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The buck always stops somewhere else

| Monday, January 29, 2018

First he came for game day Mass, and Jack didn’t speak out because Jack thought it might help Notre Dame win games. Then he came for natural grass, and Jack acquiesced because maybe it might help Notre Dame win games. Together, they played Ozzy and spent $400 million for a 96-ft. television because that was the missing piece to winning.

Like clockwork, every year since 2012 a new institutional bogeyman for Brian’s failures has been identified (academic demands, youth — even fundraising for the things he believed were holding his program back). Yet the changes have not gotten Brian any closer to college football’s elite. And in preparation for the Notre Dame’s Citrus Bowl win over LSU, Brian finally came for Jack. Because, like Jack, Brian still doesn’t know how great football teams win games.

When asked prior to the bowl game to explain the Irish’s latest November collapse, Brian Kelly, fingers forward in trademark fashion, blamed Notre Dame’s schedule. Kelly griped that he “didn’t have that breather game the week before one of our rivals,” an obvious nod to the tradition down South of playing FCS cupcakes the penultimate week of the year. Quick to note that Notre Dame’s scheduling is an “institutional decision,” which Irish fans know largely rests in the hands of its athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Kelly implored that “we’re going to have to look at it hard.”

Ironically, Kelly accused the College Football Playoff committee of “shifting goal posts” in evaluating schedules. But the committee hasn’t been the one administering Kelly’s 62nd ranked redzone offense during his Notre Dame tenure. What it has done is reward great wins and punish numerous and embarrassing losses. These criteria stand in stark contrast to those Notre Dame’s administration has used to judge Kelly, who is 4-13 against final top-10 teams in the final AP and BCS polls, is 0-2 in major bowl games, and set Notre Dame’s career loss mark in just seven seasons.

Nonetheless, Kelly expects Swarbrick to work with him on November scheduling. And why shouldn’t he? Swarbrick has held the hand of his marquee hire through unprecedented program embarrassments. In the wake of a cheating scandal, they searched for more ways to assist student-athletes Kelly condescendingly labeled “at-risk” — despite their always exemplary graduation rates. Swarbrick has belittled alumni criticism of the dismantling of program traditions that have yielded even worse records without them. And as the losses have mounted, he has stood quietly by Kelly’s side as the coach notoriously threw his players under an ever-growing bus.

This past offseason, Swarbrick responded to the 4-8 disaster that followed Kelly’s six-year contract extension by targeting Kelly’s staff. The new strength coach would keep the Irish tough through November. Analysts would help the Irish maximize recruiting yields as teams trailing the Irish in Rivals.com rankings (Clemson, Oklahoma, Michigan State and Stanford) consistently outpaced them in the polls. And coordinators would inject a new attitude — until they found a better boss. So something else must explain how the Irish became the first college football team in a century to have two consensus All-American linemen but fail to sniff a share of the title (The prior six squads to boast such talent included two Notre Dame teams and the Alabama unit that beat Kelly’s crowning achievement by 28 points).

But might Kelly’s latest scapegoat for his 1-10 November record against final top-25 teams at last face skepticism from his boss? Swarbrick knows Notre Dame’s scheduling philosophy didn’t lose games. He scheduled traditional doormat Wake Forest (whose one-point win over Appalachian State helped achieve an apparitional 8-5 record) and 7-6 Navy. And he knows that Notre Dame lost to Miami and Stanford — not Alabama and Auburn — squads who played their own rivals Virginia Tech and Cal the week prior to beating down the Irish. Just like Southern Cal played UCLA prior to doing the same in 2014 and 2016.

Swarbrick might not know why great football teams win games. He never hired a coach in any sport prior to Kelly. Of the major Final Four appearances and titles Irish athletics has won during his tenure, all but one were achieved by coaches (Waldrum, Clark, McGraw, Corrigan, Jackson) hired by Swarbrick’s predecessors, and all but hockey and fencing played in facility upgrades built by them. Swarbrick’s statement preceding the 2016 season that it generally takes 4-5 years to build a program is contradicted by a list of the last 20 college football champions. (Perhaps why, despite a glowing reputation among the media, a recent informal Sports Illustrated self-survey of athletic directors failed to cast one vote for him.) But by now, he should have a running list of what doesn’t make great teams win.

The things that made Notre Dame football different used to be a source of institutional pride, not administrative inconvenience. Great coaches attracted great players because of them, not in spite of them. How many more of the things that made ND stand out must its caretakers explain away until Notre Dame football is unrecognizable to the great teams who won simply — like all great teams do — because they were coached by great leaders? Does Kelly need Notre Dame to schedule its first FCS opponent? And when we learn that wasn’t keeping Kelly from beating Miami and Stanford in November (much less Northwestern and Navy), what then?

Will anyone still speak for Jack? Does University leadership know that great coaches win big games, and that great administrators hire great coaches? Or is Brian going to need a bigger bus?


Tim Dougherty

class of 2007

Jan. 14

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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