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  • Patience and Measuring Success

    by John Vannie

    For the third time in the past decade, a new football head coach will lead the Fighting Irish into battle. While the players and coaches have changed, the lofty expectations and glowing reports from “insiders” remain a constant. I’m reminded that Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis created an instant buzz with promising first seasons, but were unable to continue that success. Brian Kelly’s track record of high achievement at lower tier programs has rekindled hope for Notre Dame’s long-awaited return to glory, but Irish fans should be willing to trade instant gratification for sustained improvement over the long term.

    Word of Kelly’s no-nonsense approach, coupled with the requisite off-season gains in weight and strength among several players gives rise to the wave of optimism in South Bend. I believe there is substance in many of these tales; however my own giddiness is tempered by the enormity of the task that Kelly faces.

    The team he inherited is arguably weaker on paper than its 2009 predecessor. Its two best offensive players are now competing in the NFL, and the leading tackler and interceptor on defense has graduated. Besides, this is a group that has lost 21 games in the past three years, and has mailed in consistently lackluster performances throughout the last two winless Novembers.

    To Kelly’s credit, he immediately recognized and took steps to cure this malaise. We will see the initial fruits of his labor in a few weeks, but one should refrain from drawing any conclusions regarding the trajectory of the program until at least one full season is in the books. A cautious approach is the correct prescription for long term Notre Dame Loyalists, as the 8-0 start by Willingham and Weis’ near-defeat of mighty USC in 2005 were followed by a precipitous and unrelenting decline.

    While it’s possible for the Irish to string together a series of victories against a relatively weak 2010 schedule, the win-loss record of Kelly’s first team is not necessarily the most reliable indicator of future success. There simply won’t be sufficient data to determine if an 8-0 start means that Kelly should be compared to Ara Parseghian or Willingham. Perhaps the best answer would be “neither”. Similarly, if Kelly delivers a 6-6 campaign, fans may not be sure whether to associate it with Lou Holtz’ first season or Weis’ last. The answer will lie in the details.

    The barometer for this year’s team, if I may steal a cliché, will not be whether it wins or loses but how it plays the game. That’s admittedly an unacceptable concept to Notre Dame and Kelly would never publicly settle for fewer than 12 wins, but it’s more important that this group of players shows steady progress throughout the season and does not fall victim to the mindset that has crept into the program during the last three years: losing is no big deal. Watching the team sway to the alma mater after being punked by the likes of Navy, Connecticut and Syracuse is not my idea of must-see TV.

    Installing new offensive and defensive schemes is a chore for any football coach, but perhaps the biggest challenge facing Kelly is to motivate the players he inherited. Many will welcome new leadership and attempt to seize an opportunity to climb the depth chart, but there is no guarantee that players who previously cut corners on the field and in the weight room will embrace a more demanding culture. Each will judge whether if Kelly treats them equally and learn if there are real consequences for poor play and mental errors before deciding whether or not to buy in. Kelly’s candid remarks early in his regime regarding the “sense of entitlement” among the players tell me that some of them have to do a bit of soul-searching.

    Coaxing higher productivity from athletes that have previously performed below their talent level is indeed a target of opportunity for any competent new coach, but that is not the only issue facing this new coaching staff. Some of the players are simply not as good as their high school press clippings once suggested, and there are a number of weak areas on the roster that cannot be adequately addressed in the short term. This group has not demonstrated the physical brand of football that is historically associated with Notre Dame, and a noticeable lack of size in key areas is a contributing factor. Even with Western Michigan and Army on the schedule and assuming a generous amount of pure Irish luck, the ceiling of this team in 2010 would appear to reside below the Top Ten.

    Everyone understands that an injury to quarterback Dayne Crist would be a catastrophe, but even Crist has limited playing time under his belt and his throwing accuracy is not likely to match that of Jimmy Clausen. Both offensive tackles have not started a game and are not battle-tested. The receiving corps is abundant in terms of quantity but otherwise a question mark after Michael Floyd. Golden Tate’s departure leaves no obvious deep threat to create space in which the others can more easily operate.

