021110_SPT_Womens vs MSU_MRM

Brandon learns coaching lesson the hard way


After two offseasons of chaos, all is quiet under the Golden Dome. But the same can’t be said for life at the Big House, where the sloppy firing of head coach Rich Rodriguez has put Michigan fans into a fury that only had one way out: hiring Jim Harbaugh.

Now that Harbaugh actually called the press conference and picked a hat, the villagers can riot. Harbaugh was the perfect fit — the “Michigan Man” roots, and the perfect confluence of football cred, Q rating, and a great season at Stanford turning him into the greatest coaching candidate anyone in the modern media’s history (meaning their memory stretches no more than nine months) has ever seen.

How great is Harbaugh? Consider: He had a losing record (17-20) at Stanford heading into this season. In 2007, the year Harbaugh put the Cardinal on the map with their shocking upset victory over mighty USC, he lost eight games, including one to Charlie Weis’ Irish squad, the worst in Notre Dame history. In 2008, the year the Irish swooned down the stretch to a .500 regular season finish that nearly cost Weis his job, Harbaugh lost again to Notre Dame. Last season, led by a near Heisman-winning running back and facing a dead-Weis walking, Stanford won the season finale in the final minutes before losing their bowl game — finishing the year with an 8-5 record, the same as Brian Kelly’s 2010 squad.

The point of this isn’t to bury the man, but to point out that his 11-1 season isn’t the norm, but the confluence of a program building at a perfect time in the Pac-1o, now free from Trojan reign.

Captained by an elite quarterback, a solid defense and a veteran roster, Harbaugh’s star is at its brightest because he took a school known primarily for academics (but far from a football pariah) and turned it into a one-year wonder and BCS game winner. (But even that doesn’t say much when you consider Virginia Tech won a mediocre ACC,  lost to I-AA James Madison, and the Pac-10 conference champion beat Stanford by three touchdowns.)

But why get carried away with facts and context? I’m willing to concede that Harbaugh is the most attractive candidate out there. Glossy NFL playing career? Check. Coaching bloodlines? Check. Program builder? (Begrudgingly) Check. Rock star personality? Check-plus.

And therein lies the problem for Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon. In his first real tour of duty in major sports, Brandon is tasked with firing Rich Rodriguez after an abrupt three years and bringing in a replacement that’s only going to be viewed as a success if it’s the one man everybody in football wants to hire: Jim Harbaugh.

Comparing Brandon’s search to the one Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick conducted a year ago shows a contrast Michigan fans might not be too happy about. On November 27th, Michigan lost to its arch-rivals by 30 points, losing for a seventh consecutive year to Ohio State. The next Monday, Brandon released a statement:

“I have 27 sports, and I evaluate the performance at the end of the season,” Brandon said. “It’s the appropriate time to do it. It’s when the coaching is over and you can sit down and focus on what we’ve learned. That’s the way to do it.”

Those statements were before Michigan fans suffered through hand-holding to Josh Groban, a 38-point defeat to the fifth-best team in the SEC West, and the crumbling of a recruiting class that were among the first to scurry from a sinking ship. When Brandon made the decision to fire Rodriguez, 39 days had passed. A true eternity to let your football program hang in the balance, and now, with no real end in sight. All because “that’s the way to do it” at Michigan.

Mirror that process with the end of the Weis regime. On Saturday, November 28th, Weis and the Irish loss a hard-fought battle to Jim Harbaugh’s Cardinal 45-38. The next day, Weis met with Swarbrick. On Monday, Swarbrick announced that Weis wouldn’t return, beginning a national coaching search. Ten days later, Brian Kelly was hired. That was December 10th, 55 days before National Signing Day.

Now, with less than four weeks to go before prospects sign their letters-of-intent, and days before early-entrants enroll in schools, Michigan football, the pride of the state, is lost as sea, with the only life raft in sight one that was just snatched up by 2003 Notre Dame graduate Jed York.

This is Dave Brandon’s Urban Meyer to Florida moment, and the plane just left the runway without the one guy the state of Michigan needed to have.

Now Brandon soldiers on, with the recruiting clock ticking to midnight, offensive personnel tailored to Rodriguez’s system, defense personnel masquerading as eleven matadors, and a coaching search that will welcome a silver medalist into a burning Big House.

All because “that’s the way to do it.”

Welcome to college football, Dave Brandon.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.