Jan 2, 2014, 1:04 PM EST
Football is a funny game. It can turn a guy many consider to be a coaching genius into a stubborn blockhead. It can take a coach from the hot seat to the BCS Championship in a calendar year. The game of inches often swings a coaches IQ score 50 points in either direction, all dependent on what sometimes amounts to the flip of a coin.
It’s hard not to see Stanford coach David Shaw in a new light today. Shaw, one of college football’s rising stars and the apple of NFL owners’ eyes, just suffered his most high profile bout of stubbornness at the most inopportune time.
Playing in the Granddaddy of them all, Shaw made some head scratching decisions as he continued to run into Michigan State’s brick wall of a defense, including a 4th and 1 that had Notre Dame fans thinking back to a year earlier.
Watching the Rose Bowl as a Notre Dame fan should have been a unique experience. First, it should give you greater appreciation for the work Brian Kelly and his coaching staff did against the Spartans. The Irish’s 17-13 win over the Spartans will be a victory over a top five team, the lone blemish on Michigan State’s 13-win season.
Taking a look back at Brian Kelly’s comments and game plan heading into that game, the Irish staff correctly understood the Spartan’s defensive tactics and how to manufacture offense. (That’s not code for “Hope the B1G refs throw a flag, either.)
Here are a few snippets from Kelly after the victory over Michigan State.
“I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives. But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense. That’s the way we constructed the game, found a way to win.
“You have to win throwing the football against Michigan State. You’re not going to win running the football against them. We missed a lot of opportunities in the first half. We missed the chances we had early on. Then the way the game went, you know, we were going to run the football.”
But more importantly, it should knock down some of the illusions you keep on what it is to be an elite coach.
Mark Dantonio wakes up this morning as a Rose Bowl champion and a coach paid a reported $4 million a season. He’s taken Michigan State to new heights, surpassing what Nick Saban did with the same program as he’s beaten to a pulp his team’s main rival (Michigan) and put together the most physically imposing team in a conference that prides itself on toughness. He’s also lost three of four to Brian Kelly’s Irish squad, with his lone win coming on a fake field goal in overtime.
David Shaw likely wakes up this morning feeling something entirely different. People will care less about the accomplishments in Palo Alto, the four-straight BCS appearances, the four-straight seasons with at least 11 wins, and wonder how a guy that gives Ted talks on football thought it was a good idea to try and go head-up with Michigan State’s nine-man defensive front?
Notre Dame has now beaten back-to-back Rose Bowl champions. In a down year marred with injuries and the loss of Everett Golson before the season even started, the Irish beat three 10-win teams on its way to a 9-4 finish that should put Notre Dame at around No. 20 in the final polls. While Irish fans might bemoan the head coach’s playcalling choices, his preferred offensive methods, or his personality, that’s how a segment of every football fandom in America feels.
It’s the reason why Nick Saban gave true consideration to the Texas job, even though he’s already been immortalized with a statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. That’s why Bill O’Brien left Penn State, sick and tired of a fandom that’s still kneeling at the altar of the past. And it’s also why Shaw acknowledged the backlash he expected to come if the Cardinals passing game failed Stanford down the stretch.
“Because when I don’t do that, everybody goes crazy,” Shaw said after the loss. “We should have done this. We should have done that. So I don’t worry about any of that stuff.”
By just about any measure, Shaw is one of the best coaches in college football. But if Shaw’s acknowledging the backlash from a Stanford fanbase that’s only a fraction as “passionate” as Notre Dame, Penn State or Alabama’s, then you begin to understand that it all plays into the coaching experience.
Nobody’s perfect. Not Kelly, not Shaw, not Dantonio and not even Saban. But as Irish fans take stock and analyze the year that was, it’s a good reminder that even the best football coaches lose games that some think they shouldn’t.