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Kelly’s job should be on the line

| Friday, October 14, 2016

“Everybody on our staff for the rest of the [season] is on a very public interview. … All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

That is what head coach Brian Kelly said in a press conference Sept. 25, just one day after Notre Dame’s 38-35 home loss to Duke.

Just over two weeks later and with his team sitting at 2-4, Kelly has very much failed his “very public interview” so far this season.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field at Carter-Finley Stadium in Notre Dame's 10-3 loss to North Carolina State.Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field at Carter-Finley Stadium in Notre Dame’s 10-3 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday.

Annually bringing in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes — and carrying preseason top-10 expectations along with them — Notre Dame clearly has the talent on its roster to be a winning football team this year. But it hasn’t played like one, and coaching is a big reason why.

Top-level talent doesn’t cease to be top-level talent just because the stage is bigger. But what does happen is that coaches sometimes fail to develop that talent, and that amounts to minimal production as the players fall short of the lofty expectations set for them. And this is a problem Kelly has admitted has plagued the Irish this year.

Well, at least when he’s not blaming just about everyone else around him for his team’s problems. Sure, Kelly has taken some responsibility for his team’s failures this season. But that’s only after he’s put the spotlight on everyone else, as if he’s minimized his own role in the losing efforts. And even more than that, he’s come across as disingenuous given his actions.

For the first four games of this season, Kelly scapegoated former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder through the way he handled the situation. Sure, VanGorder needed to go, but for Kelly to stand before the press for four straight weeks — including the very day before he fired him — and both defend and praise him brought further attention to a complicated problem. Firing a coordinator during the season is not easy, but Kelly clearly mishandled the situation and only further fueled the fire. He also hurt his own credibility, which can create a clear strain in the locker room if players are unable to trust their coach.

Soon after, Kelly put the onus on his offense. He criticized junior quarterback DeShone Kizer for not doing enough, then criticized him the next week for trying to do too much. He said after the loss to Michigan State that Kizer would not be asked to carry the load for the offense this season, but then he seemed to expect Kizer to do just that when he called nearly as many pass plays as run plays this past weekend in conditions as far from conducive to an aerial attack as possible.

And now, he’s put the blame on the special teams unit this week. And just as before, he’s made it a point to say he will have to become more involved in coaching up the group, as if he didn’t already carry the responsibility to ensure its performance was up to the standard he expects from them.

The thing is, a captain is supposed to go down with his ship when it’s sinking. He holds the ultimate responsibility for the ship and every single person on it, putting everyone else before himself.

But Brian Kelly has given me no reason to believe that he’s done anything but ensure his own safety first while Notre Dame drowns during its disastrous 2016 season.

Because the ideal captain would’ve taken responsibility for the poor way in which he handled the mid-season coaching change. He would’ve recognized that he hasn’t put his players in a position to succeed with his play calling, stubbornly running the ball when the lanes weren’t there against the Spartans or throwing the ball when the weather just wasn’t having it against North Carolina State.

Since he put his program on notice that nobody’s job was safe, Kelly has seen his failures loom larger than anyone else’s on his team. His job should be on the line based on his own standard.

That’s not to say Notre Dame should fire Kelly. He’s brought the Irish to a national championship during his tenure with the program, and he nearly led them into a position to compete for another one last season when they narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff. And he’s still got at least six games left this season to turn his program back in the right direction, including this weekend’s matchup against rival Stanford.

Zach Klonsinski, a fellow Observer beat writer, wrote an article earlier this year laying out the case for fans to be patient with Kelly, and he makes a great point: Kelly’s accomplishments at Notre Dame thus far can’t be ignored.

But neither should his missteps at nearly every point of adversity this season. College football coaches are expected to be leaders, and he simply hasn’t been that for the Irish this season. He’s the captain of this season’s ship, but he isn’t acting like it.

But if he wants to keep his job come the season’s end, he’s going to have to change that very soon.

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

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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