Taking a Realistic Look at the State of Notre Dame Football

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There are a few factions of Notre Dame fans. One faction — let’s call them “traditionalists” — is frustrated about Notre Dame’s recent struggles. In fact, it may actually be more appropriate to say that this faction is downright mad, and much of that anger centers around Notre Dame’s head coach, Brian Kelly.

Traditionalists remember Notre Dame as a storied program — a program that, for the better part of six decades (roughly 1940 through the mid-1990’s) were losing three games at most under the likes of the legendary coaches for which the gates of Notre Dame Stadium are named: Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz. Three-loss seasons were a failure, not an accomplishment. Notre Dame was a premier program with premier talent. In a twenty-five-year period from 1967 until 1992, the Irish football program pumped out twenty-four 1st-round NFL Draft picks, such as Alan Page, Tony Hunter and Tim Brown, just to name a few.

But in the twenty years since Lou Holtz left South Bend after the 1996 season, the Irish have gone 150–99, meaning the Irish average 7.5 wins and 5 losses per season, giving them a winning percentage in that time period of just over 60%.

It’s been a long twenty years for Irish fans who heard their fathers discussing the great teams of the 40’s and beyond and got their fair share of Notre Dame greatness through the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. It’s perhaps been even longer for Irish fans who witnessed the greatness of the 40’s and beyond and see the same team struggling for relevancy nearly 80 years later.

In the eyes of these “traditionalists,” Brian Kelly fits into a category right along with his three immediate predecessors Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis. That category is likely titled something along the lines of “Mediocre” or “Frustratingly Average.” For them, Kelly’s Notre Dame record of 59–31 and his winning percentage of 65.5% just doesn’t cut it.

For traditionalists, the bottom line is winning and nothing short of excellence on the field is acceptable.

But there is another faction of Irish fans that weighs in on the Brian Kelly discussion. Let’s call them “modernists.” Modernists are much more optimistic about the state of the program. Their glass-half-full attitude is nice, but traditionalists find it somewhat preposterous.

Their optimism is fueled by the “newness” that surrounds the program since Brian Kelly was hired prior to the 2010 season. Modernists love the Shamrock Series that allows Notre Dame to play in an alternate uniform at a neutral field. They love the loud hip-hop music that booms through the stadium before games and during timeouts. They love that there is a monogram “ND” logo in the center of a field of artificial turf. They love the larger-than-life video board that adorns the south endzone of Notre Dame Stadium.

Football-wise, these modernists cling to exciting recruits and they remember with fondness the season the Irish clung to an undefeated regular season just for the chance to play in a National Championship game. Even following the struggles of a 4–8 season, modernists cling to a slogan of “Next year will be different. Watch.”

This modernist movement of Notre Dame Football has been an interesting one — one that has brought what one might describe as an antiquated program into the 21st century. Perhaps the best part of this movement is the buzz that it has created in South Bend.

For modernists, Notre Dame Football is fun. There have been a few exciting moments in the current regime and the Notre Dame game day experience is like no other.

The Resolution

Both sides of the argument come off as somewhat extreme in their feelings and their criticisms of the other side. Traditionalists say “that’s nice, but a video board means nothing without an elite team to play under it. Seven or eight wins per season isn’t good enough for Notre Dame.” Modernists respond with, “Seriously… we made a championship five seasons ago and have won 10 games twice under Brian Kelly’s watch. And those recruiting classes — woah.”

The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle. There isn’t really a name for it because, well, let’s face it, not many truly see the truth.

The truth about the Notre Dame Football program is that it probably won’t produce the type of dynasty that was seen under the likes of Leahy, Parseghian, Devine or Holtz. The Irish face too many challenges to recruit the way Nick Saban does at Alabama or Urban Meyer does at Ohio State. There is some credence to the argument that a small, Midwest private school of about 8,000 undergraduates in the middle of nowhere doesn’t create the perfect draw for many of the most-hyped high school athletes. Academics and a strict code of conduct, as has been well-documented in recent days and years, holds the Irish back in many ways, as well.

Without relaxing standards, Notre Dame likely won’t return to the type of powerhouse it was under Parseghian.

Still, the talented kids who relish holding themselves to a higher standard, who want to be challenged in ways other than the football field, and who see the University as one of the country’s best measuring sticks of future success will continue to matriculate to South Bend and the football program is all the better for bringing in those types of players.

That said, seven or eight wins per season isn’t good enough.

Notre Dame Football needs to find the happy medium between the two extremes of having National Championship expectations year-in and year-out and the feeling that the buzz and excitement created by the football team is good enough.

Currently constructed, Notre Dame has a program that wins seven or eight games per season, on average, and then is really satisfied with the few times that it wins nine or ten games in a season. The 2017 season needs to be a season where the Irish flip the script and catapult the program to one that wins nine or ten games per season, on average and is really satisfied with the times it finds itself in the College Football Playoff.

To whatever extreme theory one might subscribe, the facts are as such: The Notre Dame Football program under Brian Kelly is better off entering 2017 season than it was before Kelly took over after Charlie Weis’ consecutive seasons of 3–9, 7–6 and 6–6.

The good news is that Kelly has realized the magnitude of the task he faces when it comes to guiding the program through taking the next step. He has re-invented the way he operates and has delegated major steps of the process into the capable hands of some of the nation’s best assistant coaches, all while maintaining a steady flow of talent to South Bend.

When the excitement and the buzz is met with success on the field, the Irish will once again be a great program.

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