    The defense is even more problematic. The question of depth along the line will be answered by a group of unproven players such as Brandon Newman, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams and Emeka Nwankwo. There is talent at linebacker, although one of the inside slots will be up for grabs until late into the preseason. It is hoped that a more aggressive scheme will enable the cornerbacks to erase last year’s disappointments, but the new pair of safeties behind them may not provide much help.

    Kelly has wisely maintained a fairly low profile regarding his special teams, but he must see an opportunity here. His predecessor advertised but never delivered exceptional or even mediocre results, not only due to poor practice habits but also because there was a shortage of players on the roster who wanted to run down the field at full speed and hit someone. The kickoff coverage unit surrendered two costly touchdowns last season, and the return game lacked energy by anyone not named Tate. Finally, Kelly will still be constrained by the punters and place kickers at his disposal. None has shown anything above average ability and leg strength.

    In summary, the effectiveness of this coaching change will take time to measure, but the long-suffering fan base is more than ready to declare an end to its nightmare. Objectivity and a reasonable amount of patience are recommended before forming any hard conclusions, especially if we pay attention to recent history. Kelly’s prior record suggests he is capable of moving the needle well beyond the level of Weis and Willingham, but it will take a few significant wins and a couple of recruiting classes to determine if we can unequivocally call him a success.

    41 Responses to “Patience and Measuring Success”

    1. Rocket Bob says:

      For me the question is, when they blow the whistle for the real game, are these kids gamers, how badly do they want to win? We will see if the ” fighting” is back in the “fighting Irish”.

    2. Do not underestimate the fact that he is a proven head coach who turned football programs into winning football programs. You don’t do that without knowing how to build a staff, how to communicate expectations to your staff and players, how to provide feedback to the same audience, how to execute a system, and how to practice in order to execute that system. I think you are seeing all of these things thus far with Coach Kelly. This team may have graduated a few studs last year, but the talent-level is by far better than what he inherited previously. I know the bar is higher and the schedule is tougher, but the results should be the same. While Weis was focused on Xs and Os, Kelly is focused on X-ecution.
      I’ve tried to temper my expectations; but frankly, I don’t see a need to do so anymore. The results will get better over the next years, but don’t expect the bar to start too low…

    3. If they beat Michigan and USC, guess what, Kelly can go 6-6 and still have the Notre Dame nation and recruits strongly behind him.

    4. Last year at Cincinnati Kelly took a team of 2 and 3 star players and coached them to a 12-0 record and a final #5 national ranking. And this was with a defense that had to replace 10 starters. Granted they got blown out in the Sugar Bowl but there were factors – Florida had a team of 4 and 5 star players who had gotten humiliated by Alabama in front of God and everybody and they were itching to take it out on the first team they saw – Cincinnati. In addition Cincy was still reeling from losing Kelly. (If there is anyone out there who can offer a better way of handling the coaching transition – please speak up.) IMO Florida could have scored 70 points in that game.

      Last year ND lost a lot of games in the 4th quarter. THIS year’s team will WIN a lot of games in the 4th quarter, or they will prevent other teams from coming back in the 4th quarter.

      IMO it comes down to this – Kelly has won at every level – is he ready for the big time? It says here he is.
      Worst – 8-4. Realistic – 9-3. Kool Aid – 10-2. Reserve the evening of Saturday November 27, because that is the day the streak will end, and it is only right that it end in Los Angeles. When they end the streak that will make it official that they are BACK.

      Besides, if Grace Kelly goes to all the home games how can they lose?

      • Scott E. Glaser says:

        Nice article. I disagree with your use of the word “enormity” based on my understanding of it’s common meaning. I think enormous would suffice.

    5. Caution? Objectivity? Patience? Are we watching the economy or a football game? How about we cheer the wins, bemoan the losses, and proudly declare ourselves to be #1 even if it remains, as yet, unproven. We’re fans. Fanatics. Let the administration and staff worry about cautious number crunching and do OUR job, which is to be really, really loud for the team we love.

      We do still love it, right?

