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The football coaching internship continues

Christopher Lilly | Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brian Kelly drew the wrong lesson from last year. When Dayne Crist was quarterback, Kelly called plays like a river boat gambler. After losing Crist to a season ending knee injury, freshman Tommy Rees was thrust into the starting role and Kelly started calling conservative games designed to just win, rather than to win with style. The team rallied around its rookie quarterback, thrived in a more sensibly called offense and reeled off four wins.

Kelly would later admit that at his previous colleges, he needed the hyper aggressive play calling to increase attendance. Kelly drew the following lesson. At Notre Dame: (a) he did not need style points; and (b) winning was all that mattered. The first part is true and allowed us to save the 2010 season and enter the 2011 season ranked in the top 20. But the second part is absolutely false.

At Notre Dame, winning at all costs has never been and never will be acceptable. Integrity, loyalty and player development are equal partners with, or more precisely prerequisites to, winning. The college quarterback is the default team leader. He is a player the kids can look up to and one of the few players who can speak for the others to the coaching staff. Crist earned the teams’ respect when, as a five star recruit, he chose Notre Dame knowing that he would have just two years of starting behind all-American recruit Jimmy Clausen.

When Crist came back from the 2009 knee injury ready to answer the call for the 2010 season, he re-earned his teams’ respect. By the time of the tragic Tulsa game, Crist was the unquestioned team leader. And when he came back from another horrible injury ready to answer the call in 2011, he once again earned the teams’ respect. After one half of mediocre play in the first game of the season, Kelly yanked the teams’ leader off the field and buried him on the bench. One cannot overstate how emotionally devastating this is to college football players.

They know that, absent a transfer, Crist’s once promising NFL career is over. They think, if Kelly can do that to a five-star recruit, one who has earned the teams’ respect time and time again as its unquestioned leader, what loyalty will he show to me?

For each member of the Notre Dame team to look down the sideline and see Crist sitting there, healthy, is like waking up in the morning to the smell of sausage, eggs and coffee, only to find that the sausage is in fact a turd. Sure, you can pick around it, but your breakfast is ruined. A healthy Crist sitting on the sidelines is a stain that cannot be removed. It will continue to sap the motivation of our players until its resolved.

Kelly is famous for player development — but that has not happened at Notre Dame. Guys who were expected to have break-out years have played the same or regressed: Gary Gray, Darius Fleming, Carlo Calabrese, Harrison Smith, Theo Riddick. There is something deeply wrong with the state of the Notre Dame football team. Numerous bloggers have conducted in-depth statistical analyses to try to figure it out. All of them have failed to identify the one thing that is so obvious — the players are not and will not respond well to the benching of a healthy Dayne Crist (coupled with a head coach that turns five shades of red yelling at them on national television).

The danger of this week’s easy game against Purdue is that it risks masking the real problem plaguing our team. Kelly drew the wrong lesson from last year and that is driving a deep wedge between himself and his players. Let’s hope he realizes this before the damage becomes permanent.

Christopher Lilly

alumnus

Class of 1994

Sept. 28