Far Afield: You enthuse, you lose

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

I wish I still had my “Faust Fever” hat — and not just for the early-’80s hipster kitsch of its ironed-on letters and canary-yellow brim. (Although, there is that.) The hat has cautionary value now, a polyester-mesh warning about the perils of premature enthusiasm.

Recent seasons have diminished that affliction among Notre Dame football fans. If things don’t go well, and fast, Brian Kelly could be the coach who eradicates unreasonable expectations forever. Blame Faust Fever — and its more recent Davie, Willingham, and Weis strains — for this uneasy, half-empty feeling on the eve of a new era.

It’s for the best. Pessimists are harder to disappoint. What’s unfortunate is that Kelly (no relation, unless he wins big, then it’s “Uncle Brian”) merits more hope than any new coach since Lou Holtz — and maybe even more than the lisping magician himself. The temptation toward optimism is strong with this one. Must resist. But . . .

Kelly’s record is impressive, his offenses prolific, his personality politic. His tenure at Cincinnati, though brief, compares favorably to Ara Parseghian’s at Northwestern and Holtz’s at Arkansas. Plus, he’s been at this a long time, logging more years as a head coach(*) and arguably better college accomplishments before receiving the Irish scepter than even those boldfaced names. What’s not to like?

(*)I know, I know. Grand Valley State, where Kelly won two national titles, barely counts for more than Gerry Faust’s Moeller High experience in relation to Notre Dame’s high-holy football. Tell that to longtime Youngstown State coach Jim Tressel, whose capacity to forge championship contenders continued at Ohio State.

None of that is to say Kelly will be bronzed, any more than sneering references to his previous employers forebode tar and feathers. All the comparisons and projections, for better or worse, are just the nervous tics of restless fans, offering only the faintest shadow of what’s to come. What’s everybody supposed to do, wait and see? Are you new around here?

The only way to picture what Kelly might become is to recall his predecessors and try to tease out any resemblances. Does he have Ara’s jutting chin, Lou’s charming charisma, Charlie’s itchy trigger-finger, Ty’s stiff upper lip? Or will he become some unholy combination, like one of those Conan O’Brien “if they mated” babies?

At least Kelly did what Conan couldn’t, convincing NBC execs to alter their programming on his behalf. As Irish coaching achievements go, there have been worse than that preemptive act of remote control. Nothing else he has done publicly provides much insight into what Saturdays will look like.

The big question simply has to linger a while longer: was this coaching search, at long last, a rescue mission? Wary fans seem to be withholding their answer with the excruciating patience of spelling-bee contestants — tracing the etymology of the word “Kelly” to be certain that it has no more than two Ls. A prudent response to past hope dashed.

There is no immunity from the imagination, but the lesson of that long lost Faust Fever hat has impeded the rush to embrace. Now I keep the cheesy merchandise of hasty emotion where it belongs: nobody’s taking my “By George, It’s O’Leary” T-shirt.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.