    6. borromini says:

      “…realtive weak schedule…”

      Relative to what? Phil Steele has it as the 17th most difficult schedule among BCS schools. We should definitely be prepared for as many as 4 or 5 losses. Anything better than that is cause for celebration.

    7. The Biscuit says:

      seriously, the ‘weak schedule’ thing is so tired and so false. just because a team hasn’t been good for 100 years (Utah) doesnt mean they’re not good now. Why ND fans continue to perpetuate the myth of ND having weak/relatively weak schedules is beyond me. Borro is right – Steele put us at 17 in SOS. Even if he’s off by 50%, we’d still have an SOS somewhere near the top 20%. That’s not relatively weak, and that’s not weak, that’s a tough schedule.

    8. I agree with the basic premises that how the team looks is more important than the ultimate record. Holtz’s first season is the perfect example. Not a great record, but the team looked much improved over the last year of Faust and you could sense big things around the corner.

      But I’m also with Dannymac. Let it rip. We should win every game; we can win every game. Why bother to show up if that is not in your mind and in your heart. And, seriously, we all secretly harbor the feeling that we will win ’em all. Maybe it won’t happen, but let’s hope it does.

      When I was a student during the Holtz regime, we expected to win and almost always did. When we lost, we were shocked, really shocked. The shock at losses has been replaced by frustration, but I’ve never let go of the hope of winning each one.

      Motivation will be the key. Let’s hope each player digs deep and turns this team around.

    9. Iview the 2010 season not as an entity in an of itself but as part of a two-year, 24-game campaign ending in a BCS national-championship game in January, 2012. In that sense, the 2010 record is not crucial. However, Notre Dame may enter the Purdue game with a) 20 of its 22 starting positions manned by former four-star or five-star recruits, b) an experienced coach, c) a proven offensive system, d) hand-picked assistants, and e) likely as soft a schedule as the athletic director will seem to allow. If the Irish cannot go 8-4 under those conditions, I would conclude that it is unlikely to contest for a national championship in 2011. If it cannot, the next chance may not arrive until 2013 or later, possibly with the next head coach. I think Coach Kelly knows that. I think that’s why he unflinchingly raises expectations. He knows that he has nothing to lose.

    10. The Piper says:

      One thing to keep in mind. ND’s 1986 schedule under Holtz was the toughest in the nation. They played Penn St (natl champ), Michigan (preseason #3), Alabama, USC, etc.

      So while Steele says our SoS is #17, that’s quite misleading. The reason is that we don’t play any D-IAA, FCS teams. In addition, besides Army there aren’t any 1-10 NM St type teams in there.

      But our ’10 schedule also doesn’t have any Top 5 teams either (USC by Nov could look worse than Stanford).

      I’m not saying Pitt, Utah, USC, MSU, BC, Stanford can’t be good. They could be. Just that the SoS is based on an AVERAGE of the teams you face, and an average is very misleading. Its far from the way to judge the strength of a schedule.

      If Kelly goes 7-5 against our schedule, and 9 of those teams go to bowl games (4 go to BCS games), then we’ll know how good we are.

      Last thing…I wouldn’t be so quick to compare Kelly’s ’09 team to this one and say he coached a bunch of 2/3stars to 12wins. Yes he did that, BUT BUT BUT he coached them for 3 YEARS not 6 mths. Big difference. We’re early in this run. As Miller says in Force 10 From Navarone, “patience, it’ll work…you just have to give it some time”.

      All in, I think the schedule proves somewhat competitive and we go 9-3. And we’re all pretty pleased. 10yrs from now, we’ll all agree that Kelly was sent here from heaven.

    11. All questions will be answered for me at the end of Kelly’s third year.

      • Three years? Your questions better be answered earlier than that. I can live without national titles. I can’t tolerate 6 loss seasons — in years one, two or three.

    12. The methods Coach Kelly seems to be using resemble the methods Coach Parseghian used…superior teaching, clear designation of responsibilities, basic player development, placing players in their proper roles, correct player mentality as members of Our Lady’s team instead of individuals in transit to the NFL, etc.
      Results are bound to be better!

