Why you should care
Because the rumor mill is buzzing.
Chicago’s most important football game in 2012 had nothing to do with the Bears. On a brisk October Saturday, full-fledged Fighting Irish fans took to Soldier Field to watch Notre Dame. They downed whiskey and light beer to numb the fear, unsuspecting that their squad would annihilate Miami and ride out to a surprise undefeated regular season. This time, Irish hearts would remain unripped until January.
Notre Dame was crushed when they lost to Nick Saban’s football factory, Alabama, in the national championship that season — a 42-12 thrashing — but 2012, as a whole, was a massive success. After starting the year unranked, the Golden Domers (gold helmets reflect the golden dome on campus) reclaimed their rightful spot on college football’s Mount Rushmore. Notre Dame’s storied football history — 22 championships, the most Heisman Trophy winners (seven) of any school — keep the institution on the cusp of conversations about pre-eminent college programs. NBC nationally broadcasting every game since 1991 doesn’t hurt either. The leprechaun in the room, though, is that since their last championship in 1988, the Irish have been incredibly mediocre.
When asked how much responsibility he shouldered for the failings of his program, Kelly — the so-called autocratic minister of accountability — replied, “Zero. None.”
So how do they climb back to the top? It starts with consistent leadership that Notre Dame has struggled to find. In 2001, assistant-turned-head-coach Bob Davie, whom, according to lifelong fan Luke Murphy, “set Notre Dame back a half century” with his 35-25 record, was replaced by George O’Leary, who promptly resigned after it was discovered that he forged his résumé. Upstart Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham came onboard, leading Notre Dame to a promising 10-3 record in 2002 before going 11-12 and receiving his walking papers two years later. The perfect man to right the ship was Charlie Weis, an offensive guru and Notre Dame alum with four Super Bowl rings (two as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots). Weis’ tactic of letting prospects pose with his NFL hardware made him a renowned figure on the recruiting trail. After starting the 2005 season 5-2, Weis received a 10-year, $30 million contract extension meant to keep him in South Bend through 2015. But he was fired in 2009 with a five-year record of 35-27, and sustained excellence continues to evade the Irish.
At present, Brian Kelly — a fiery Irishman who has recruited well and, when winning, has won praise as a disciplinarian — is head coach. He leads all active coaches in wins (230), a misleading statistic given that 118 of those came from his time at Division II Grand Valley State University. Four years removed from his 2012 championship run, Kelly’s team posted the worst record (4-8) of his career. One disappointing season shouldn’t put Kelly out of a job, of course, but the NCAA recently vacated all 21 wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons due to academic infractions. When asked how much responsibility he shouldered for the failings of his program, Kelly — the so-called autocratic minister of accountability — replied, “Zero. None.”
Tensions reached a boiling point after an embarrassing season-ending loss to rival USC on November 26. Chatter of insurrection filled social media timelines, and, according to one Notre Dame booster, talk close to the program – including a rumored Thanksgiving meeting between athletic director Jack Swarbrick and college football’s overlord, Saban – has only fanned flames. (Representatives for Notre Dame and Alabama did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment.) Swarbrick recently told the Associated Press that it’s “business as usual” at Notre Dame, claiming that rumors are nothing more than media-driven madness.
Saban, No. 2 on the list of all-time wins behind Kelly, has concocted a program in Tuscaloosa that repeats and replenishes its own dominance with ease. If Notre Dame has a chance to lure Saban away from the Crimson Tide, deep pockets will be the deciding factor. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is the highest-paid college coach with a $9 million salary. At $6.9 million per year, Saban likely wants to set the compensatory bar, and Notre Dame could couple a double-digit salary with the legacy-cementing opportunity to rehabilitate Notre Dame football.
Of course, other, more attainable candidates are available. Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck, is “the best young coach on the market,” according to ESPN analyst Mack Brown. Fleck, 36, is the youngest head coach in football, known for expert recruiting and an ability to connect with millennial and “Gen Z” players. Fleck just led Western Michigan to an undefeated, Mid-American Conference championship-winning season. He’ll likely be whisked off to greener pastures before the bowl game. Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, himself a Saban protégé, is another prospect. But the Spartans’ 3-9 drop-off this season makes him a backup plan at best.
Perhaps most interesting is Jim Tressel, the president of Youngstown State University, a position unaffiliated with the athletic program — a necessary disclaimer, given that Tressel’s waiting out the remaining days of a five-year “show cause” penalty incurred as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. In 10 seasons at OSU, Tressel went 106-22 and 6-4 in major bowl games including a BCS championship title in 2002. Tressel resigned from OSU amid NCAA sanctions related to a lack of “institutional control,” largely due to players trading signed memorabilia for free tattoos. The penalty, forcing any school that hires Tressel to “show cause” for why it shouldn’t be sanctioned too, expires on December 20. So, if Kelly really has coached his last game at Notre Dame, he might find out five days before Christmas.