After the first eight games of his inaugural season, Brian Kelly has won exactly as many games as he has lost, which has quite a few members of the Irish faithful weary. Kelly has failed to win the close games that got Charlie Weis removed after his fifth season, and even worse, has openly conceded he hasn’t had answers for two opponents’ schematical game plans.
Last minute losses to Michigan and Michigan State aside, Kelly’s inability to counter Stanford’s drop-eight coverage kept the Irish offense from mounting any sort of challenge against the Cardinal. On Saturday, the Irish coaching staff had no answer to Navy’s veer-option, a tweak the Irish defense was simply unable to counter when trying to stop the Midshipmen’s attack. Two different sides of the ball, two different games, and Kelly’s stated plainly after both losses that the coaching staff didn’t have the players prepared for what the opponents did.
If we learned anything from the Charlie Weis era, it’s that a coaches’ narrative is often written in the opening days of his tenure. For Weis, that included the dreaded quote where he promised Irish fans something they yearned to hear, that Notre Dame would now have a “decided schematic advantage” over their opponents. That was far from the only quote from his opening press conference that came back to haunt him in the end, as Weis’ hubris and a ego went from perceived assumption to assumed fact, and the final three seasons of his tenure at Notre Dame became exercises in completing the narrative of failure for sportswriters and message-boarders alike, with Charlie Weis receiving a proper comeuppance in the end.
The first months of Brian Kelly’s tenure weren’t remembered for preposterous proclamations, rather for a man that worked tirelessly reuniting a fractured fanbase. From the opening days of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame, he hit the road visiting alumni groups and donors, working to heal the psyche of a fanbase that’s long assumed the university’s adminstation has failed it repeatedly since Lou Holtz left South Bend. Amidst those 180-some-odd visits, Kelly was also tasked with assembling a coaching staff, implementing a new spread offense with an inexperienced quarterback recovering from major knee surgery, and putting together a defense hamstrung by depth issues and saddled with a roster filled with players that had just put together one of the worst defenses in the school’s history.
Even though Notre Dame just hired the National Coach of the Year, Kelly’s hiring was hardly universally approved. Whether it was the rumored chase of Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, or Kelly’s small school Grand Valley State upbringing and D-I resume that includes the dim lights of places like Central Michigan and Cincinnati, the naysayers looked at Kelly not as an offensive innovator and proven winner, but as a guy that had never done it on a stage close to the one he was stepping onto at Notre Dame.
With the last two Notre Dame coaches sprinting out of the gates, Irish fans have become reliant on a new coaching staff bringing immediate results, as if the breath of fresh air was all that was needed. Now that Kelly has shown that there will be no easy solution during his first season, the narrative many of his detractors formed early is starting to take shape: Kelly’s an overwhelmed coach not ready for a spot like Notre Dame.
Supporting those claims is Kelly’s willingness to fall on the sword for the losses against Stanford and Navy. His candor after both of those games, when he admitted that the opposition confused his players by showing a look they hadn’t seen during film study was something fans and press aren’t used to hearing from coaches that never concede strategic defeat. It’s ammo for those that believe Kelly’s overwhelmed, but it’s also likely a sign that he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he realizes his team’s psyche is much more fragile than a 20-year veteran head coach.
Kelly and his regime received quite a bit of heat for closing the doors to media during practice sessions, when he was unhappy with information making it into the media that could hurt the progress of the team. In this case, Kelly’s post-game candor — a reporter’s best friend — is something that’s hurting his perception among a segment of the Irish faithful, many of whom already have their minds made up.
After eight games, it’s far too early to write any story on the fate of Notre Dame football under coach Brian Kelly, regardless of performances against Stanford and Navy in Year One. That said, Kelly understands that won’t be the case forever.
“Let’s put it this way,” Kelly said Sunday. “If we play like we played defensively, there won’t be a year five or six for me.”