Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2017

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

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Page 34 of 55 FEBRUARY 2017 35 BY LOU SOMOGYI W ith the page turned on a dismal 2016 season that saw Notre Dame lose eight or more games for only the fourth time in history, the main themes in 2017 are self-explanatory. THE HEAT IS ON There is little doubt that when 2017 college football preseason magazines hit the newsstands come June, the "Coaches On The Hot Seat" section in each will likely feature Brian Kelly at the top. A 4-8 season at Notre Dame, especially in the seventh year, will do that. Recent history has shown that it's difficult for a coach — especially at a Power Five school — to ride out and survive such a storm of negativity, in- cluding Charlie Weis at Notre Dame in 2009 when he entered his fifth sea- son coming off 3-9 and 7-6 showings. The No. 1 "hot seat" coach entering 2016 was Texas' Charlie Strong, who eventually was fired despite a prom- ising victory versus the Fighting Irish in the opener. LSU's Les Miles and Baylor's Jim Grobe also were in tenu- ous situations, and did not survive. The Longhorns' Mack Brown held the same dubious status enter- ing 2013, and an 8-5 finish was not enough to keep him. In 2015, it was Virginia's Mike Lon- don and Illinois' Tim Beckman, both of who received the ax at the end of the season — despite London also coming within seconds of pulling the upset against Notre Dame in the sec- ond game. In 2014, Florida's Will Muschamp — likewise coming off a 4-8 melt- down after a superb 11-2 season — held the edge over Michigan's Brady Hoke for the hottest seat. Both were dismissed after the season by their respective schools. Of course, there are many great sur- vival stories, too, most recently Mike MacIntyre at Colorado. He was 10-27 his first three seasons with the Buffa- loes, but was named 2016 Associated Press Coach of the Year after winning the North Division of the Pac-12 with a 10-2 regular-season mark. Kelly twice has been a National Coach of the Year at the Football Bowl Subdivision level with a proven track record of success. What will define a "successful season" for him and the Fighting Irish in 2017? Some might contend the bare mini- mum should be a 10-win season, plus a major bowl win. Perhaps the greatest fear is an 8-5 or 9-4 outcome, which would techni- cally be an "improvement," but also would leave Notre Dame spinning its wheels with the status quo. If a dramatic upsurge and renais- sance is to come, a lot will ride on … COACHING CHEMISTRY COURSE Not including hiring a new head coach that includes his own staff of assistants, the 2017 reconstruction will qualify as the greatest volume of upheaval on a Notre Dame football staff in one season with what will be a minimum of seven new hires. All three of the coordinators are new: Mike Elko (defense), Brian Po- lian (special teams) and Chip Long (offense), as is the strength and condi- tioning staff that will feature lead man Matt Balis from Connecticut and Da- vid Ballou, who has served as physi- cal conditioning coach at superpower IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. As Blue & Gold Illustrated went to press Jan. 10, a Sports Illustrated re- port of Wake Forest linebacker coach Clark Lea joining Elko at Notre Dame was in the news, and new instructors of quarterbacks and receivers also were on the docket. So much upheaval as the one Notre Dame is experiencing can be viewed both cynically or with optimism. For the cynic, one can point to Texas' Strong, who was fired this December after three disappointing seasons at Texas that resulted in a 16- 21 record (same as Weis' last three seasons at Notre Dame in 2007-09). In that short time, Strong employed 17 assistant coaches, with only two of his original hires remaining. Five were fired and three departed the program, not including the demotion of defen- sive coordinator Vance Bedford. "You've got to change with the game," Strong told ESPN this fall, "and you've got to do what you think is best for the program. That's what I've been trying to do, is just piece it together and make sure we do what's best." On the flip side, there's USC's Clay Helton, who was suddenly thrust into the interim coach role in 2015 when Steve Sarkisian was fired for behav- ioral issues. The Trojans sputtered at the end, finishing with six losses, resulting in Helton immediately dis- missing four assistants, including well-regarded defensive coordina- tor Justin Wilcox (now at Wisconsin). They were painful decisions, but … "You get one opportunity to be a head coach at USC and I just felt like I needed to go in a direction that I be- lieve in and I had to make some hard choices," Helton told ESPN. Texas still collapsed despite much change, while USC ended up thriv- ing. Where will Notre Dame fall un- der Kelly in 2017? It is interesting to note that Kelly's two best campaigns at Notre Dame occurred in 2012 (12-1) and 2015 (10-3), when he had the most coach- ing change. In 2012, after back-to-back 8-5 sea- sons, he hired four new assistants in Harry Hiestand (offensive line), Bob Elliott (safeties), Kerry Cooks (cor- nerbacks) and Scott Booker (special teams/tight ends), and shifted several others: Chuck Martin (offensive coor- dinator/quarterbacks, from defensive backs), Tony Alford (running backs, from wide receivers) and Denbrock (wide receivers, from tight ends). In 2015, he hired four new assis- tants again in Mike Sanford (offen- sive coordinator/quarterbacks), Au- try Denson (running backs), Keith Gilmore (defensive line) and Todd Lyght (defensive backs). Whether it's with Strong, Helton or Kelly, on-field results still remain reflective of the man in charge who sets the tone everywhere. 2017: THE ROAD BACK Top storylines in the coming year are evident Thanks to a 4-8 record in 2016, Brian Kelly is likely to find his name at the top of many "Coaches On The Hot Seat" lists heading into the 2017 campaign. PHOTO BY RICK KIMBALL

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