Sunday, January 13, 2013

Kelly's Decision to Stay Ends Tumultuous Week for Irish

What a week, perhaps the biggest in recent Notre Dame history. On one hand, you had the BCS National Championship game, a game in which Notre Dame had not appeared since 1988. On the other, you had a crazy couple days where the Notre Dame faithful sputtered in limbo as the man who brought the Irish back from the depths decided both his future and the future of the program. In the end, losing one (the National Championship game) was not nearly as important as coming out on top of the other (retaining Kelly).

I'm still reeling from that loss. I understood going into it that it was going to be a tough matchup; I understood why ND would be an underdog to Alabama even as the number 1 team in the country. But what I was more worried about, more than the supposed advantage in talent, was the advantage in experience. Alabama has done this a few times in the recent past and knew how to handle the long layoff between games, the media hordes, the attention from everyone, from random fans, to fellow students, to the ESPN talking heads, to any idiot with a twitter handle. ND did not - they spent the better part of 45 days being told how their program was back, how they had the top defense in the country, and quite frankly, they didn't know how to handle it.

It certainly showed too, combined with the talent disparity. The Crimson Tide came out firing, using their outstanding duo at running back to literally run over the Irish, later setting up easy play action deep throws. The Irish were reeling from the start, never able to fully recover. The pasting, which I really don't need to go into detail about as it was obvious on its face, show how great of a coach Nick Saban is, how much talent Alabama has on both of its lines and in the offensive backfield, and how athletic and talented their entire defense is. It gave Brian Kelly - who was outcoached, out prepared, and out muscled - valuable experience from the best in the business on how best to prepare his team for such a game.

But at the same time, it must have given Kelly pause as to whether ND, a program that unlike Alabama, does not oversign recruiting classes, medically hardship players that don't really need it, and actually considers and treats their athletes as students, could ever actually get to a point where they could compete with and win a game against the likes of Alabama. Yet, there hadn't been this much positive momentum for the Irish football program in decades. With the top recruiting class in the country, a BCS championship appearance, and a mostly young team returning, fans on the outside thought ND was just taking a step towards being a perennial contender.

And then the news hit this past week that Kelly had interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles. This was the same coach that had said ND was his dream job. This was the same coach who upon his arrival said that "there's a football coach, and then there's the football coach at Notre Dame." This was the coach who had resurrected a dormant Irish football program, in the meantime resuscitating interest from some of the top athletes in the country. And even more that that, this was the coach who said mere days before the news of his interview broke that "leaving Notre Dame is not an option."

I don't blame Kelly for taking an interview, if that's what it was. But I truly feel that even if Kelly was legitimately interested, as indications are now that he's announced he's coming back, he was never going to leave. There are a lot of people who feel ND is one of the best football jobs in the country, regardless of level, and Kelly has seemed tailor-made for the job from the start. I think that this was a move for leverage more than anything.

During the few days after the news broke and before Kelly announced yesterday he was staying, ND fans went through each scenario. Could he be really interested? Is this just a leverage move? If it is just a leverage move, why would he go through this if AD Jack Swarbrick had already indicated Kelly would be getting a raise? Why would he jeopardize a top recruiting class, and actually end up losing one top recruit to Florida?

For me, it boils down to one simple answer: his leverage move wasn't just about improving his situation - it was about improving the entire program's. That kind of move isn't just done with normal negotiations between Kelly's agent and Swarbrick. Also, as an aside I don't believe for a minute that Swarbrick was caught off guard, or that he was furious with Kelly. Swarbrick has proven to be a very able AD who has been just as important to turning the football program around as anyone else. The kind of moves that Kelly wants takes a grandiose gesture that shows how serious he is. In actuality, if ND wants Kelly to stay, they need to make it known they're going to do what it takes, both for Kelly and the program, to make it happen.

Give Kelly what he wants
We won't know the details of what moves he was leveraging for, but I can take a guess. After witnessing the domination at the hands of Alabama on Monday, Kelly knew that even though the Irish program had come so far under Kelly, it still needed to take some steps to not only be able to achieve that kind of success on a regular basis, but actually go into those games with a chance to win. This starts of course with giving Kelly a raise from his "paltry" $2.6 million salary (quite low for a college football coach of his stature), but goes deeper than that with tweaks to the program and its relationship with the university, as well as raises for his assistants.

In college football, you're only as good as your assistants. They work constantly, whether it's contacting recruits, breaking down film, or preparing game plans. Assistants also have an extremely high turnover rate, as they often get blamed for things that go wrong or take a raise to go elsewhere after a short duration at a school. For all their work - driving recruiting, daily work with players, sacrificing family life - they receive relatively little credit and significantly less money. Yet, in recent years bigger programs have started to reward these assistants with huge contracts. Look across the college football landscape and you'll see some unbelievable salaries for assistant coaches.

