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Rose Bowl illustrates the ups and downs of coaching

Jan 2, 2014, 1:04 PM EDT

Dantonio Kelly AP

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.

129 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. 25kgold - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    No word on Tuitt leaving–guess he’s staying!

    • wisner74 - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:39 PM

      Shush! Don’t jinx it!

  2. ndfaithful - Jan 3, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    This is a very good article with a clarity and perspective that is often lost on the fans of a program.

    “Nobody’s perfect. Not Kelly, not Shaw, not Dantonio and not even Saban.”

    How prophetic was this after seeing OU make Bama look like pretenders last night. Just like ND’s mighty defense in 2012 got dismantled in the bowl game, Bama got punked last night. Saban is not immune to the ups and downs of college football and the inconsistent performances of 18-22 year old boys and men. No doubt some Bama fans are whining and moaning today about Saban being distracted by the Texas job or something else.

    12 months ago, a huge story was how awesome Saban was at always getting his team ready. Now the shoe is on the other foot. – just a few weeks after people started questioning ‘Big Game Bob’. Funny…

  3. paulhargis53 - Jan 3, 2014 at 3:44 PM

    I see Bob made a new freind. Funny how you can put a down a fellow poster for his thoughts and thats ok. But someone gives it back to you and you cry like the little bitch you are.
    Why do you even ponder posting anymore? Your fate is already sealed under this moniker. Just change your name and get it over with.

    • 1historian - Jan 4, 2014 at 8:31 AM

      You can do better than that.

      Can’t you?

  4. wisner74 - Jan 3, 2014 at 3:59 PM

    Oy vey. Bob, please ignore the man behind the curtain!

  5. bearcatirishfan - Jan 3, 2014 at 4:06 PM

    Are there any early enrollees of note this year to watch in spring ball? Haven’t heard much but they should reporting to campus In a week or so right?

    • mediocrebob - Jan 3, 2014 at 7:54 PM

      Trumbetti, DE/OLB. Big body that I believe they are waiting to see how he grows into his body as to which position he’ll be playing at Notre Dame.

  6. irishdog80 - Jan 3, 2014 at 11:40 PM

    I’m not completely sold on Kelly though he is unquestionably better than Weis… solid Offensive Coordinator, not a great head coach, Willingham…mediocre Assistant Women’s Golf Coach at Stanford and Davies…bland TV Announcer and Head Coach. Kelly is good enough to get to 9-4 with Tommy Rees at QB and a host of injuries to front line players and a surprise NCG last year…and that’s pretty good.

    Watching Oklahoma stun Alabama reminded me once again that what separates the good coaches from the great coaches on any given night is QB play. If you have a QB that can run your system like it is meant to be run, and a line that gives him the time to do it, you will have a successful offense. Add in a stout defensive line with a few difference makers at linebacker and in the defensive backfield and you have a BCS level team. Knight made plays all over the field last night…threading the needle in big play after big play. Bama without last year’s once in a lifetime offensive line, couldn’t protect AJ enough to allow him to manage the game like he did against the Irish. AJ, the game manager, looked like he was going to cry as his draft stock dropped with every sack, interception and fumble. Saban looked frustrated. Knight was better than AJ.

    Kelly’s proven that he is by far the best coach ND has had since Holtz. If Golson has turned himself into the next Russel Wilson, our offense should be virtually unstoppable. Now we just need Tuitt back to lead a stout defensive line, Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield to emerge as true playmakers and we might have a team that can make the playoff. Next year will be the true referendum on Kelly… no more Rees… no more excuses.

    Go Irish! Beat Rice!

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