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Adams: Brian Kelly’s last chance(s) against Clemson

| Friday, November 6, 2020

(Before I begin this, I would just like to wish my mother a very happy birthday today, Nov. 6. Ahead of my final Notre Dame home game that I will be attending as a student, I would just like to thank her — and to a lesser extent my dad, because we know who wears the pants in our house — for raising me to be the person I am and for playing no small part in my being at this University. All the love to you today and this weekend because I will happily take the attention back Monday when it’s my birthday.)

Above the side doors of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are inscribed the words: “God, country, Notre Dame.” After Tuesday, I’d prefer to focus solely on the last of those three.

Ahead of what will possibly be the most important game to date in my four years following Notre Dame football, and immediately following four years of lead up to what many have dubbed the most important election in recent American history, I figure now is a good time to tell Brian Kelly what I want from him: an Irish win on Saturday.

Not just any Saturday. This Saturday. 7:30 p.m. At Notre Dame Stadium. Against No. 1 Clemson. On NBC. You have to beat them. Now.

Because if not now, then when?

Observer File Photo
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl Classic two season ago. Book went 17-34 with one interception in the blowout loss.

You have a third-year starting quarterback and an offensive line stacked with veterans and talent, elite tight ends and running backs who can make guys miss. And that’s not to mention a defense that continues to impress under the tutelage of one the brightest coordinator minds in college football.

The reason I brought up politics is because right now I want to forget about them, regardless of the winner of this presidential election. I want sports to distract me, but not because of another Notre Dame football disappointment. That won’t work this time around because that’s what it’s giving me on a pretty regular basis.

I consider myself different from many other sports fans who let their emotions get the better of them. I like to think I’m not part of the group that gets obsessed with the next big thing of the highly touted quarterback recruit, the group that calls for a player’s or coach’s head when they have a bad game. Don’t get me wrong, though; I do have my moments. I was absolutely dumbfounded and downright pissed after Notre Dame lost to Michigan last season. You can make excuses for losing, but not for laying an egg like that.

All this to say that I try to keep my baser instincts in check. I don’t want to have knee jerk reactions to Notre Dame football. But if Notre Dame does not beat Clemson at least once this season — whether on Saturday or in the ACC Championship — I am completely confident in saying it would be in the program’s best interest to move on from Brian Kelly.

Because if not now, then when?

When are the Irish finally going to get that big win? Yes, they are 39-6 in the last three seasons. Yes, they’ve won 30 straight over unranked teams and 22 straight at home. We’ve heard it all before, and I’ve used those stats myself whenever I’m in one of my apologist moods. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t matter without a championship.

The Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in 2016 and blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. It don’t mean a thing without the ring.

I don’t like to think in absolutes, but I’m at a breaking point (apologies to Ara Parseghian). Brian Kelly has only beaten one team in his entire Notre Dame tenure that has finished in the top five, and it was a Michigan State team in 2013 that was unranked at the time. Credit to him for the way he has turned the program around from when it went 4-8 in 2016, but the formula he has in place hasn’t gotten the job done. Maybe it will this Saturday, but all the evidence points to the contrary.

I know Kelly won’t be let go after this year regardless of outcome because he just signed an extension through 2024 and COVID-19, etc. But the best course of action, assuming that he doesn’t beat Clemson once and assuming the University actually wants to win a national championship in the near future, would be for Jack Swarbrick to go get someone else and see if he could get the program over the hump that it seems Brian Kelly can’t.

When Kelly was asked about Notre Dame’s struggles against top competition in his Monday press conference this week, he became characteristically defensive. He rebuked the idea that this game against Clemson is a “measuring stick” for the Irish program.

In what world is it not a measuring stick game for the Notre Dame program? How can Brian Kelly be so obtuse? In what universe is this not a barometer for a team that hasn’t beaten or been the No. 1 team in the country in over 25 years (excluding the vacated 2012 season, and even then, as the No. 1-ranked team, they were decimated by Alabama in the national championship)?

I have to think that Kelly is smart enough to realize that what he has been doing so far in South Bend isn’t good enough. Beating every team that you should beat is not “The Standard” — to borrow the phrase with which Notre Dame’s marketing department branded their practice t-shirts. “The Standard” is being the team that no other team is supposed to beat.

“The Standard” is not graduating champions if the players you’re graduating aren’t actual national champions (and no, an ACC Championship doesn’t count, even for this one season). At a school like Notre Dame, graduation rates are important, but they don’t set you apart from the likes of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis — three individuals who are decidedly not “The Standard” for a school whose coaches include Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian.

Let’s be real. Notre Dame is never going to recruit the same volume of talented players that is commonplace for Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Ryan Day, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley. There are always going to be limitations on Notre Dame. But that doesn’t change “The Standard” of winning championships.

Notre Dame still gets the occasional five-stars (e.g. Michael Mayer) and players who surpass expectations to become five-star caliber (e.g. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Kyle Hamilton). You can play with those pieces and develop a strategy that can beat the highest-level teams.

Well, maybe Brian Kelly can’t, but others clearly can.

Jeff Brohm led Purdue to a win over Ohio State in 2018. Pat Narduzzi led Pittsburgh to beat Clemson in 2016. Alabama not unfrequently loses to Gus Malzahn and Auburn, and Notre Dame is better than Auburn. But apparently Brian Kelly is not better than Gus Malzahn.

How about looking at it this way: Last season, LSU went undefeated and won the national championship with a historically great team. That team beat opponents who finished No. 2, No. 4, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 14 and No. 25 in the final AP Poll.

Notre Dame hasn’t had to run that gauntlet, but I would hope Brian Kelly realizes that in order to win a national championship in the College Football Playoff era, you are inevitably going to have beat at least two of the top four teams in the country because that’s literally what makes up the bracket.

For a team that still has yet to prove, under its current head coach, that it can beat the best teams in college football, a home showdown with the No. 1 team in the country sure seems like a measuring stick game to me, not just for the program, but for its coach.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a guy who wants to see a Notre Dame win because it’s the only thing that can make me feel better after one of the grimiest presidential elections in American history.

So, Brian, on behalf of every Notre Dame fan who feels like they need a shower after Nov. 3, allow me to paraphrase Dr. Evil: Throw us a frickin’ bone here!

You can do that by getting a win that is long overdue. Oh, and while we’re at it, maybe, since the University is pushing another “Irish Wear Green” game, you could have your team wear green as well. Just a thought.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden