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Carson: Notre Dame can do better than the status quo

| Friday, October 28, 2016

Amidst a season chock full of questionable decisions from Brian Kelly, the Irish head coach is absolutely right on one count: That it’s not a good thing when your director of athletics has to give you the public “vote of confidence,” as Jack Swarbrick did last week.

Even Kelly’s most ardent supporters would admit that, after a 2-5 start, conversation about the coach’s future is an appropriate, if not necessary, chat.

Every year, before the season starts, Notre Dame’s players and coaches talk about the team’s goal of winning a national title. Such is life when you’ve retained your independent status — it’s that or nothing. So let’s look at a profile of recent championship-winning coaches.

In the past 16 years, 11 coach-school combinations have won a national title, and most arrangements fit a similar story — a coach shows up, recruits well early to supplement the talent already sitting in the program (fired coaches often leave behind a wealth of talent they couldn’t manage), and wins a championship within his first few years at the school. Of those 11 coaches, 10 won their first title at a school in their first four years at the helm; the only exception is Mack Brown, who bucks the trend, winning his first crown in his eighth year at Texas.

Next fall, Kelly would enter his eighth year at Notre Dame, so let’s take a quick look at Brown’s path. Unlike Kelly, Brown’s Texas teams were consistent contenders until the 2005 breakthrough, going 43-8 from 2001 through 2004, never dropping below the 10-win mark. That, clearly, is not where Notre Dame sits today.

To go back and find coaches who have won their first crowns later than year eight at a school, as it’s likely Kelly would be doing if he ever won a title at Notre Dame, you have to move to 1993 and 1994, when Bobby Bowden and Tom Osborne won their first national titles 18 and 22 years into their tenures. Respectfully, Kelly isn’t either of those guys.

Combining the “eye test,” which shows a head coach’s questionable decisions aiding Irish defeat after defeat, with the aforementioned historical comparison, it’s hard for me to imagine a world where the 2012 win at USC — the one that sent Notre Dame to play for a national title — isn’t the zenith of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, no matter how much longer he sticks around.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field after Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly and the Irish have gone 2-7 since Notre Dame lost to Stanford last season.Kelly Vaughan | The Observer

Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field after Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly and the Irish have gone 2-7 since Notre Dame lost to Stanford last season.

One of two things needs to change: the head coach or the expectations.

Are those expectations — both internal and external — out of whack with reality? Thanks to the University’s insistence on focusing on the “student” part of student-athlete, this isn’t an easy job, no, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect more out of Notre Dame than what Kelly has provided in seven seasons.

If I broke down college football’s top-end programs into tiers, I’d set Notre Dame in the third-highest. At the top, you have Alabama and Ohio State, schools who will consistently have the top talent and top coaches in the game. In a second tier, you have programs like Florida State, Oklahoma and Clemson. These schools are consistently good, with a top-15 mark often the floor and a title the ceiling.

Notre Dame is, right now, a step behind those schools. When things are clicking, the Irish can compete, but they don’t do it often enough to give them a good chance of winning a title in a long-term stretch. Joining that second tier is, in my eyes, a fair expectation and, at this point, I just don’t see it happening under Kelly.

Think back to that earlier stat — that nearly all title-winning coaches in recent memory have won their first title at a school in the first few years of a tenure.

Notre Dame is primed to compete two years from now, in 2018. Josh Adams and Dexter Williams will form a top-tier senior running back tandem, the young receivers and secondary will be veterans, and no matter who quarterbacks the squad, it’ll be a signal caller who’s one of college football’s 10 best.

And when looking at the 2018 slate, one thing stands out: Michigan’s visit to open the season. If you want to look at a present-day application for what a coaching change can do, just look to Ann Arbor, where Jim Harbaugh has resurrected that program in his second year.

In what will be the biggest game at Notre Dame Stadium in 13 years, is Kelly the man best suited to lead the Irish out of the tunnel?

The current reality of Notre Dame’s program doesn’t match the stated goals. If Swarbrick retains Kelly, which I believe he will, it’s a vote for the status quo, an affirmation that Notre Dame is only interested in occasionally, not perennially, competing; an assertion that “win a national title” isn’t truly every season’s goal.

Instead, Swarbrick can make a change and take a chance, not on Kelly, but on Notre Dame.

There is no guarantee that a new coach would provide a better, or even the same, result.

But don’t you owe it to yourself to try?

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

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.”At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer.A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa.When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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