by Mike Coffey
There’s nothing like a 2-5 start to supercharge discussions of a coach’s future. Will he stay or won’t he? Which assistants will stay, and who will be let go? Who can they get? How can they improve? What can they do?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but under Brian Kelly’s leadership, the answer to that last question is “nothing”. Nothing will change without a change at the top because the root cause of the problems this season are the same as the root cause of the problems all his previous seasons: A lack of discipline.
A disciplined player keeps his focus on the higher goals regardless of the situation. On the field, he remembers his assignments on every play. He takes responsibility when he makes a mistake, resolves to do better, and then does. He picks up his teammates if they fall and encourages them to do better. An undisciplined player takes plays off and doesn’t maintain his focus on the field. The fundamentals aren’t important to him, he’s playing as he feels like playing. Off the field, a disciplined player knows what his responsibilities are in the classroom and fulfills them. If he needs help, he asks for it early enough where it can do some good. He knows the season is his work time, and while willing to relax when the situation calls for it, knows there are limits.
A disciplined coach does the same. On the field, he drills the fundamentals into his charges. He makes sure the players know their assignments and can execute them properly. In a game, he maintains his composure. He may have to chew a player out whose attention has wavered, but it’s always in the context of getting them back on task and ensuring future performance. Off the field, he knows how his players are performing both in the classroom and in the community. He has reports from the people whose full-time job it is to monitor academic progress, and knows who’s getting the job done and who needs help. If there’s a random slip-up, the people responsible are held accountable, from the player on up, and the process is corrected to ensure it’s not repeated.
Discipline has to be a fully-integrated part of any successful program, and at a place like Notre Dame, where the spotlight burns brighter and the pressures can be higher, it’s even more critical. Perfection isn’t likely, but it’s definitely striven for by everyone involved. It’s possible to instill discipline at the player level via upperclassmen and/or captains, but it’s much easier and more effective when it’s a top-down approach originating from the head coach and his staff.
Unfortunately, the last seven years has revealed Brian Kelly not to be that kind of coach, which is why shuffling assistant coaches won’t matter.
Evidence of a lack of discipline is everywhere. Players ignore the fundamentals they’ve been taught since junior high. They take plays off, miss tackles, run the incorrect routes, and make the wrong reads. Some are lax with their classroom assignments, which either means the quality of the work (and the resulting grade) suffers, or the player feels the need to take shortcuts and cheat, with the resulting consequences when they get caught. Coaches get into arguments on the sidelines during games and unleash their wrath on players who are trying to execute faulty game plans. They’re seemingly caught unawares by their players’ academic issues, either not knowing or not caring which ones are on the brink.
And let’s not pretend the issue is unique to this season. Think of all the penalties on plays coming out of time-outs, particularly the delay-of-games. Remember the in-game strategic mistakes against Tulsa and Northwestern and (now) NC State. Even in 2012, when everything was going right, the entire season could have been derailed because two players wearing the same number ran out to defend a field goal in overtime.
There is no discipline … no focus … no responsibility. You can get away with that in FCS when it’s possible to out-talent the opposition. You can get away with that at the bottom levels of FBS where the pressures are non-existent and they’re just happy to be winning a little more. But at Notre Dame, there’s no margin for error, and a coach who has proven incapable of providing discipline so far cannot suddenly try to do it at the drop of a hat — they have a word for that.
So many board posts and blog comments ask “who can do better”? From a discipline standpoint, I say there are plenty of candidates out there, because the guys we have are abject failures. It’s time to go find one.