John Riordan: Fighting Irish knocked down by exit of most successful coach ever

Once the most coveted job in American football, Notre Dame lost Brian Kelly to a higher paying role at Louisiana State University
John Riordan: Fighting Irish knocked down by exit of most successful coach ever

Brian Kelly was the head coach of the iconic Notre Dame football team until he jumped ship this week after almost 12 seasons with the best record of any Fighting Irish coach, doing so at the worst possible moment for the college.

When you think of what an Irish-American born in the baby boom generation should look and sound like, they don’t fit the mould much better than Brian Kelly.

Cherub-cheeked and God-fearing, he grew up in a Boston suburb, just north of the Charles River where his father was an alderman and his grandfather was a Boston cop. The generation before that was off-the-boat Ireland-born and the adherence to the perceived ways of the old country was a defining characteristic of how he grew up.

But to cap it all, until a dramatic twist of events late on Monday evening, Kelly was the head coach of the iconic Notre Dame football team. And although he jumped ship after almost 12 seasons with the best record of any Fighting Irish coach ever, he did so at the worst possible moment for the institution.

There’s never a good moment for a head coach to resign from a successful set-up ahead of schedule but the timing was terrible for this current Notre Dame squad and the coaching staff he had built up around him.

The contract he ripped up had him there until 2024 at least and he had just built a new house right next to the campus. In an institution defined by tradition — be it religion or education or other conservative values — it was a slap in the face to lose such an integral part of the family.

What’s more, Kelly was leaving just before the post-season when a degree of success and achievement were looking fairly likely.

College football is a massively profitable enterprise defined by a relatively arcane system of ranking out who may or not be the best team in the country. Pretty recently, a four-team play-off of the top four teams (semi-finals followed by a final) replaced a two-team system. That two-team championship decider, in turn, replaced a scenario whereby a national committee decided who the best team in the country was.

If it seems arbitrary, it technically was but there was normally tacit agreement that an undefeated team with a tougher schedule playing in a more difficult division than another undefeated team elsewhere in the nation earned the right to be crowned national champions.

In the era when the ultimate prize was decided in the committee room, Notre Dame reigned supreme. They enjoyed 11 national titles, 102 seasons in which their win-loss record was greater than 50% and seven Heisman Trophy winners, the award handed out to the best player of the season.

Entire television schedules were built around their Saturday games as the country craved seeing the latest crop of students wearing gold helmets and crashing around the gridiron in front of tens of thousands of fellow students and alumni under the watchful eye of the so-called Touchdown Jesus, a mural on the side of the campus library which looms visibly over one side of the 80,000 seater arena.

In the summer of 2010, Kelly ascended to the hot-seat after a decade or so of putting in the hard yards at much lesser college teams.

Being a Notre Dame supporter was mandatory in his family and his community almost a thousand miles away from South Bend so he was landing his dream job — not to mention the dream job of most coaches everywhere.

That said, they were a vastly diminished force from their most recent dominant spell which petered out in the early 90s. To make matters tragically worse, that first season began in scandal. Kelly took and accepted the brunt of the blame when Declan Sullivan, a young student videographer who was shooting a training session, died after the platform he was on collapsed in the middle of a storm. The coach was vilified for going ahead with the session during the wildly adverse conditions.

He had a lot of work to do but he did it. He led the Fighting Irish to the national championship final twice and he saw to it that they were a consistent topic in the reckoning for the final four up to and including this season.

When he called a dawn meeting of his players on Tuesday morning to confirm his departure, he was addressing a room full of young men who he had recruited and from whom he had garnered a huge degree of trust in his plan. He spoke for over three minutes, told a room of almost 100 people how much he loved them for buying into his dreams for him, them, and the college. Then he walked out.

Notre Dame had just rounded out their regular season with a win at Stanford and talk of making it through to the semi-finals was becoming a little more realistic, But the message was clear to this group of players — he was never going to win a national title with them because they weren’t ever going to be in a position to be good enough.

There are some obvious incentives as to why he would leave a football programme at which for a dozen seasons he had lifted the Fighting Irish back up to a level they had been toppled from for too long.

If the question is why would Brian Kelly leave his dream job as the head football coach at Notre Dame for what could potentially be a $100m contract over the course of the next 10 years at Louisiana State University, the clue is probably in there somewhere.

Maybe it’s better to ask it a different way... why would he cut ties with the infamously clingy Catholic university in South Bend, Indiana and suddenly take off down south — deep down south to the Bayou — to take up residence in Louisiana’s state capital Baton Rouge, not far down the road from one of the greatest cities in the world, New Orleans?

And as if the insult wasn’t cutting enough for Notre Dame’s top brass and all-important alumni alike, there is also an implied step-up in the ability to recruit top players. Much is made of the exacting standards demanded of Notre Dame footballers who must also be good or great students. Sadly, that can be restrictive for many footballers who have their eyes set on the NFL and not a degree.

In the southern schools where the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is supreme, a coach like Kelly has a little more leeway to bring in players that don’t necessarily need to be fully attentive during class. At LSU, he will be competing with the insatiable appetites of the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, and Ole Miss to bring in top recruits and this will be done at all costs.

On that theme, Kelly has left behind a little bit of a mess. As the rumours swelled Monday and the story quickly stood up that he had accepted the lucrative offer to head south, his blindsided boss, Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, was forced to scramble and call the various assistant coaches who were out on the road recruiting the next batch of players, urging them for calm. The fear was that a prospect and his family would look unkindly on the sudden upheaval and consequently look elsewhere for a football scholarship.

When the updated rankings emerged on Tuesday, there was some strong evidence that the committee looked unfavourably on Kelly’s exit. I personally had no idea until that point that right there listed in the committee’s protocols was the proviso that each committee member is allowed to determine if they believe that the absence of a coach “likely will affect” a team’s performance.

Which makes sense but does it account for the head of steam built up around the dismay of the young players feeling abandoned by the man who moved mountains to bring them into the squad? These besieged players are on a mission now but it matters little because Notre Dame slipped down to sixth and their slight chance of a final four berth dramatically diminished to impossible.

The next Notre Dame visit to Dublin for a regular season game is less than two years away when they’ll take on Navy. They’ll bring the usual pageantry and eager spending in pubs, restaurants, and golf courses. But they’ll be hoping to do so as a recovered institution following this week’s brutal setback.

- @JohnWRiordan

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