Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 17, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 53 of 55

54 SEPT. 17, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED I n the world of major college coaching, longevity can be both a blessing and a curse. When a coach experiences immense success over time it's because of "maintaining conti‑ nuity and a standard." If he begins to falter, though, it's because "the program has gone stale and needs new blood" — experiences that even Digger Phelps (1971‑91) and Lou Holtz (1986‑96) un‑ derwent at Notre Dame. For current Notre Dame head basketball coaches Muf‑ fet McGraw, entering her 32nd season with the Fighting Irish women, and Mike Brey, now in his 19th year with the men, it's evolved into the former. What is easily forgotten is along the way they also expe‑ rienced plenty of teeth cutting and gnashing in their roles. In McGraw's fifth and sixth seasons the huge expectations for the program because of sudden recruiting success turned into 14‑17 and 15‑12 results. She remains thank‑ ful today that she was given the time and patience — and that Irish wom‑ en's basketball was not yet high pro‑ file enough — to "learn on the job." As with McGraw, one will not meet a more genuine, down‑to‑earth indi‑ vidual than Brey. However, it took him 15 seasons before his popularity truly blossomed among Notre Dame faithful. In his third season back in 2002‑03, Brey led the Irish to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years … but then his program hit a plateau and even began to backslide. Over his next 11 seasons Notre Dame won only two NCAA Tourna‑ ment games, and in year 14 (2013‑14) it finished under .500 — 15‑17 over‑ all, 6‑12 in the ACC debut. The Brey era ostensibly had gone stale and run its course. Maybe it was blind faith on my part, but I always believed Brey was too good a coach not to make another run to at least the Sweet 16, and even the Elite Eight. That ensued in both 2015 — along with an epic run to the ACC title, which I thought would never be possible at Notre Dame — and 2016. This year he is welcoming his best overall group of recruits into the program with a sparkling new practice facility about to open. Usually, when a coach stays as long as Brey did through 14 years with‑ out much team hardware, the natives become restless and want a change. Brey became the anomaly in that the longer he has stayed, the more popu‑ lar he has become. That brings us to Brian Kelly. If someone would have told you back in December 2009, when Kelly was hired, that he would finish 4‑8 in his seventh season, not produce a single major bowl win through that time and only one top‑10 finish — it would have been impossible to fathom he would still be the head coach in years eight and now nine at Notre Dame. I'm not saying Kelly will last 19 years like a Brey, or even more than the "traditional" 11 at Notre Dame for a football coach. However, over the past 12 months I detect a comfort in his own skin and an infrastruc‑ ture esprit de corps with the progress made the past two seasons. Like Brey, Kelly had early success in year three, taking the 2012 Irish the closest they had been to a national title in 19 seasons with a remarkable 12‑0 regular season. Then, as with Brey in bas‑ ketball, the football team pla‑ teaued, hit a status quo level at around 9‑4 … and then touched rock bottom in 2016 with the mind‑numbing 4‑8 meltdown. Part of me did believe the Kelly era had gone rancid and run its course. Another part of me also believed he still had a top‑five finish/ College Football Playoff run in him, just like in 2012, or even in 2009 with the 12‑0 mark at Cincinnati. Like Brey, I believed (or wanted to) he is too good to just wilt and die on the coaching vine. The Irish finished No. 11 last year, defeated four teams that placed in the final Associated Press poll — only the ninth time they achieved the feat since the start of the poll in 1936 — and now they are winning the close games again after defeating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl (21‑17) and No. 14 Michigan (24‑17) to begin the new campaign. At one point from 2012‑14, Kelly's Irish were 12‑2 in games decided by seven points or less, but then in 2015‑ 17 it hit a stretch where they were 1‑7 in such contests. The pendulum may be swing‑ ing Notre Dame's way again … and hopefully this time it might be for the longer term as a "program" while the infrastructure continues to germinate. Our world has become one of in‑ stant gratification, be it with instant messaging, instant delivery, instant food … Every now and then, the wait and patience just might be worth it. Maybe — just maybe — this could be one of those times again. ✦ Is Brian Kelly Notre Dame's Next Late Bloomer? THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Kelly, shown with Muffet McGraw at a Football 101 event, saw his Irish hit rock bottom in 2016. Will he bounce back the way current Notre Dame basketball coaches have in their careers? PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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