After a disappointing 4-8 campaign this year, Brian Kelly and the Irish football program are under an immense amount of pressure to succeed next year. Rumors are circulating every day about the future of Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, backup quarterback Malik Zaire and more.
Just a few steps east of Notre Dame Stadium, however, things are going just fine for Mike Brey and the Irish basketball squad. Sitting at 7-0 and coming off of a big win against Iowa in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Brey’s ragtag bunch of hustle players are still exceeding expectations.
Against Iowa, the Irish seemed to be cruising heading into halftime, but with 3:30 left the Hawkeyes turned it on. Iowa finished the half on a 13-0 run, cutting the Irish lead to two.
Coming out of the break, the two teams were evenly matched until Matt Farrell buried a three-pointer with 14:36 left in the second half. That shot won the game for the Irish. Of course, there was much more game to be played, but for the next 5 minutes of the game, the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center was rocking. The Irish were invincible, as they went on a 17-4 run and took physical and emotional control of the game before winning 92-78.
The point is that the environment in the arena was everything these past few years have not been for the football team. Notre Dame has historically been a very welcoming place, where traveling fans feel respected and accepted. However, in the past few years, the atmosphere has declined greatly.
While Notre Dame Stadium has never been on the level of Death Valley, Doak Campbell, or the Big House, it has historically been a difficult place to play. When visiting teams took the field, there was a climate and culture of “Welcome to Notre Dame, we’re going to destroy you.” Teams visiting Notre Dame for the first time struggled to establish themselves and win in South Bend. Teams that were used to playing there, like Michigan, USC and Stanford, didn’t expect to come in and win easily. That has definitively changed.
Teams tend to assume the persona and attitude of the coach. Mike Brey, the energetic, hyped, motivational coach has charged this basketball team and propelled it to exceed expectations year after year. Brian Kelly has transformed from explosive, volatile, purple-faced monster to emotionless, resigned, disappointed coach. The team has transformed into the same. The Irish teams since the miraculous 2012 run have been lacking a spark, a fire that is essential to a culture of winning.
Since Kelly has taken over, eight teams have ventured to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time: Virginia Tech (L – 2016), UMass (W – 2015), Louisville (L – 2014), Temple (W – 2013), Wake Forest (W – 2012) South Florida (L – 2011), Tulsa (L – 2010), Utah (W – 2010). A .500 record is not a culture of asserting dominance and winning at home.
Now, don’t take that to mean that I think he should be fired. Notre Dame cannot upgrade from him right now. With that in mind, it’s better to choose the known evil with a possible upside than to dive headfirst into the cesspool of head coaching vacancy. So, the Irish are in the undesirable position of being stuck with an underwhelming head coach instead of being behind him and fully supportive of him. Kelly has underperformed in almost every way as head coach at the University of Notre Dame: He hasn’t won a title, he’s been the focus of two academic scandals and he’s had a losing season (three, technically, if you count the two seasons of wins that were vacated). He must succeed next year, and I think that means winning at least 11 games, whether that be 11 in the regular season or 10 games and a bowl game.
The atmosphere surrounding Notre Dame football will improve as the team starts winning – that’s just how it goes. But even still, it’s difficult to improve when the traveling fans out-cheer and sometimes seem to outnumber the home faithful. Until next year Irish fans, keep your heads up and remain hopeful. 275 days, beat Temple.