This afternoon I watched the press conference introducing Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s next new football coach. I’m on board. In fact, I’ll admit now that by the end of the 2008 football season I was advocating with those who would listen that Kelly was my pick to succeed Charlie Weis back then.
I liked that Kelly had built programs that had needed help, and I liked that he had coached at various levels, including Division II. I like the way Division II does football (although I think they call it something else now).
I’m glad Weis got another year, though. It made things more definite, and it allowed him to find a place as a loyal son of Notre Dame, a more sympathetic figure than he had been at the end of 2008. It just seems to me that the puzzling 2009 season brought the Weis era to a more satisfactory conclusion. For whatever reasons, his teams just couldn’t win. But he leaves now, I think, without acrimony or ill will. Just unfortunate in certain ways.
I watched the Kelly press conference online, sitting at my desk. It reminded me that I had attended the Gerry Faust announcement live and in person. I was 28, a young alum back at my alma mater as an employee. I was pretty fired up. Somebody more dynamic, more enthusiastic, more human than Dan Devine. Somebody who really gets the place, has passion. So it goes.
Kelly did well. He said good things. I liked his demeanor, his confidence, his conviction, his ardor. I really like that he’s got a proven record of success as a head coach at the college level. Notre Dame — oddly, if you think about it — hasn’t hired such a coach since Lou Holtz took over as the Faust era expired. I think Kelly will succeed here, but I don’t feel like I did in 1980 at the Faust press conference.
The years, the seasons, the drought, the coaching changes have all taken their toll. The hopes and expectations are different these days. I’m not as emotionally invested. I, too, wonder about all the factors that make Notre Dame unique and what that all means for success on the football field. We all know those conversations. We hear them, too, in the national media — the folks who cover Notre Dame so eagerly and yet question how relevant the place still is.
One of the story lines I found most compelling in recent days was what was taking place at Cincinnati as the time drew near for an announcement. I was confident the Kelly announcement was imminent on Thursday. I figured something had to be said before or during the Bearcat football banquet that evening.
Would Kelly tell his team prior to the dinner that he was leaving? How would that feel to him? How would the players respond? What about the fans and school administrators, heading to a banquet to celebrate a 12-0 season and second Big East championship? Plans for a new stadium. Sugar Bowl tickets sold out in hours. Would they hear Kelly announce that he was staying? How would it feel to them — and to him — to bathe in bad news at that moment in time?
I love sports. One of the reasons I do is because of such human dramas, life narratives. Charlie Weis. Brian Kelly. Their families. The assistant coaches. And all the people affected by their work, who feel so much about the places and programs they lead and represent. And the players who deserve coaching that gets the most out of their experience here.
Much of Notre Dame’s self-identity rides on the fortunes of its football program. It’d be really great to feel good about that again.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.