For Kelly, his growth this year as a football coach wasn't just in his dealings with his own players, but recognizing the strength of his staff. After last season, when he lost a few staff members to Urban Meyer, Kelly started to understand the importance of having a loyal, intelligent, and cohesive staff. He knew these guys loved Notre Dame and working for him, but he also knows that if they're underpaid they'll head elsewhere to ensure that they can provide security for their families. Thus, after this season, when the assistant coaching was fantastic, I think Kelly flirted with the NFL in part to be able to demand more money to provide to his assistants. Keeping those guys around - guys like Bob Diaco, Tony Alford, Bob Elliot, Harry Hiestand, Chuck Martin, and Kerry Cooks - will provide continuity for the program heading forward and prevent any steps back in recruiting or position coaching.

All of this notwithstanding, the most important thing Kelly is leveraging for are tweaks for the program. Much like the university did for Lou Holtz in the 80s, Kelly presumably wants to be able to take more kids who wouldn't necessarily qualify right off the bat at Notre Dame. Now, don't misconstrue this for lowering overall academic standards at the university, because the school would rather let Kelly walk than lower their sacrosanct academic standards. No, this is more tweaking things to allow kids who are missing a core class, for example, make it into Notre Dame. A good example of this is Tony Rice. Rice, who won a national championship as the QB under Holtz in the late 80s, needed a special admittance to get into school. While there, he underwent all the same rigors a normal ND student did, led the football team to great success, and graduated at the end of his tenure.

A great working duo
Changes like these are important and at the same time achievable. Kelly isn't asking to lower the standards to be able to recruit athletes they currently can't. Instead, he's asking ND to take a chance on some kids who he believes will succeed at ND because of their work ethic, previous success in the classroom, and support group around the recruit, but for some reason can't get into school. This happened last year with top recruit Tee Shepard, who was missing a few classes ND requires on his transcript. Instead of allowing him into school to make up the work and receive the support he needs, he was denied admission. It all comes down to dealing with "risky" kids that ND Admissions could admit, but generally don't to avoid the chance they don't succeed in school.

The Irish deal with several recruits every year in this regard. They dealt with it this year with another recruit who was missing a language class, and there are several more every year who we don't even hear about. These aren't kids who don't have the grades or academic attitude to make it to ND; for some reason, they are missing a few classes. Traditionally, these students are deemed risky by ND, and they just don't get admitted. What Kelly is probably arguing is that admitting these kids into the strong support group they have at ND will bring out their strong academic work ethic and give them the support they need. Would Tony Rice have a Notre Dame degree right now if Holtz hadn't asked for and received the same? It's not asking too much. They're not asking to take a kid who bombed his ACT or SAT. And taking some of these kids every year, who just so happen to be great athletes, could help bridge the gap between ND and Alabama. Well, at least until the point where we can compete.

Notre Dame is special. They're special because of their tradition, their academic excellence, and the way they approach the game, on and off the field. It's construed as arrogance by many, but in all reality, ND is a family all striving to achieve a common goal of excellence. ND prides itself on their stringent academic standards and the fact that all athletes are students first. Perhaps those who cast off ND as being arrogant are simply jealous, but I personally think that it's hard to hate a program that does things the right way.

Kelly knows this. It's his biggest recruiting pitch. He preaches to recruits and their families the importance of choosing a college as a 40 year decision, not a 4 year decision. As the 30 for 30 documentary "Broke" will attest, there is no guarantee of the NFL Financial Jackpot. But at the same time, Kelly knows that certain kids deemed too "risky" by the ND admissions staff aren't risky in reality, but just need the support that the ND family can provide. Kelly and his staff recruit these kids. They know them well, and get to know their family. If Kelly, who understands and appreciates the academic standards at ND so much that he uses it as his primary recruiting pitch, thinks a kid can succeed at ND, I think we should believe him.

And really, that's what it all comes back to. ND is a family. That family is there to help kids, and it's what draws recruits, students, fans, and observers to ND, as it has for decades. Kelly is part of this family now, and at the end of the day he flirted with the NFL in an effort to best improve a big part of that family, the football program. The team brings the entire ND family together, and shows that doing things the right way in modern college football can still coincide with success. I'll admit that for a few days there, I was on edge, wondering if the man who had taken this ND family back to football prominence was going to return. I'm glad he did, for at the end of the day, he was doing what any proud member of the ND family was trying to do - look for any way to take his program to the next level. Kelly looks like he's going to get what he wanted. It's up to him to follow through on his grand plan.