The Fighting Irish finished the 2016 football season with four wins and eight losses, one of the worst Irish performances in fifty-some years, and only the second losing season in Head Coach Brian Kelly’s 23 year career. This comes at a period of relative mediocrity for the Notre Dame Football Program. The Irish have not won a national championship in over thirty years. How then, can the pomp and circumstance of this program be continually justified?
After such a historically terrible season, it is quite natural to be concerned with and distrustful of the current administration. That said, a single bad season isn’t justification to fire a coach. It’s important to also look at the bigger picture. Brian Kelly has been the head coach of the Fighting Irish for seven seasons now. Under his tenure, the Irish have played in five bowl games, and even a national championship back in 2012. For the vast majority of football programs in the country, this coaching record would be superb. Unfortunately, Notre Dame isn’t like most schools in the country; at least, that’s what the administration keeps trying to convey.
The fact of the matter is, under Kelly, the Irish have been good — even great — but they’ve never been extraordinary. In the past seven years, there have only been two seasons where Notre Dame had the potential to challenge for a national championship, and only one season where they actually did. That 2012 season, where the Irish went undefeated through twelve games, still resonates in the heart and minds of Irish fans.
Many will argue that because of that season, Kelly should be given a lot more time, because for the first time in a while, Notre Dame had the chance to finish as the best team in the country. But how real was that chance? That 2012 squad was one of the most dynamic and cohesive Irish teams in decades, and they still were steamrolled by Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide — a result the majority of sports pundits predicted ahead of time. Even the best Kelly could assemble wasn’t enough.
Then there was the 2015 season. That Fighting Irish team possessed perhaps the most explosive offense Brian Kelly had ever coached. Granted, the team was denied a spot in the College Football Playoff by a last-second, game-winning field goal kick by Stanford, but even so, had they made it, would it have made a difference? Urban Meyer’s Ohio State dominated the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. Would they have had a snowball’s chance against the Crimson Tide?
There is no doubt that Brian Kelly is a good coach, or that he has whole-heartedly embodied what Notre Dame strives to stand for. That does not mean he is the right choice to lead the Irish. When considering Kelly’s future, the athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, needs to decide what he wants Notre Dame to be: a brand, or a championship winning team. By constantly making bowl games with decent records, the Notre Dame name spreads into many households around the country, but that does nothing to push the program forward. For a team as well-known historically and nationally as Notre Dame, the actual Irish performances over the past three decades have, frankly, been embarrassing.
Coach Kelly can consistently deliver wins, but he’s unlikely to ever deliver a championship. He has had a lot of time to settle in and structure the program to his liking–more so than most top coaches. Yet, after all this time, the records are still mediocre, and perhaps more concerning, following a season where the Irish were one missed kick away from the Playoff, this season’s incredible loss of form is absolutely unexplainable, and probably the best sign that Kelly’s time in South Bend should come to an end.
At the moment, though, Notre Dame is in a bit of a difficult situation. There do not seem to be many coaches available who are more capable at leading the Irish. Who would replace Kelly? It is clear that Kelly has performed far better than his past three predecessors, looking at results alone. It seems, however, that he may have reached a plateau. Fighting Irish football has been relatively dormant for quite sometime. If real change is to come, the administration is going to have to take drastic and aggressive action. Otherwise, we are in store for many more years of mediocrity.
Does Notre Dame wish to keep focusing on recruiting more fans it will continue to disappoint, or does it wish to reward its long-time, loyal supporters? Based on the school’s many TV and brand deals, it seems like that question has already been answered.
The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.