Notre Dame Has Run Out Of Mulligans And Flyersposted by John Vannie
That is why the risk factor for acceptable candidates in this search must -- as a matter of prudence -- be low. A candidate who "might" succeed is not good enough now. A candidate with a short period of success or success not attained at a high level school or conference cannot be risked now. A candidate who has not had experiences sufficient to prepare him for the intense glare of a very high-profile program like Notre Dame is too big a risk now. A high-risk, high-reward candidate might be acceptable if Notre Dame had been a top-ten power for the past fifteen years. We would then have more margin for error, more collateral to play with. Unfortunately, we do not.
Accordingly, it was heartening to hear Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick articulate clear criteria for the next Notre Dame head coach; criteria unmistakably established to guarantee a low-risk, high percentage play through the hiring of a top-tier coach who has "been there, done that" and who will not be surprised or inexperienced in dealing with the intense pressure of a national program. In the words of Mr. Swarbrick:
"He must have shown the ability to build and sustain a Division One football team" and proven his ability to succeed "at the highest level."
This statement gives Notre Dame alumni a legitimate basis to be hopeful that Mr. Swarbrick is conducting the kind of search necessary to identify and sign a top-tier coach and end the pattern of botched searches.
Given Mr. Swarbrick's criteria, it is not difficult to determine which candidates meet the standard and which do not. It also is clear which candidates -- although they might be fine coaches -- are too big a risk for Notre Dame at this time.
One candidate who is frequently mentioned by the media and who falls into this category is Brian Kelly. He has not achieved sustained success "at the highest level." His three-year stint at Cincinnati deserves praise, but his performance there must be seen in the context of the weak competition he has played and the lack of top opponents on Cincinnati's schedule. Rich Rodriguez and Dan Hawkins each had three-year runs similar and better than Kelly's at Cincinnati when they were coaching at West Virginia and Boise State respectively. When they moved up to top-tier BCS conferences they proved not ready. That type of experience is the rule, not the exception when short-term high-flyers at lower level schools and conferences take on the top job at a traditional power.
Kelly has never coached at a top program either as an assistant or as a head coach. He has never been mentored by or coached with a top-level head coach. He has not recruited nationally or against top programs for elite recruits. In his entire career, Kelly has never coached on a staff that defeated one of the top twenty all-time Division 1 college programs in terms of either wins or winning percentage.
Successful Notre Dame coaches, such as Parseghian, Devine and Holtz had a record of major wins against major opponents before they ever coached at Notre Dame, including Woody Hayes, Joe Paterno, Bo Schembechler, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bob Devaney; multiple wins against teams such as Oklahoma, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Penn State; years of testing against competition in the Big Ten, the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference. Each had been mentored by some of the elite football minds of the age such as Paul Brown, Biggie Munn, Duffy Daugherty and Woody Hayes. Each had been around big-time coaches and programs. That level of familiarity with and success against big-time competition and big-time programs is essential at this point. Brian Kelly can point to no such major wins against top teams or coaches, no experience at a top program to know what it is like and no familiarity or mentorship under a top coach.
Other coaches sometimes mentioned as being in contention suffer from a similar lack of readiness. Gary Patterson of TCU has done remarkable work this year and other years, but the level of competition his program faces is so far removed from that of Notre Dame that it would be a giant step to coaching on the big stage of Notre Dame football. Chris Peterson at Boise State has produced some terrific teams, and one memorable win over Oklahoma, but the level of competition that Boise State faces week in and week out and his relatively short stint there would make him an unacceptable risk.
None of this is meant to denigrate Brian Kelly or the others. Each is a good coach. At another time in the past, Kelly might have been an excellent choice for Notre Dame. He might even work out at Notre Dame. But playing the odds, one must conclude that right now, he would be an unacceptable risk given the unique combination of his current experience and the current state of Notre Dame football.
If Notre Dame hires Kelly, Patterson, Petersen or another head coach who does not meet Mr. Swarbrick's criteria, it will represent a failure. They do not meet the criteria laid out by Mr. Swarbrick of sustained excellence at the highest level. Notre Dame fans will be holding their collective breath as we "take a flyer" - again.
The failure to hire a coach that meets Mr. Swarbrick's criteria will have other consequences. Many ND alumni would not rally around the new coach, but would sigh "here we go again". It would be extremely disappointing, and it would exacerbate and even cement the malaise and detachment among alumni and the sense that Notre Dame is in a sad but irreversible decline.