The Thanksgiving Day dawn sees me at my in-laws, anticipating a day where (should I choose) I don’t have to put on my shoes and a dinner of awesome proportions, not to mention tremendous Thanksgiving sandwiches later. It also, as always, finds me noodling all the reasons I have to be thankful this year.
If nothing else, and probably most relevant to this audience, 2018 has given me plenty to be thankful for on the Notre Dame football front. The team is undefeated on both the season and the calendar year. Ian Book’s emergence has been one of the big stories in college football, and the resilience of this squad dealing with injuries has been impressive. Departures from last season have been dealt with, and players thrust into the spotlight have handled the heat well. The team looks as physically strong today as they did when they took the field in September. Preparation has been the watchword — ND has been ready for just about every opponent they’ve faced, and the game plans have been on the money. Even when it looked like something wasn’t working, by the end of the game, you saw the reason why it looked that way and how it factored in to the victory. The resulting season, like 2012, has made the site a million times easier to administer, for which I’m probably most thankful of all.
While the players deserve their share of credit for making this happen, the architects are the coaching staff in general, and Brian Kelly in particular. I was reading Mike Frank’s post-Syracuse column earlier this week and Frank Vitovich’s write-up this morning, and both of them are 100 percent spot on. I thought Jack Swarbrick was nuts to keep Kelly after the 4-8 fiasco in 2016, I thought all the bluster about the “2.0 reboot” was just that, and didn’t think there was a chance in hell an almost full-scale replacement of the coaching staff was going to make a difference. Leopards can’t change their spots, and Kelly’s spots, thought I, were darkest of dark. The guy who, as Frankie V said, “in 2010 stubbornly had Tommy Rees throw into the endzone against Tulsa [and in 2016] stubbornly had Kizer throw into a hurricane” wasn’t about to modify his behavior in any real sense.
Well damned if he didn’t, and damned if he didn’t prove me 100 percent wrong.
The man with his heels dug in went against type in almost every way. He went outside his inner circle, brought in guys who knew their stuff, and empowered them to succeed. The bus under which players were thrown left the station, and any raising of voices on the sideline now looks instructional rather than hysterical. Even the late-season stumbles of last year seemingly have been corrected, and everything in the program is now subject to true scrutiny, all the way up to the head guy.
Brian Kelly committed to change, and Brian Kelly pulled it off. 21 out of 24 wins is proof positive, and when the book is written about his ND tenure (hopefully not titled “Return to Glory”), BK will get the acknowledgement he richly deserves. While I may never like him personally — some of the mistakes of years one to eight run pretty deep for me — that’s not a prerequisite to enjoying the quality ND football I’m seeing now, nor is it required for me to recognize when he and the program take major steps forward, as they have the last two years. Congratulations and 100 percent credit to him for pulling off something unique in the history of college sports.
So unique, in fact, it got me thinking, particularly when reading the stories this week about Southern Cal’s season and head coach Clay Helton’s job security (or lack thereof). Most coaches in his situation likely would be fired. But SC is looking at some roadblocks to that seemingly simple solution:
- Athletic Director Lynn Swann signed Helton to a Weis-esque contract extension back in February, reportedly with a buyout north of $15 million.
- Recent scandals at the school have left them in financial disarray. Their president stepped down in August after criticism about how a sex abuse scandal involving a gynecologist at the student medical center was handled, and settlements to both he and the victims of that doctor likely will be pricey.
Is it possible Swann looks at what Brian Kelly accomplished in the last two years and figures it’s worth a shot in South Central? The Trojans likely will have problems coming up with the cabbage to pay off Helton, so they may as well spend a fraction that money on the new assistants to get him back on track. Sure, they’d require two-year guarantees or something of that kind to make the move, but in for a penny, etc. etc. There’s evidence now that it works, so isn’t it worth the gamble? They can work out their non-athletic issues while Helton rights the ship. SC is more willing to quick-fix player problems with more lenient admissions and JC transfer rules, so success should be considered more likely than at a more stringent institution like ND.
“Hold on thar, Baba Looey,” those of you who are SC fans who may be reading now say. “You think Clay Helton is a mope. You just want SC to keep him so ND can put up a Carroll-esque streak and erase bad memories from the 2000’s.”
To which I can confidently say … Happy Thanksgiving.