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Mulvena: Let’s be honest

| Friday, November 22, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about Notre Dame’s football program after the Irish were embarrassed in Ann Arbor. Admittedly, it was an intense reaction to what I thought, and still think, is a telling loss, but I stand by the heart of its message nonetheless.

In the days following the column’s publication, I received a great deal of feedback, the most I’ve ever received on a piece I’ve written. The feedback was of two camps: those who fervently agreed and those who angrily rebuked my “outrageous” opinion. To say the least, the rebuke greatly outweighed the support. But I appreciate all of the feedback, especially the cries of outrage. It’s encouraging to know that people will interact with my opinions, and to be quite honest, the angry mob brought a little bit of excitement to my life during the bleak autumn of the otherwise beautiful Northwest Indiana. What else is there to do but read hate email when it’s dark at 4:00 p.m. and your favorite football team can barely beat Virginia Tech? 

Now, some things have changed since the Michigan loss. To be quite frank, I don’t think much has, but there are certainly some developments. I think Notre Dame’s rout of Navy was certainly a positive in that the Irish finally used their superior physicality to blow out a respectable but less-skilled opponent. It’s a small step in the right direction.

But much of what I said in that column still holds true. I don’t have a distinct direction in which I’d like to take this column, but in light of the feedback I received, I’d like to discuss some of the most common criticism I received.

Let’s start off with the heart of the column itself. To me, the current standing of Notre Dame’s football program, in broad terms, essentially boils down to one question: How are we to reconcile the great history, tradition of excellence and historical success of Notre Dame football with its recent shortcomings?

Now, you might say we don’t need to reconcile them at all. Notre Dame was once a football powerhouse, and no longer is. The perennial expectation is no longer a national championship. And that’s fine. That is a totally reasonable and practical outlook.

Or, you might say, Notre Dame is still a college football powerhouse, synonymous with college football itself; and, since it has not won a national championship since 1988, it ought to make some changes to move things back in the direction of fulfilling that powerhouse image. That’s the camp that I’m in.

But there is a third option, and it is the authority of this option which I intended to undermine in my column. That is those who say, on the one hand, Notre Dame is an elite college football powerhouse, in the league of the likes of Alabama and Ohio State; but, on the other hand, when Notre Dame loses to arch-rival Michigan by 30 or gets embarrassed in the College Football Playoff, these same people say everything is okay, that no change is necessary. That is just untenable. You can’t claim to have the expectations that come with a powerhouse program and then urge the status quo when the reality is woefully short of such expectations.

If you think the days of Notre Dame’s dominance are over, that it is a solid football program in an ever-competitive college football world, that is totally reasonable. You should be happy with a solid bowl game. I simply think that Notre Dame is still of the elite, and in order to remain there, it ought to make some changes. And I think everyone involved with Notre Dame football, including and especially the fans, ought to look in the mirror with brutal honesty to determine what the expectations are and how those ought to be met as we move on from another season without a chance at a national championship.

But let’s get to the most popular criticism I received, which was in response to my claim that Notre Dame ought to part ways with Brian Kelly. This was by no means the main point of my column; instead, it was an extension of my primary argument, which I’ve stated above. In fact, I literally wrote three sentences of that column about firing Brian Kelly, one of which I use to commend Kelly for his work in digging Notre Dame out of the hole that was 2016.

But it’s certainly fair that people reacted most strongly to this. Everyone loves a coaching controversy. I think Brian Kelly is a great football coach, among the best in the nation, but sometimes you part ways with great coaches, not because they’re not great coaches, but because it’s just time to part ways. It’s been 10 years. And if you think a championship is coming next year, or in the next five years, I’ve got a bridge to sell you if you’re interested.

And please, let’s not pretend I authored this take. Paul Finebaum said it on the air the same week I wrote my column, and many others have said it even years ago. This isn’t new, and I admitted that. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Kelly, who I think would probably even be able to land a job in the NFL. In 2017, the Yankees decided not to rehire Joe Girardi after they went 91-71 and lost in the ALCS. And this was after Girardi had brought the Yanks to four playoffs and lead them to a World Series title in 2009 during his tenure. Sometimes, it’s just time for a change.

Lastly, I’ll address the other point people liked to cling on to: Ian Book. For this, I’d like to point to Kelly’s press conference after the win over Navy, in which he said, “I mean, if it’s Major League Baseball, [Book] had a little slump. I knew what he was capable of. We maintained confidence in him. The only thing I ever said to him is, ‘Don’t lose confidence in yourself. Stay confident in yourself’ He works so hard. He does all the right things. It was just a matter of, there was too much noise, and he had to find a mechanism as the quarterback at Notre Dame to eliminate all the noise that comes with. Has and found it and he’s in a great spot, and he’s going to continue to progress.”

After I tweeted this out, former editor-in-chief of The Observer Ben Padanilam, offered what I think is the perfect response, “Gotta love QBs who go on a 2-3 game slump in a 12-game season.”

I have no doubt Ian Book is a great leader, but in a world of college football, where every game is of the utmost importance, you can’t have “slumps.” You might have an off day, or an off quarter, but the best playmakers in college football make adjustments on the fly.

And just as I said in regards to Kelly, this is not to say that Ian Book is a bad quarterback by any means. But it should be clear that he is not the type of quarterback who will lead you to a national championship, so why not give someone else a try? Would you rather know you’re going to go 10-2 or give someone else a shot and see how things can go for the future? 

I love Notre Dame football, more than any other team I root for. I think we should all be able to speak so frankly about these things because we care about them so much. If you disagree with those suggestions and the reasoning behind them, I encourage you to shoot me an email. But let’s please not pretend, for all of our sakes, that these changes are fantastical or outrageous. We can’t continue to look at the name and image that accompany Notre Dame football to ignore reality.

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

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