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Joseph: Swarbrick and Kelly carrying out a grand vision for Notre Dame (Nov. 27)

Allan Joseph | Tuesday, November 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES – As the final seconds ticked off the clock Saturday night, Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick made celebratory rounds on the Notre Dame sideline, embracing sweaty Irish players while wearing a sharp grey suit. As he moved from player to player, he wore an ear-to-ear grin, and with good reason: Swarbrick’s most prominent employee had never looked like a better hire.

Before the season, Swarbrick said Irish coach Brian Kelly was on the “coolest seat in America” after two consecutive five-loss campaigns. Many fans scoffed at Swarbrick’s seeming overconfidence – as much as the program had improved in two years, it also seemed to be in a state of flux.
Chuck Martin, a safeties coach for two seasons, had risen the ranks to lead an inconsistent Irish offense. The quarterback position was maddeningly unsettled, and after moving Theo Riddick to receiver right after they arrived, Kelly and Martin asked him to move back to running back two years later. The defensive front had lost what seemed to be its best player to South Florida, and the secondary appeared vulnerable at best.
It didn’t help that the previous season’s turnover-prone offense fell short of its talented potential – yet after truly ugly wins over far-inferior teams (see: at Pittsburgh), Kelly was just happy his team was developing a “winning instinct.” The Irish struggled mightily at times, but he seemed to forgive all after a win.

Through it all, Kelly stuck with his quiet confidence. He brushed off concerns about his sideline demeanor and player management while insisting his program was on track. He deflected questions challenging his decisions with his usual polished ease, but there appeared to be an undercurrent to his answers.

“I’ve got this,” he seemed to want to say. “Just wait and see.”

Then, of course, came the 2012 quarterback controversy. There were tortured baseball references, but it just looked like indecision at the most important position on the field. But the Irish kept winning, and Kelly kept forging ahead with his plan.

Fast-forward to the end of the season. The Notre Dame offense has found its stride, led by the two players whose management had seemed most confusing. Everett Golson plays with aplomb more befitting a third-year starter than a sophomore who had been benched twice, while Theo Riddick earns the Irish the toughest yards when they need them most. The Irish defense looks better than it ever had, shutting down explosive offenses like Oklahoma and USC and reducing Aaron Lynch to a mere afterthought.

And most importantly, the coach who insisted developing a nebulous “winning instinct” mattered above all has shown us what he meant: Against Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and in legendary fashion, Pittsburgh, his Irish found a way to win time and time again. Twelve times, to be exact.

Now, Kelly has led an admittedly imperfect team to a perfect regular season. His vision has come together in a way only he could have foreseen, and he’s one game away from adding a new banner to the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel.

But Kelly is no Gene Chizik-style one-hit wonder. Perhaps the truly amazing part of this transformation is how much Notre Dame will improve in the next few years. Golson will become a feared offensive weapon, the special teams have all the room in the world to improve and the incoming recruiting classes herald an era of unprecedented talent on the Notre Dame sideline. The Irish should be competing for BCS bowl berths for years to come.

Swarbrick’s were not the only eyes smiling Saturday night – Irish eyes around the country were smiling too. And they had every right to be: They had all just glimpsed the reason Kelly had been hired in the first place: His vision was grander than anyone could have seen coming.

Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]

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