Under the Dome: Navy loss puts Irish at sea without a paddle

As Notre Dame keeps hitting new lows in a shockingly toothless season, here’s a suggestion.

Gould Headshot square

Change that ``Play Like a Champion Today’’ sign to Joe Maddon's mantra: ``Try Not to Suck Today.’’

Hey, it worked for the Cubs.

Seriously, Notre Dame’s latest stumble, a frustrating 28-27 loss to Navy, is a major blow to ND’s last glimmer of hope for salvaging a rocky season. This was Navy’s fourth win since 1963 against the Irish. And they play every year. That’s 4-48, according to my abacus.

At 3-6, the Irish will have to win out to become bowl-eligible. After playing Army in San Antonio this week, ND faces tough tests from No. 23 Virginia Tech and at surging USC, which has won five straight since its own rocky start.

If you think Notre Dame can finish 6-6, you should buy a lottery ticket.

In other words, a 4-8 record is very possible. That is quite a comedown for a team that began the season 10th in the nation, a team that was considered a dark-horse candidate for a College Football Playoff berth.

And it makes me wonder where the Brian Kelly era is headed.

Kelly received a six-year extension in January. And an unequivocal vote of confidence last month from athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who told ESPN.com’s Matt Fortuna, ``Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel Opening Day next year.’’

If I were a smart aleck, I’d say: Maybe Kelly should try to do better at leading the Irish out of the tunnel this year.

At the time of Swarbrick’s vote of confidence, the Irish were 2-5 and in a bye week.

Kelly didn’t help matters by saying he was disappointed it had come to that, which stoked the whole deal again.

Sometimes, it isn’t so much what Kelly says as the tone in which he says it. In his defense, the unblinking spotlight on the Notre Dame coach would wear thin on just about anybody.

But that’s part of the deal. Everybody who takes that job knows that.

ND followed the vote of confidence with a messy 30-27 win in which it survived despite allowing 27 unanswered points after building a 20-0 lead. It was the fifth time the Irish had allowed at least 17 unanswered points, which is never a good thing.

At 3-5, though, ND had a chance to even its record at 5-5 by beating Navy and Army. From there, it could fight the good fight against the Hokies and Trojans—and then everyone could see how Kelly dealt with the hot seat he’d be on in 2017.

That’s not happening now.

What’s happening now, I suspect, is that Irish fans everywhere are seething. Nearly all of that unrest, the AD and the coach obviously must ignore.

What they can’t ignore is that this has gone off the rails in a very troubling way. Never mind the Subway Alumni. People who write checks will be rattling their sabres even louder. And even if they can be placated by logic, such as, ``It’s one bad season,’’ and, ``We just gave the guy a long extension,’’ that doesn’t change the fact that Notre Dame is in a very bad place.

I’ll leave the autopsy to those who have a better handle on apportioning the blame. Players need to play better. Coaches need to coach and recruit better. Kelly needs to coach, play-call, scheme, recruit and hire better. . . all of the above.

What matters now is how Notre Dame gets headed back in the right direction.

It’s not just the number of losses this fall, although that’s pretty shocking. It’s the way the losses have gone down that makes me wonder how the Irish put the pieces back together.

When Swarbrick backed Kelly, I thought that was a good move: Stifle the calls for firing a coach who has proven he can win, a coach who has a monstrous buyout, and let him have 2017 to see if he can coach up a young and talented team.

But this Navy torpedo makes that scenario an even trickier proposition.

It reminds of a situation that happened 20 years ago. In 1996, I was covering Illinois, and I wrote in the pre-season at the Chicago Sun-Times that the AD, Ron Guenther, would probably have to fire Lou Tepper if the Illini didn’t show enough in the won-lost column.

Guenther told the Chicago Tribune that Tepper would be back ``no matter what.’’ I assumed he did that to snuff my projection, which annoyed me and led to a really tumultuous football season.

Guenther and I were feuding. Tepper was accusing me of nefarious conspiracies.

At the end, Guenther abandoned his ``no matter what,’’ just as I had predicted, and fired Tepper, citing many of the arguments I had raised.

Ugh. . . All I can say is, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have had. . . more perspective.

And this was at Illinois, where coaches who go 8-4 are congratulated, not Notre Dame, where they are excoriated.

Is it possible Swarbrick will need to pull the rug out from under Kelly, and never mind the vote of confidence?


The bottom line is: If Kelly really is going to lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel next fall, security will need to keep a close watch out for over-ripe fruit and vegetables.