Whether you are the type to take out an ad in the local newspaper calling for everyone to be fired or you think it makes sense for Notre Dame to retain Kelly for one more season, there is pretty much a consensus amongst hardcore Notre Dame followers: it may not be this year, but Brian Kelly is toast.
I wrote about this in October in my weekly Stock Report column, when I had Kelly as a sell after the loss on the road to NC State. It’s not so much that I thought he deserved to be, it’s just that once the fan base has decided, then that’s pretty much the end of the road.
We’ve seen it over and over again since Lou Holtz resigned, and it’s been noted a couple of times on this site, from Davie to Willingham to Weis to Kelly, they all have that game where it’s known how this movie is going to end.
Luckily for Kelly prior to 2016 was 2015 and a legitimately good team, which is likely the reason he is still employed as the Irish head coach. But, now he is tasked with turning this thing around and it has to happen immediately and in a big way (I’m of the opinion that even 9-3 gets him sacked).
Kelly’s Staff Will Look Vastly Different in 2017
He will also have to get this done with a number of new faces on the coaching staff. On Tuesday, special teams and tight ends coach Scott Booker was relieved of his duties and co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford became the head coach at Western Kentucky. Those staff defections were offset by the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko out of Wake Forest and special teams coordinator Brian Polian, formerly the head coach at Nevada, who previously held the same special teams position under head coach Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009.
There are reasons to be excited about both of those hires and they are certainly a step in the right direction, but will they be enough to turn a 4 win team into a team that is competing for a playoff spot?
The prevailing sentiment around the logic for retaining Kelly hinges on the idea that this season could be passed off as an anomaly, just an unfortunate aberration that is unlikely to repeat itself. And it is true that going 4-8 is unlikely to happen again. The problem with that thinking though, is this season was only an aberration from a wins and losses perspective, but not so much in the way the team has played generally under Brian Kelly.
2016’s Problems Were Not New for Notre Dame
They weren’t poor on special teams just this year, they’ve been hit or miss his entire tenure. They weren’t fundamentally poor on defense just this year, in fact it’s been that way for the last three years. We’ve seen numerous seasons where the running game just stopped being a factor for them, where they didn’t show mental toughness, or they just showed a lack of fundamentals. Those qualities have been the staple of his football teams so far in his seven years at the helm: inattention to detail, sloppiness, and fundamentally unsound. So what if poor special teams meant an 8-4 team was now a 4-8 team? With the schedule Notre Dame faced in 2016 with a first round caliber quarterback, 8-4 is a bad year. 4-8 is an abomination.
The good news is Notre Dame has the talent to do it. Loads of talent. We’ve all seen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams run the ball. They don’t stink. Take a look at the offer lists of the guys who will be starting on the offensive line for Notre Dame next year. Everyone wanted those guys and they are all coming back in 2017 (I’m looking at you Quenton Nelson). We know the receivers can play, we know the linebackers can play, the secondary appears to be oozing talent out of its ears. 4 of the top 6 players in all-purpose yards is back next season as well as 4 of the top 6 tacklers on defense–with the top two of both units also being in that group.
Brian Kelly Knows How to Coach Football
The other good news is Brian Kelly is a really good coach! The guy went 34-6 at Cincinnati, which we can all pick apart if we want to, or we can just admit that if Mike Sanford, who just got his first head coaching job and many think (including me) would be a great head coach at Notre Dame, goes 34-6 in three years at Western Kentucky the masses will be begging Jack Swarbrick to hire him and save us from our three decades long championship drought.
Kelly also won multiple national titles at Grand Valley State. Now of course, winning at Grand Valley State and Cincinnati does not equal greatness at Notre Dame or any big time school. The point is, the guy knows how to put together really good football teams when the talent has been equal. You don’t go 34-6 because your team can’t tackle or doesn’t play with an edge and lack toughness. But that has been the criticism for a number of his teams at Notre Dame and it is perhaps not coincidental that the only team that had all three of those qualities ended up going 12-1. But, it is that which has been the aberration, not the other way around.
I remain skeptical that he can actually get this done and save his job at Notre Dame. It just isn’t very often a coach enters a season with the majority of the alumni and fan base turned against him and it turns out positively for that coach and the school.
Can Brian Kelly Get His Groove Back?
Whatever Brian Kelly was when he was coming out of Cincinnati he appears to no longer be. For whatever reason, it seems he hasn’t been able to turn this program into his own, to take on his personality, to adapt a signature quality that most programs do when the coach has been around for as long as Kelly has.
And for all his bluster when he was hired about accountability and entitled players, if Kelly has passed on anything to this program it’s his own lack of accountability when it comes to all the off-field troubles that have plagued his program throughout his tenure. To be clear, I think those issues are over blown and shouldn’t be factors in his job evaluation, but when the head of the program absolves himself over any responsibility for what happens on the outskirts of said program, well, lets just say that sort of thing tends to send the wrong message when you’re trying to preach the opposite.
However unlikely it seems, if Brian Kelly wants to save his job for the Fighting Irish, he needs to recapture whatever it was that got him the job in the first place. The guy they hired is good enough to win in South Bend. Time will tell if he can live up to his own potential.