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The Notre Dame football paradox

| Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Irish fan and the Irish Catholic are in many ways the same: always striving for an impossible standard, looking eternally forward for days when the peak of earthly joy will come. In the Brian Kelly era, this reality has become palpably plain.

Kelly, the winningest coach in school history. Kelly, the leader of a team who made the playoff twice in three years. Kelly, the jovial and reformed head of a program he seemed to be invariably committed to.

But too, Kelly, the red-faced and angry. Kelly, the can’t-win-a-big-game-to-save-his-life. Kelly, the standoffish leader, who can’t seem to connect with his players in the way a Dabo Swinney or Nick Saban can. The Notre Dame fan always wants what she can’t have. I’m not sure that anyone really appreciated Kelly — truly, madly, deeply — until he was gone. Were we really going to erect a statute of him outside of Notre Dame Stadium? Or are we just mad because we got dumped?

At the heart of Kelly’s departure lies a simple truth, unfathomable in the eyes of the Irish fan: that South Bend is not the final destination. What makes Brian Kelly’s departure surprising is not that it happened at all, but that it happened when it did. Kelly wasn’t fired — his 2020 extension made it seem like he’d be in South Bend until 2024. The remarkable reality is that Kelly, seemingly at the height of his collegiate coaching career, wants to be somewhere else but Notre Dame. That, in the hearts and minds of the Irish faithful, is unfathomable.

In the lore of college football, the elusive name, nature and tradition of the Notre Dame make the job as its head coach seemingly the pinnacle of all that is good and holy in the world. That Kelly would prioritize anything over that — be it money, recruiting freedom or even warmer weather — is a shock to the Notre Dame fan’s system. The departure of Kelly reminds us of a stark yet indisputable truth: for as lauded and fabled as his job was, it is one more taxing and difficult than arguably any other in college sport. The recruiting restrictions, the academic constraints, the moral standards, the endowment considerations — Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, classroom standards and virtue prove invariably restrictive. I’m not sure any of those things are present at LSU. The last time a Notre Dame coach left South Bend for another college team was 1907, when Thomas Barry (two seasons) lateraled to Wisconsin. Since that time, there have been 22 Irish head coaches, a few notable names — like Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz — among them. Of those 22, 12 of them, after leaving Notre Dame, never coached college football again.

It’s the Notre Dame paradox — never satisfied, but always the gold standard. The most fabled program in college sports, but one that’s impossibly difficult to manage. Perhaps, as Irish fans, we’ve subjected ourselves (in some ways) to eternal misery. Are we forever subject to our Stockholm Syndrome? With Marcus Freeman, I think not. After 133 seasons, and only one Black head coach, it’s time for Notre Dame to recognize talent, poise, leadership where its apparent. Freeman has the trust of players and recruits, has proven he knows how to win and offers a smooth transition in the Kelly’s seismic wake. Freeman represent a reunification of the program that an outside hire does not. Perhaps the key to the path out of that eternal misery lies is already in the hands of one of Notre Dame’s own — that his name is Freeman is preposterously poetic.

Ellen Geyer

class of 2021

Nov. 30

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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