Stanford’s strength coach told Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly “bye-bye!” at the end of Saturday night’s game in South Bend.
The event isn’t so much a political indicator as it is a piece of very potent symbolism.
Kelly is an embattled coach sinking into the nothingness of an awful, embarrassing season. Notre Dame began the 2016 campaign as a College Football Playoff contender. At the present moment, the Fighting Irish aren’t even likely to make a bowl game. It’s a spectacular failure, and spectacular failures at Notre Dame won’t be tolerated very long. It’s easy to think that Kelly is a dead coach walking in the shadows of the Golden Dome.
Sometimes, the easy move is the right one.
Sometimes, it’s not.
Personal disclosure: I have never much cared for the way Brian Kelly talks to and about his players. The verbal fire-breathing, the postgame throw-under-the-bus sessions, the purple faces — it’s not an evolved way to coach and relate to players. Anger and tough love do have their place in coaching, but Kelly’s consistent lack of personal accountability amounts to a lot of excuse-making for his own flaws and failures. It’s unbecoming of any coach, but such behavior is magnified at Notre Dame, where holistic education and the Pauline emphasis on gentle instruction in the Catholic tradition ought to attain a higher priority.
I should, therefore, want Brian Kelly to be gone. I could even revel in his demise if I wanted to.
That’s precisely why this column is necessary, and why (in my mind) it acquires added weight.
Brian Kelly, for all the ways in which I might disapprove of how he conducts himself, shouldn’t be fired — not now, and not at the end of this season. Unless there’s something sinister going on behind the scenes — which there’s absolutely NO reason to suspect or believe — Kelly should get the 2017 season to either save his Notre Dame tenure or bring it to a natural (read: not premature or forced) death.
Before going any further, I’ll make this one concession: It could be the case that Kelly’s relationship skills — his retail politics with his players — are the very reason the team is suffering. If players have tuned him out and are inwardly fed up with his excuses — if THAT is the rot in the system, and administrators firmly identify this as the problem which is devouring the Irish program, Kelly can be terminated right this second.
I suspect, though, that such is not the case. Ergo, he should not be fired.
I’ll admit it up front: There’s a case to be made for firing Kelly. The quarterback position has become unstable when it should have been an unwavering strength, and Kelly’s handling of his signal-callers has played a noticeable role in creating volatility. When Everett Golson led the Irish to the BCS title game in the 2012 season, the program’s future seemed endlessly bright. Four years later, Notre Dame doesn’t have too much to show for its efforts. One can legitimately say that Kelly has left money on the table, although being independent has itself prevented Notre Dame from winning division and league championships, both core measurements of year-to-year college football success for most programs.
Yes, a case can be made for giving Kelly a pink slip in six minutes, six hours, or six weeks.
However, the reasons for keeping Kelly own more weight than the reasons for shoving him out the door.
One thing to note is that as much as Kelly has thrown his players under the bus over time, they have historically continued to play hard for him — not necessarily well or with precision, but consistently hard. If Kelly’s behavior really was getting in the way of his players’ performance and attitude, such a dynamic would have manifested itself long ago.
Another point to make is that while Notre Dame has fallen short of its larger goals more often than it would like, Kelly has shown an ability to rebound from unsatisfying seasons. The 2012 joyride followed an 8-5 season in 2011. The success of 2015 followed a miserable crash-and-burn November in 2014. Kelly and his players demonstrate resilience. Notre Dame is not where it was in the early 1990s under Lou Holtz, but it’s closer to that great height than it is to the final years of both Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. Notre Dame is better — on balance — under Kelly than it was under Bob Davie.
Does Notre Dame really want to jettison Kelly before giving him a chance to mend 2016’s brokenness in 2017?
If anyone reading this is uncertain, though — a very reasonable reaction to contrasting pieces of evidence on both sides of the debate — the tiebreaker, at least to me, is found in East Lansing, Michigan. Brian Kelly’s best reason for staying on in South Bend is one of his brother coaches in the Midwest.
It is impossible to avoid noticing that Notre Dame — which was once losing 50-47 and 38-35, hemorrhaging points — is now losing 10-3 and 17-10, unable to score. Really bad teams go through those patterns, when the team is just good enough to lose. Two sides of the ball both display potential, but NEVER play well at the same time on the same gameday. For many — and this is a reasonable inclination — Notre Dame’s volatility is a sign that the coach has to go.
This is where Mark Dantonio comes into play.
Dantonio is enduring much the same season Kelly is. Michigan State scored only 21 points against Indiana and only six against Wisconsin. This past Saturday, the Spartans scored 40 against Northwestern at home. Normally, that would mean a comfortable 20-point win. Instead, the offensive explosion led to a 14-point loss. The 54-40 setback is proof of the same disease Notre Dame is suffering. Whatever the situation is, only one side of the ball plays well at a given point in time for the Spartans. This season has spun violently out of control for Dantonio; Kelly is in the same burning boat.
No one is saying Dantonio should be gone… and rightly so.
What, then, is the real issue here? Is it that Kelly hasn’t won quite as often as Dantonio? The point is irrefutable, but it raises the follow-up: Is Kelly being judged by Dantonio’s standards? If measurement relative to Dantonio is the basis upon which a hire-or-fire decision is being made, something’s wrong. Kelly’s predecessors in South Bend should be the proper point(s) of evaluation.
Know this: For virtually every great coach — it happened to Urban Meyer at Florida, too — a season does occasionally get away. Before he moved to the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carroll lost the plot in 2009. If the NCAA had been fair with USC, Carroll might have righted the ship in 2010, but the larger point is that even he couldn’t keep an airtight seal on various seasons. One eventually got away, and the competition — at least within the context of one autumn — captured him.
Fair points can be made for firing Brian Kelly, but in the end, there’s no trump card other than his conduct toward players… and only if it is established with great clarity and unity in the Notre Dame camp that said behavior is the only reason players aren’t performing on Saturdays. If the behavioral issue is not the issue, there’s no overwhelmingly convincing reason to prevent Brian Kelly from coaching in 2017.
Mark Dantonio can relate to Kelly’s situation better than any other man in America.