    13. doogerfuji says:

      The 2010 season and what they take out of it for 2011 will turn on the first half of the schedule. If Steele rates the entire season 17th then the first half must rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5. If the Irish are successful there, then I believe the rest will take care of itself.

    14. @ Biscuit: I think he meant “relative” as in “in relation to Notre Dame schedules past and future.” The lineup this year may not be a string of pattycake pattycake baker’s man teams, but there’s no denying the best team on this year’s schedule reeks of academic probations, new coaching staff, and a few rats scurrying off the ship early. There’s just no home run hitter in this schedule, as the Piper points out. The author’s point may be simply that the fans who want to give Kelly the coach of the year award before the season even starts are likely to be the ones who are calling for his blood if this year’s team doesn’t win at least 8 games. And I think it’s a good point.

    15. sorry that’s “NCAA penalties” not “academic probations.”

    16. It won’t be long and you won’t remember who the quarterback for ND was before Crist. We remember the winners alot easier. Every game is a must win.
      You will never hit the bullseye if you aim the dart at the outide ring of the dart board.
      Kelly is a winner and I expect wins.

    17. Scranton Dave says:

      I agree with what Piper said about the schedule. Kind of like Duke in hoops, who gets a great schedule rating cause they dont schedule any dog teams in Nov/Dec. However, I cannot keep my optimism in check with all I am reading/hearing. There is a lot of talent on this team even if some of those guys were overrated in HS. The current JR class was considered our best class in 20 years. I say at worst 9-3 and better then that is very possible. Go Irish!!!

    18. Chamnis hit the nail on the head. We will truly know at the end of the 3rd year. A coach needs 3 years to place a stamp on his program. Go Irish….

    19. I see a 7-5 team. Losses to USC, Pitt, and MSU, and 2 more losses between Stanford, BC, Navy, Utah, and Mich. Very little depth on D will be a big thing.

    20. At 3:15 p.m. (I live in the Eastern Time Zone) Saturday September 4, in the midst of Labor Day Weekend Festivities, I will steal away, break out the Kool-Aid, and swallow a goodly dollop of the stuff.
      I will then make sure all is prepped and ready – food, drink, phone off the hook, etc. By 3:30 the Kool-Aid will have worked its magic ……..

      Won’t be long now


      Purdue will be wondering what hit them

    21. John Galt says:

      I was boated from Blue and gold for predicating a 6-6 year for the Irish. ND wont be even close to cinci yet Nd fans swear he will go 10-3. I think its going to take longer and as game day is coming closer the over all realty of the situation is sinking in. 6-6 at best this year.

    22. John Galt says:

      I think it will be a 3 year recovery period for the Irish. I just got done watching the Alabama practice. Has anyone seen the size of the players from Bama. Notre Dame if primed as cinci wouldnt have a chance in hell in beating Bama much less Texas, Florida, or even the stricken USC. Give it times Irish Fans this isnt going to happen in a few practices we need big play makers and that not going to happen for at least three years.

    23. Crist is better than Clausen. Floyd is better than Tate.

    24. Brad (chicago) says:

      Was this article written by Eeyore? Seriously I can’t have a glimmer of optimism after 3 years of misery?

      Here are the pluses…

      We have talent but they never performed.

      Kelly has won at every level. While Cincinnati is not as prestigious as Notre Dame they played some of the same teams (Pittsburgh…and won)

      Notre Dame was 6-6 for the past two years, while that stinks it is not the same as rebuilding a team that has gone 1-11.

      Yes we’ve lost our quarterback but I submit that Kelly has been very good at developing quarterbacks.
      I agree that a measured approach to your enthusiasm is best. But tone of this article seems to say “…expect the worst” If you start 8-0 watch out for the big fall!

      As for the defensive players, I don’t think losing McCarthy will be crippling. (did he even get drafted?) He was good but he wasn’t a stud like Teo. I think no matter what, you can look at the season as how can we fill the vacated holes or look at all the young talent. (Isn’t that the glass half-empty/full argument?)

