The Notre Dame fighting Irish have officially gotten their Christmas wish early this year. On Friday (14 days before X-Mas) former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was announced as the 31st head coach in the history of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program (30th if you omit the short-lived George O'Leary "era"), replacing the much-maligned Charlie Weis after five disappointing and disillusioning seasons.
Storming into South Bend with a glowing resume that features everything from D-II Championships to a perfect 12-0 record with the Bearcats this season, Kelly looks like the best possible suitor the Irish could have possibly hoped for. But taking control of college football's most storied program on the cusp of the continuation of its very relevancy, coach Kelly — in addition to the inherent pressure that accompanies the position — finds himself with the extra burden of likely becoming the man who will ultimately be the defining figure of either the total revitalization or final destruction of one of the most prominent entities in all of sports. He's in a unique position that offers ultimate glory or what could be career-destroying infamy.
Kelly will be in a position to realize instant success and unlike his predecessors, this will likely be expected. Taking over a team that is still well stocked with talent despite the loss of their all-world quarterback and top wide receiver (Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate), the new coach has won with much less at a number of different places without the profile or lineage of Notre Dame.
In his first stop as head coach of the Division II Grand Valley State Lakers, Kelly was absolutely dominant, leading the team to two national championships and going 41-2 in his final three seasons with the school (118-35-2 overall).
And while his 19-16 record at Central Michigan isn't cosmetically impressive, when considering the horrible program Kelly inherited (the team had won over three games only once in the four previous seasons before his arrival) it is clear that Kelly did as well as anyone could feasibly expect. In his three seasons at the helm of the Chippewas, Kelly set the program on the path towards legitimacy, cumulatively peaking in a MAC Conference Championship and a Motor City Bowl victory in his final season with the school in 2006. The team notably featured Kelly recruit, redshirt freshman and Motor City Bowl MVP Dan LeFevour behind center all season. Even this year's CMU team which won the MAC championship and is headed to the GMAC Bowl has Kelly's fingerprints all over it, not to detract from the excellent job of current coach Butch Jones.
In his first trial in a major conference, Kelly continued his ramped success. Taking over a program that had previously experienced only one 10-win season in its entire history, Kelly left the Cincinnati Bearcats with a 34-6 record over four seasons. He took the team to two BCS games (the second of which he will not coach in this season) and garnered two Big East coach of the year honors (in 2007 and 2008) and a Home Depot National Coach of the Year award in 2009 for his unbeaten season, a strong testament to the growing recognition of his skill and success.
Now Kelly will move on once again, to what he referred to in his press conference as his life-long "dream job." The hard nosed but smooth talking coach said all the right things; he is up to the challenges the team faces both academically and athletically, he accepts the responsibility of returning Notre Dame to prominence, and he will uphold the Notre Dame standard of excellence in character among his players, in their work ethic, academic ethic, and in their personal conduct ethic.
"I can tell you today that our football players will continue to represent the model of Notre Dame," he said. "I want tough gentlemen. I want football players that are mentally and physically tough, that will play for four quarters. And I want gentlemen off the field that we all can be proud of."
Brian Kelly realizes that the goal at Notre Dame — realistic or not at this point — is to win national championships (or at the very least BCS bowls) and that anything less will be considered a fatal failure, even after 15 years of losing and ineptitude.
"Those aren't 8-4 years. Those are national championship years," he said. "So any time you're talking about restoring a program and the challenges, it's not about winning the conference championship, it's about winning championships and being in the BCS and being nationally prominent. That's a challenge. We've got to get to work on that."
From an editorial standpoint I believe the Irish have finally made a correct coaching decision. Admittedly, I believed that Charlie Weis would also be a success, but who didn't expect that on some level after the way he orchestrated the offense of the multi-Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots? But Brian Kelly is a true college coach that has proven he can both recruit in difficult situations and execute on the field under less-than-ideal conditions. While the Big East admittedly isn't the conference it once was since the exodus, running the table with the Cincinnati Bearcats is still an impressive accomplishment of note. They may not have Notre Dame's academic standards to contend with but Cincy isn't any closer (especially in state of mind) to South Beach and the Bearcats notably don't have a national TV contract with NBC (or any other network for that matter) which, along with Notre Dame's continued notoriety, bodes well for his chances to continue the quality recruiting that former coach Weis implemented.
Kelly is a coach that fits the traditional Notre Dame mold. He runs a spread offense that is closer to the balanced style historically refered to as "Irish football, with the 2009 Bearcats executing 338 rushing plays (for 1949 yards and 23 TDs) and 427 passes (for 320 yards per game and 36 total TDs) in 2009.
But in reality his fate may lie in large part with his defensive coordinator. And while it is reportedly not clear who will fill this role for Kelly with the Irish, the 2009 Bearcats were very good on defense, allowing only 141 yards rushing and 209 yards passing on average per game. With defense being the obvious and glaring weakness that essentially burried Notre Dame's 2009 campaign, this will be the first area that the anointed and proclaimed "offensive guru" must correct if he expects to find success in South Bend.
Am I drinking the proverbial spiked kool-aid, drunk with the belief that Brian Kelly — the Irish Catholic kid from Boston — will prove to be Notre Dame's savior? I'm far too cynical to become too wrapped up in that type of idealism.
But when examining Coach Kelly's resume and seeing his results on the field, it is hard not to believe that this man, who so obviously bleeds Irish green (he mused about his memories of Ara Parseghian and Joe Montana on the television set of his boyhood home that he described like a scene from Rudy), is not Notre Dame's best possible shot for one final run at a return to their pedestal of the elite before their prominence is lost in the forgotten generations of the past. It is more than likely that if he can't conquer the challenges and accomplish the goals he so stoically and confidently acknowledged on Friday, the prophesied return to prominence of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish may prove to be mere myth instead of actual prophesy.