I watched Navy wide receiver Jamir Tillman convert on fourth down to win the game for the Midshipmen, a feeling I recognized from long ago settled in, and I knew. Even as someone who has been the definition of a Brian Kelly loyalist, I knew it was over. Brian Kelly will be fired from Notre Dame. It’s doubtful it will be any time soon but the countdown clock has officially begun, and for a coach like Kelly who has never failed in his career, it’s impossible to not try and decipher where everything went wrong.
Perhaps it’s not making the most of available talent. It has been baffling to watch DeShone Kizer, a prospect NFL experts were discussing as a potential No. 1 overall draft pick, regress as a passer this season to the point he is missing basic throws. And it has been difficult to watch Notre Dame’s highly-touted offensive line struggle, such as left guard Quenton Nelson, a former 5-star recruit, getting absolutely pancaked by a Navy defensive lineman half his size on a critical third and eight. Or it could be a stubbornness with his staff and refusing to part ways with coaches who are not producing results (e.g., yet another costly special teams penalty that played a large role in Notre Dame’s loss to Navy). Perhaps the criticism that Kelly is not as dedicated to recruiting – a criticism that has been levied against him for years – as his counterparts in Ann Arbor and Columbus has merit. Whatever factors may have created this path Notre Dame currently finds itself upon, there is no denying where it leads.
The difference between the numbness I felt this past weekend and the one I experienced in 2009 is this time I see no hope on the horizon. Irish fans have become enamored with energetic Western Michigan University head man P.J. Fleck without paying attention to the danger of such a move. Brian Kelly had 15 more years of coaching experience than Fleck and had won at three separate locations before accepting the Notre Dame job and it still wasn’t enough. Are Notre Dame fans really willing to bet their future on a man with only 4.5 years of head coaching experience and an overall career record of 26-21 as a coach? That isn’t to say Fleck couldn’t succeed at Notre Dame but are Irish fans willing to take that chance with such a small sample size?
A similar argument can be made against University of Houston head coach Tom Herman, another popular selection of armchair athletic directors everywhere. While Herman has been impressive he only has 1.5 years of experience as a head coach, and are Irish fans really willing to hire a replacement for Kelly who also lost to Navy?
It’s crucial the Brian Kelly era only come to an end at Notre Dame when a clear and worthy successor becomes available. Whoever that individual may be, it has to be someone as close to a sure thing as possible. Notre Dame simply cannot afford to swing and miss again, as the memories of 1988’s national title continue to grow hazier and hazier.
Perhaps Irish fans can draw inspiration from their neighbors 100 miles to the west that eventually all championship droughts come to an end. Let’s just hope there isn’t a 108-year wait.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.