      My expectation is around 9 wins sure we could win less but maybe we catch lighting in a bottle. Can’t I hope for that? Isn’t that what a new season should mean? If nothing else maybe just maybe this season could be better than the last?

    25. PJ (Michigan) says:

      Best line and a great summary of the Weis era:

      “Watching the team sway to the alma mater after being punked by the likes of Navy, Connecticut and Syracuse is not my idea of must-see TV.”

    26. NessMonster says:

      Thank you for saying much of what I’ve been saying for a while now. The “new coach bounce” of a first season will not impress me nearly as much as seeing a team that plays better in November than it did in September. The hallmark of the Irish teams over the last several seasons (and in particular the last two) has been the inability to finish strong – we simply run out of gas by season’s end. There’s a reason early losses don’t count as much as later ones: you’re supposed to get better as you progress through the season, not worse.

      I get that Coach Kelly and others want to avoid the “R” word, and that of course we all hope and expect to win all the games. But I’d be happier with an 8-4 season in which the losses are mostly early and we show definite improvement between Game 1 and Game 12 than I would be with a 10-2 season in which we limp across the finish line in November and get shellacked in a bowl game.

    27. Scranton Dave says:

      To John Galt. Do you realize there is more talent on this team than any team Kelly had at Cincy? 6-6 at best? I wish I knew you personally so we could put a large wager on that. They are not a National Championship contender this season, but they will be much improved. 10-2

    28. Jack McGee says:

      I am excited about Kelly running this team I coached high school football as an assistant and a head coach for 16 years. I looked only for one thing: “attitude”. Kelly has an attitude and he will develop a team that runs, runs, runs. There will be no lurkers and no lunkers. They won’t pass a lot.
      Go Irish!

    29. I’m glad you put to words what many of us have been thinking. Charlie did a nice job with Jimmy. Golden did most of it on his own. But, for the rest of the players, they didn’t develop their skills and talents in a way that led to wins on the field. Our losses late in the season — in each of CW’s seasons — suggest that we started strong and our opponents learned our tendencies and found a way to address them. CW didn’t address this weakness. So, what I want in 2010 is a team that fights on every play — fights as hard in November as it did in September — and improves throughout the year. While 7-5 will be miserable, it will be tolerable if we improve throughout the year.

      But if we can’t get that, if we can’t control the lines of scrimmage and show that we’re improving in that area throughout the year, ND Nation will get frustrated. And rightfully so.

      I think we go 8-4, with the four losses being Mich St, Utah, SC and someone else (Pitt?). They’ll be close losses but that’s what I see. I think in other years, running the table would be possible. But this year is a different story, with new coaches, new systems, new schemes. Gotta walk before you can run


    31. Kelly beat Pitt, UConn and Syracuse in the Big East with Cincinnati recruits. If Weis beat them and Navy, he’s probably still around. I like the “work rate” and “up tempo” practice reports. I think Kelly gets the college game and will be very successful at ND. Go Irish!

    32. Hey,

      I lived in Cincinnati during Kelly’s time there. This guy is a motivator!! He had two and three star talent at Cincinnati and still had tremendous success. This guy reminds me of Lou! I think we win out and compete for the title this year!!!

    33. It takes talent, experience and coaching to be champions. ND has all three.

    34. ted sheehan says:


    35. Enough with the war/battle imagery.

    36. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

    37. I have the same feeling as expressed by some other comments here. I have been so disappointed by the past several years, that I had every thing to do to be able to turn the TV on Saturday afternoons. Now, I can’t wait. I will watch the Purdue game and after one quarter, I will know if , in fact, we are back! I will watch carefully the line of scrimmage and see which team is successful in winning the battle. Who pushes who around? And then, I will know. I am hopeful, by what I have heard and seen from South Bend, that we are, in fact, BACK! Coach kelly has finally brought the semblance of coaching, character, charisma and STYLE back to ND. I think we all are going to smile come the afternoon of September 4.

    38. Thanks for giving the ND fan base a voice to express their frustration with the past and the hope for the future.