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The next head coach and the Notre Dame charism

| Thursday, December 2, 2021

Dear students, 

I have a secret. Not few of your professors, including this one, pay a lot of attention to sports. I rejoice when I have students on the hockey team, soccer teams and both basketball teams. Your joys are my joys. Your sorrows are my sorrows. 

Now, I’m a weird professor. I teach at Notre Dame. I went here. I saw the 2000-2001 women’s basketball team win the national championship. I delighted in fencing and women’s soccer national championships.

And I endured football. I mean, I loved it. Every game was a marshmallow game in the early days of the aughts. But we lost. A lot. To University of Southern California. To Florida State University. To Boston College. Gulp, Boston College. 

In 2009, I was returning from a job interview at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. I bombed it. Days earlier, my beloved alma mater had fired its head football coach, Charlie Weis. I sat in a Phoenix airport tequila bar and I saw the news. Brian Kelly was hired. 

Little did I know that Brian and I would eventually share the same hiring year. Days after LMU told me, “No, we definitely don’t want you,” I received a phone call. There’s a job at Notre Dame. What do you think? 

I jumped. As an alum, who wouldn’t? So, I was there at the beginning. Brian’s first game versus Purdue. Brian’s abysmal game versus Tulsa (where we lost on the most idiotic of decisions I’ve seen in the history of football, while also mourning the loss of a student who died in an accident at the football practice field). 

During the 2012 national championship year where we went undefeated. Until Alabama reminded us, you can be very defeated.

I was there in 2016. When we lost. A lot. To Northwestern. To Louisville. To Navy (I was actually in a hotel in central Illinois, but it misses the point). 

I was there when things changed. When we began to beat (almost) everyone. I was there when we beat Clemson in 2020. I wanted to rush the field with you. I almost did. 

And I’m there with you now.

Brian left us for Louisiana State University. It’s not the end of the world. There are real problems out there. COVID-19. Poverty. Polarization. Religious disaffiliation. 

But I want to highlight, out of all of this, that there is two things Brian never got. Not once. At least publicly. 

First, the fact that our student athletes must go to class, that they must make the investment in learning is not a deficit. Later in Brian’s career, he seemed to sort of get it. It took a while. But our athletes are first students. Later, some of you will make millions (or tens of thousands depending on your sport). But you were once the roommate of random person, who is majoring in biochemical engineering, gender studies or even theology.

That’s the gift of Notre Dame. It really is. It should level hierarchies, because in the end, we owe it to you (as your professors) to give you an education. You’re not famous to us. You’re just students.

What Brian Kelly never understood was religion.

I don’t mean the religion of the SEC, where I grew up. That’s where Brian went. It’s the sacred rites of Saturdays in the South.

I mean Catholicism.

That Notre Dame isn’t a brand. It’s a person. Her name is Mary, the Mother of God.

Not all of you are religious, not in the least. I know. I’ve taught you. You’ve told me. But this is what I do know. What makes Notre Dame isn’t brand identity. It’s certainly not how much we’ll pay our football coach. It’s that we want all of you to ask the biggest questions.

What is the meaning of life? What is justice, and how do we pursue it? Is there an ultimate meaning much bigger than financial benefit? Success? Power? Prestige? Even revenge against one’s sporting rival (can we book a home-and-home with LSU, yet?). 

The meaning of life is God. Not an abstract God functioning as a sugar daddy.  

The Mother of God, who bore in her womb the Incarnate Word. The God who emptied himself in love. 

At least publicly, Brian Kelly never understood that about Notre Dame.

It’s why I still root for my students. Because I love them. Not in some abstract way. Not because of your name, image or likeness potential. But because I want you to flourish, to become human beings who dedicate you whole lives to the scandalous logic of love unto the end. To justice. To friendship. To commitment. 

I hope our next head coach for football, whoever it is, gets this aspect of Notre Dame’s identity. 

And wins a National Championship.

Over LSU. Against Brian Kelly. 45-21. 


Tim O’Malley, Ph.D.

Nuptial Mystery Professor Extraordinary

Dec. 2

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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