Klonsinski: Kelly’s seat still cold — for now
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, September 4, 2015
It was supposed to mark Notre Dame’s return to old form and glory.
An overachieving Irish squad making a run to Miami, led by a third-year coach, “waking the echoes” of the past in a way they hadn’t been shaken in almost 25 years.
In retrospective, it resembles more and more the fluke of a season most outside the Notre Dame camp claimed it to be.
It’s hard to believe just three years after an undefeated regular season and a trip to the national championship game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly finds himself on the hot seat.
Well, not really. At least, not yet.
After that crazy 2012 season? Well — nothing really. Not on the “good” end of the spectrum at least.
The 2013 season will be described by some as mediocre at best — a lot worse than that by others — although the Irish managed to hang on for a win over the hated Trojans. That game’s second half was about the most Notre Dame fans wanted to see Tommy Rees play the entire season; otherwise, there was lament about how good it could have been if Everett Golson hadn’t been suspended for the entire year. That buzz around Golson only increased in the first half of last season.
Then the second half of the year happened.
As has been well documented, the wheels came off; figuratively, in Golson’s ability to handle a football and literally on the defensive side, where one player after another went down to injury and inexperience finally caught up with Notre Dame. Even then, though, Irish faithful pointed the Frozen Five scandal that helped contribute to the lack of defensive depth before a snap was taken in fall camp.
This year has been comparatively quiet on the suspension front: “only” one running back, would-be junior Greg Bryant, who with the emergence of junior C.J. Procise would have seen a reduced load in the backfield anyway, and the denial by the NCAA of Ishaq Williams’ petition for another year of eligibility.
Of course, one ill-fated injury will leave the door open for the claim the offense wasn’t what it could have been with Bryant’s departure leaving them thin in the running game, or how Williams’ presence was again missed on the defensive line.
At what point, though, does it turn on the coach? At what point are the Irish faithful fed up with excuses? We could be only a few weeks from finding out.
Many have said this year’s Irish squad is the best Kelly has had in his six years as head coach, an argument I support as well. Notre Dame returns all its receivers and an offensive line that has elite potential, both of which should ease junior quarterback Malik Zaire’s transition into the starting role. The defense has almost an overflow of experience, the silver lining to the injury bug last year.
So what will happen if the Irish falter early? It’s conceivable the Irish stumble this week against Texas. Next week’s road test at Virginia certainly can’t be overlooked either, and a trip to Death Valley against Clemson is far from a guaranteed win. Navy with its triple-option offense is always a thorn in Notre Dame’s side; what happens against a Georgia Tech team that does it even better?
It’s conceivable we’ll see two losses on the Irish record before USC even comes to town midway through the season, and with the lack of second-half excitement on the Irish schedule, two losses doesn’t even make the playoff conversation, no matter who they come to. Just ask Michigan State.
What happens when there aren’t more excuses to make, then? What happens if the fan base is denied a realistic shot at the playoffs only a couple weeks into the season and just has to fester?
Inevitably, the calls for Kelly’s job will start. He’s locked up through 2017, and I don’t foresee athletics director Jack Swarbrick even considering firing Kelly after this season unless it resembles anything close to last year’s second half collapse, but that doesn’t mean Kelly’s chair wouldn’t warm a few degrees.
Kelly knows this, too.
“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame,” Kelly said at the team’s media day on Aug. 18. “Comfortable wouldn’t be a word that I would use.”
And he shouldn’t.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.