Tis’ the season to be climbing upon Santa’s lap and hoping your wish comes true. In the case of Notre Dame football fans doing so with visions of a new leader for their favorite program in 2017, they need to be very cautious in what they are dreaming of. For if veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly is pushed out the door (or leaves on his own volition), this is a program that will have a difficult time finding someone that would do a significantly better job than he has.
No writer has been more critical of Kelly than me, but for those in the Irish Nation that believe that they can do better than a guy who is the winningest active coach in the FBS as of this morning’s sunrise, they are only half-right.
Would a coach of the stature of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, or Jim Harbaugh do better? More than likely.
Would anyone better than Kelly be willing to come to South Bend as his replacement in the next month? No chance.
It’s easy to post a venomous tweet espousing your disgust with a 4-8 record. But if you are calling for a change, you better have a “Plan B” in place that would be an improvement and that is the crux of my argument.
Kelly hasn’t been great in leading Notre Dame, but he is as good as this program is going to get at this time, so any hopes that he’ll be fired – or reports that he is trying to leave – is… in the words of outgoing Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones, “garbage.”
And I agree.
Kelly not only will be back – his words, not mine – for the 2017 season, he deserves to return.
“Absolutely,” Kelly said following his team’s loss Saturday at USC, “I’ll be back.”
My support of Kelly isn’t excusing the past three months of football; not by a long shot. It’s been abysmal in all three facets of play, as it was - at times - Saturday.
In fact, I’m not going to even try to reason a lot of the negative things that have occurred under Kelly’s watch. This road traveled over the past seven seasons has been anything but smooth. However, putting everything into context, Kelly’s time at Notre Dame – though not spectacular – has been pretty good. And this program would have a very difficult time hiring someone that would be markedly better.
“When you’ve been in the business a long time,” Kelly said, “you think you’ve got a track record of what you’ve done. But you’re also at a high profile institution like Notre Dame and expectations are high and you’ll have to answer the questions when you have a year like this.”
— Michael Bertsch (@NDsidBertschy) November 27, 2016
Kelly deserves the opportunity to rectify this poor performance and there are a lot of reasons as to why. Like 105 of them.
Of the 113 players on the 2016 Notre Dame roster, 105 of them have eligibility remaining. Included in that number are 55 of the 61 players listed on the latest Irish depth chart.
Also, it is important to keep in mind that prior to Saturday; Notre Dame’s seven defeats were by a total of 32 points. Yes, those losses were to oft-mediocre teams that the Irish had no reason to be battling fiercely. But given the youth of this program, and the fact that Kelly’s track record with the Irish has been solid, he – and the players – deserves a chance for redemption.
Another reason Kelly should be back is the fact that this program is on solid footing. Not perfect footing, as the arrests earlier this season showed, but solid footing. And yes, I am aware of the NCAA sanctions handed down last week in making that assessment.
Should Kelly have disciplined those arrested players more harshly? In my opinion, certainly.
Has there been a single public misstep by those players since? No.
I’m not making excuses, just stating a fact, in that sometimes bad situations arise in intercollegiate athletics, especially at the highest levels. Few programs are immune to such.
As far as the NCAA sanctions go, if the issue originated due to the actions of a university employee or booster, then that is a severe problem. But this was a lone college kid ignorantly helping the ignorant, and by the way, the NCAA praised effusively the efforts of Notre Dame in its handling of the situation.
Kelly absolutely has had his problems in guiding this program, and I’ve written on every one of them. However, he has graduated his players, followed NCAA rules, won a lot of games and developed his student-athletes both on and off of the field. Maybe not to the satisfaction of many, but he has done those things well enough to earn another season (at least) to prove his ability to guide this program.
“He’s a great coach,” Jones concluded. “Just because we have one trip up doesn’t mean he should be fired.”
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, I’m not going to debate that point with Jones.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.