As a Chicagoan of the proper vintage, I remember well Doug Collins’ tenure as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. While inexperienced, his Bulls teams improved their win total and advanced further each year in the NBA playoffs. But they always seemed to finish a little short of where they should have, and Collins couldn’t solve the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf sensed that, while Collins had done yeoman’s service making the Bulls competitive again after years in the NBA desert, he wasn’t the guy to get them to the championship promised land. Collins had gotten them from Point A to Point B, Reinsdorf was quoted as saying, but the Bulls needed someone to get them to Point C.
I was reminded of Collins while watching Michigan completely dismantle Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish team on Saturday night. What was supposed to be a close game between ranked teams turned into an embarrassing blowout, with the flaws that had been painfully evident in the offense all season painfully exposed yet again. It seemed a familiar refrain, as a similar story had been written after Clemson last season. And Miami in 2017. A missive which, ND fans had been assured, had been expunged from the storybook with the Kelly 2.0 remake after a fetid 4-8 offering in 2016.
Not so much, I guess. But it did make me think of Collins, because it’s time for Notre Dame to decide where it resides in college football and if that address is acceptable.
Reboot or no, after 10 years, we know exactly what we have with Brian Kelly. His offense uses the pass to set up the run, and therefore is dependent on high-quality quarterback play to be successful. His teams usually are effective against teams they can out-athlete, but when faced with upper-echelon and/or motivated competition, especially away from Notre Dame Stadium, they fall short, sometimes catastrophically so. His new-found focus on being Notre Dame’s coach instead of allowing his eye to wander to NFL positions has improved the win total, but hasn’t erased the aforementioned truths, and there is little evidence that will change any time soon.
Make no mistake, what we’re seeing now is good, and (as I wrote a couple weeks ago) better than we’ve seen since Lou Holtz left. Whatever his faults, Brian Kelly has made the Notre Dame job much more attractive than it was the day he was hired. The facilities are top-notch, and the nutrition program is much more appropriate to a championship-level team. Admissions (by most accounts) has shown a willingness to work with him and his staff, and communication between that department and the staff has improved greatly, resulting in a lot less wasted time in recruiting. The budget for assistant coaches reportedly is at market level, and the current crop of assistants has shown what work and focus can do, as evident in the highly-ranked 2021 list of committed recruits — not to mention that recruiting has advanced such that the staff can work on 2021 commits before the 2020 class has even signed.
It’s very good. But as Saturday’s results showed (and Clemson, Miami, et al), it’s not great, and you can count me among those who believe it can (and should) be.
“The best since Holtz”, let’s remember, is an incredibly low bar. If Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, or Charlie Weis had left Notre Dame and gone on to success somewhere else, I could consider the argument some of the intrinsic disadvantages at Notre Dame (and I’m very ready to admit they exist) had held them back. But not only did they not have success, in all three cases, they actually performed worse than they had at Notre Dame. One could argue Notre Dame’s intrinsic advantages (which, unlike some, I’m also ready to admit exist) propped them up.
Let’s also remember this laudable advancement came at a steep price. Thanks to ND having to vacate wins for the first time in its history, its annual pursuit of the highest number of wins and the highest win percentage in college football history is likely now, like the pregame Mass, only a memory. When you run an undisciplined ship, academic difficulties start appearing, as do mentions on police blotters. And the “unremarkable” events of October 27, 2010, should never be forgotten.
(As an aside, those of you who respond to the above paragraph whining like little girls about getting screwed by the NCAA can bite me. The players cheated, they were ruled ineligible, that’s how the rule is written. If you want us to become like the North Carolinas and Michigans of the world and sandbag and withhold information and hide mistakes in the interest of winning, maybe you should go root for those programs instead. If ND is going to stand for “No Different”, I don’t see the point. Winning without integrity is meaningless).
Brian Kelly had to grow and learn a lot as a coach while he improved the program, all at both the financial and psychological expense of Notre Dame and its fans. So while he’s owed thanks for getting Notre Dame back to point B, that’s where it should end. Capabilities of Jack Swarbrick notwithstanding, it’s time for Notre Dame to start thinking about Point C again.