There is no denying that Notre Dame had a terrible 2016 football season. 4-8 is simply not an acceptable record for an elite college football program. Students, alums, boosters and fans saw bad football this year in South Bend, and they want it fixed.
So what’s the quick and easy solution? Fire the head coach, right? We want top-ranked teams, undefeated seasons and national championship bids like the glory days of 2012! Who was our coach that year, again? Oh yeah, Brian Kelly. And has everyone already forgotten the 2015 playoff-contending 10-2 squad that earned a Fiesta Bowl bid? That was just one season ago.
The fire-Kelly firestorm is premature and illogical. Admittedly, the 2016 season was one of the worst in ND history. But it was also Kelly’s only losing season in seven years at the helm in South Bend. He’s an NFL-caliber coach, adept recruiter and proven winner — he has more career wins than any active Division-1 coach.
Kelly knows his job is in trouble, but he’s repeatedly reiterated his desire to stay. “One side of me says, ‘This is my 26th year, I know what I’m doing.’ On the other side of it, you can’t be surprised when you go 4-8. You’re going to get [questions about job fitness] asked as well,” he says. He could easily take another D-1 job or even an NFL assistant coach spot, but he’s clearly committed to the program and confident in his ability to win.
And who would we replace him with, should we show him the door now? Yes, there are better coaches out there. But the Nick Sabans, Jim Harbaughs and Dabo Swinneys of the world are scarce, and they’re not going anywhere.
Notre Dame faces challenges that make it very difficult to produce a consistently good football team (a la Alabama). Academic standards place heavy restraints on recruiting, and as such, the Irish are forced to endure a cyclical pattern of success. A smaller pool of recruitable high-level players means they can’t always get the sure-bet stars other schools can pull in. Unlike Alabama, ND has down years. This is the case for most teams, and ND fans need to accept it, especially considering these unique circumstances.
Defense and special teams — not the domain of an offensive-minded head coach like Kelly — were the root of the problem this year. The dismissal of five-star safety Max Redfield, a dynamic player poised for a breakout year, was a big issue from the start. Brian VanGorder’s enigmatic system again produced a substandard defense despite skilled personnel. VanGorder’s mid-season firing was the right move, and a better-run defense may be the change we need to turn things around.
Firing Kelly would likely do more harm than good in the short term. Decommits and transfers are always abundant following dismissal of a head coach, and the current roster is simply not deep enough to sustain such losses.
Regarding pending NCAA sanctions to the program, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit thinks Kelly doesn’t deserve all the blame.
“I think he has done a lot of good there. I think you have to hear his side of the story, see how he reacts... I don't think you can say, 'He has had one bad season and now this and then you get rid of him,'” Herbstreit says.
There is every reason to believe things could be much better in the near future. The Irish lost on the last possession seven times this year. Hold the players accountable and stress the importance of finishing, and you’ve got yourself a great season. Kelly is the man who rescued the program from crippling mediocrity and returned it to national relevance. He certainly deserves another chance.
The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.