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A season-opener is only one game

Sam Werner | Thursday, September 2, 2010

Almost all coaches will say, over the course of an entire season, that it’s important to keep an even keel. They’ll say a team can’t let one win or one loss get them too high or too low.

Purdue coach Danny Hope is not one of those coaches.

“There’s a million things to gain from a win,” Hope said in a press conference earlier this week. “We can’t lose Saturday, we can’t.”

If Notre Dame fans are smart this Saturday, they’ll look at Hope’s view and take the exact opposite. That’s not to say I’m predicting a loss — if you skip ahead a few pages you’ll see that I’m not — just simply that the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame will not be defined by this one game.

Of course some will make grand sweeping remarks, talking about yet another “Return to Glory” if the Irish win big or a fifth straight failed coaching hire if they lose. Yes, George O’Leary counts.

Neither would be correct, though, and Irish fans only need to look back five years for evidence, when then-coach Charlie Weis was coaching circles around Pittsburgh’s Dave Wannstedt in both of their debuts. Now, Wannstedt has his team ranked in the top 15 while Weis is out of the college coaching game.

It’s important to remember that, especially when a coach is bringing in changes as large as Kelly’s, it’ll take some time to adjust. Dayne Crist can run option reads in practice all he wants, but there’s nothing like running your offense against a defense that’s not made up of teammates.

On the other end of the spectrum, a big Irish win won’t mean it’s time to start printing the National Championship t-shirts. While Purdue is certainly a solid football team, they’re hardly elite. A win against Purdue won’t necessarily mean that Notre Dame is ready to compete against the elite BCS teams of the college football world.

Even though it may only end up being a blip on Brian Kelly’s career radar, there are certainly things to look for on Saturday that could portend how the rest of the 2010 season will play out.

The biggest improvement to look for Saturday won’t be in X’s and O’s, but in the team’s attitude from the minute it runs out of the tunnel until the final whistle blows.

On media day a few weeks ago, Kelly said that his biggest goal of the season was to make sure the team was better in November than it was in September. Against Purdue, look for the Irish to be better than — or at least as good as — they are in the fourth quarter as they are in the first.

“At the end of the day, if you do that, if you play hard and give everything you have for four quarters, my experience has shown me that that’s going to be pretty good,” Kelly said in a press conference Tuesday.

Many articles and projections have pointed to Lou Holtz’s first year with the Irish as an example of how a team can show improvements in areas without necessarily winning more games. The Irish went 5-6 in 1986, the same record that had gotten Gerry Faust fired the previous year, but only lost one game by more than five points.

Obviously, a sub-.500 record this season would be classified as an unmitigated failure, but Irish fans would certainly have to be pleased if Kelly’s career trajectory mirrored that of Holtz’s during his time in South Bend.

Kelly has been the head coach at Notre Dame for just under eight months now, but what happens during four hours on Saturday afternoon will have more impact than anything he’s done since he took the job. Saturday will matter more than any press conference or any practice clip ever could.

Even still, there will be plenty more games to come for Kelly and the Irish. As important as Saturday will be, it’ll take a lot longer than a few hours to write the story of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu