Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2024

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

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Page 53 of 55

54 JANUARY 2024 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED P icture yourself ranking among the top 2 percent nationally in your highly competitive industry — yet you constantly get carped at or berated about not achieving enough. That is the frustration that boiled over in Brian Kelly in the aftermath of Notre Dame's 31-14 defeat to Alabama in the semifinal of the 2021 Rose Bowl/ College Football Playoff. When the inevitable inquiries about what it will take to be a national cham- pion or perform much better in "the big ones" were asked, Kelly uncharacter- istically lashed out at the media, even about not congratulating him more fre- quently as a bona fide top-five to top-10 program the past four years. "We're going to keep getting back here, and everybody can keep saying Notre Dame is not good enough," Kelly said. "Well, you know what? You're go- ing to have a problem because we're go- ing to keep winning games, we're going to keep getting back here — and we're going to break through. "And then I'm going to be terrible to be at a press conference with you. Terrible." In other words, Kelly can't wait for the day to denigrate everyone who keeps harping on how Notre Dame is still per- ceived as a paper tiger that will continue to be 10- to 20-point underdogs in "the big ones." The immense chasm between col- lege football's "Big Three" — Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — and every- one else has been well documented through the years. The most trying facet to reaching Tier 1 is for everything to coalesce at once. • The 2012 Irish had a dominant defense, but averaged only 25.8 points per game, easily the lowest in the 11-year Kelly era. • The 2015 group had explosive, dy- namic players on offense, including first- round receiver Will Fuller, second-round quarterback DeShone Kizer and third- round running back C.J. Prosise … but lacked the right defensive coordinator. • In 2018, it was strong on defense and had a pair of dynamic receivers in sec- ond- and third-round picks Chase Clay- pool and Miles Boykin, but the offensive line was mostly in a fledgling stage. Furthermore, unlike future top-five picks such as quarterbacks Kyler Mur- ray, Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Law- rence for the other three playoff teams in 2018, Notre Dame had more of a fringe prospect, which remains the case entering 2021. This year, the two quar- terbacks in the title game again are pro- jected first-round selections in Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Next year the lamentations will likely center on inexperience at quarterback and significant revamping of the offen- sive line. And, of course, whether there is enough on the perimeter — re- ceiver and cornerback — to reach top-10 level is an issue that will continue. Plain and simple, Ala- bama, Clemson and Ohio State recruit on a higher level, while Notre Dame remains a solid top-10 to top-15 in attracting tal- ented prep players. That raises another inevitable question: Has Kelly reached his plateau after 11 years? There are two themes we 've rev i s i te d m a ny times through the years. One is that you truly aren't the Notre Dame head coach until 10-2 seasons start feeling more like valleys than peaks. The fact that Kelly was so exasperated after the Alabama game is a positive in that he's become a victim of his own success — which is what hap- pens to high-end coaches. Welcome to Notre Dame. That is what you sign up for when you accept this po- sition. It is not graded on a sliding scale. It is pass/fail. If you win the national ti- tle, you "passed" and get the sixth statue outside the stadium. If you don't, you "failed" at what the ultimate goal is. In the words of the grandfatherly but nefarious Hyman Roth in "The Godfa- ther Part II," "This is the business that we've chosen." For highly successful and future Col- lege Football Hall of Fame inductee Kelly, it is understandably hard to swallow that while 98 percent of FBS coaches would love to be in his position, his only measuring stick is the other 2 percent. These are the things that helped com- pel Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz to leave Notre Dame after 11 seasons — and that was after having to feed the insa- tiable monster they created by winning a national title earlier in their careers. Two is the notion that Kelly might be this generation's Elmer Layden, the h ea d coa c h a t No t re Dame from 1934-40. With a 47-13-3 record, Layden's winning per- centage of .770 was ac- tually better than Irish national title coaches Holtz (.765) and Dan Devine (.764). He was one game away from winning the national title in 1938 and also on the threshold in 1935 after an epic victory at Ohio State, but came up short both times. That's the one reason he doesn't have his own statue while Devine and Holtz do. A l o n g t h e l i n e o f scrimmage, this pro- gram can match up with most anyone. The prime issues remain along the perimeter on both sides — which is why Ben Skowronek and Nick McCloud were so highly valuable as grad transfers in 2020 — plus the pro- gram-changer at quarterback. There is somewhat of a revamp in 2021, and then Clemson and Ohio State are both on the regular-season slates in 2022-23. It remains an uphill climb, but this is the business that has been chosen. ✦ BEST OF THE FIFTH QUARTER ✦ LOU SOMOGYI ✦ JANUARY 2021 This Is The Business Brian Kelly Has Chosen EDITOR'S NOTE: The late, great Lou Somogyi possessed an unmatched knowledge of Notre Dame football, and it was his mission in life to share it with others. Those of us at Blue & Gold Illustrated would like to continue to provide his wis- dom and unique perspective from his more than 37 years covering the Fighting Irish for this publication. Kelly might be this generation's Elmer Layden (above), the head coach at Notre Dame from 1934-40. Layden never won a national cham- pionship with the Irish but had a winning percentage of .770, which is better than title-winning coaches Lou Holtz (.765) and Dan Devine (.764). PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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