With Notre Dame 2-5 and facing a murky schedule that makes a sub-.500 season a very real possibility, some disenchanted Irish followers have been calling for Brian Kelly to be fired.
Not gonna happen. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick gave Kelly an unequivocal return ticket for 2017.
"Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year," Swarbrick told ESPN.com.
I endorse the endorsement.
While it’s true that neither Kelly nor his team have performed well this fall, the seventh-year Irish coach has earned the right to return.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
He had Notre Dame knocking on the College Football Playoff door until the bitter end of its last game a year ago. He guided the Irish to the 2012 national championship game, and his record of 57-28 is solid.
More importantly, while he and his players have had a brutal start to this season, the question is whether he can get ND back on track. And the answer is yes.
You can carve up Kelly on many fronts. The defense, which gave up 41.3 points in the first three losses, had been so porous that Kelly gassed his defensive coordinator. And the Irish, who are 92nd in rushing offense (150 yards a game), have scored only 13 points in their last two losses.
They have a very talented quarterback, DeShone Kizer, but he was skittery in the last game, throwing a pair of third-quarter interceptions as ND blew a 10-0 lead and lost to Stanford 17-10.
Kizer is widely expected to declare for the NFL draft after this season. Malik Zaire, a talented QB who started before Kizer, will be back, though.
``It comes down to, we have to coach better,’’ Kelly said in an interview with NBC, ND’s broadcasting partner. ``You wish you had a little better play call, or a better defensive call, or executed a little better, or communicated [better] how to run that play. It’s a little bit of all those things, coupled with the fact that this is the youngest team we’ve had since 1972. Those sound like a lot of excuses, but the fact of the matter is, we’ve been in every one of those games, but we haven’t closed them out.’’
The youngest Notre Dame team since 1972? That’s part of the damage control under the dome at this point. It sounds like quite an explanation, except that it depends on who’s counting.
``Sometimes data must be challenged,’’ longtime Irish chronicler Lou Somogyi wrote at the Rivals.com site. Somogyi proceeded to question the math in detail, but then cut to the chase, saying youth/inexperience ``doesn’t justify [ND’s 2-5] start.’’
As Somogyi pointed out, Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team, which we both covered, was loaded with young players.
That said, Kelly may be guilty of poor coaching, and Notre Dame may be guilty of bad optics, this fall. But stuff happens in college football.
Guess how many pre-season top-25 teams are unranked and bumping along? Would you believe 10, including the Irish?
The list includes pre-season No. 8 Stanford, No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 12 Michigan State, No. 13 TCU, No. 16 UCLA, No. 17 Iowa, No. 18 Georgia, No. 20 USC, No. 21 Oklahoma State and No. 24 Oregon.
That doesn’t justify ND’s shortcomings. It does show that college football is a fluid, unpredictable deal—the Beauty and the Beast, as I have noted in this space.
``It’s unrealistic to say. . . this lays solely at the feet of the head coach,’’ Swarbrick told ESPN.com. ``All of us are in this together. I can tell you I continue to have complete confidence in Brian. I think you really see what you've got in a coach with how they manage times like this, and I think he has done a great job of it.’’
In other words, Swarbrick really believes in Kelly, who was given a six-year extension in January.
``His focus has been really laser sharp, his relationship with this team is probably as strong as any that I've seen with him at Notre Dame, and those are all positives,’’ the AD said. ``Neither of us are satisfied with 2-5, but I see the program day in and day out, and I continue to have great confidence in Brian and confidence in our future as a program."
The other reason I think it’s a good idea to support Kelly through 2017 is that there are no guarantees with the next hire. Even at Notre Dame (and many other traditional powers), you just don’t know.
These jobs comes with tremendous resources. But they also come with tremendous pressure.
The rest of this season figures to be difficult. Miami, which comes to South Bend on Saturday, is struggling after a decent start. But oddsmakers barely favor ND, if at all. Navy and Army are better than usual, but the Irish should be OK in those games if they get their act together. The last two games, vs. Virginia Tech and at USC, will be very challenging.
In other words, 4-8 could happen. But 6-6 and a modest bowl is not out of ND’s reach.
None of that is very appetizing, of course, at Notre Dame, which began the season ranked 10th in the country and was considered a dark-horse candidate for the College Football Playoff.
But that’s the way it is. And some restless Irish followers will need to deal with it. It is what it is this year. These last five games will be about damage control.
Next year is another matter.[/membership]