Notre Dame football: Can Kelly cap dream season?

Al Lesar Commentary
ND Insider

Maybe this one really is too big to ponder the big picture.

College football's Super Bowl can devour a team in its hype.

Tighten the blinders. Put a block on ESPN. Pull the plug on the Internet. Confiscate cell phones.

The ultimate prize is enough. No need for hype to inflate the magnitude.

Monday's BCS National Championship Game builds statues.

This is the defining game in Irish head coach Brian Kelly's career. The matchup with Alabama is Kelly's crossroads. The benchmark. His bio will forever be divided into the 22 years as a head coach leading up to this game, and whatever path he follows afterward.

Yeah, it's that big.

Take a brisk walk around Notre Dame Stadium. Pay respects at the Rockne Gate, the Parseghian Gate, the Devine (and he wasn't even very well liked by the university brass) Gate, the Holtz Gate, the Leahy Gate.

What's the common denominator?


Monday is Kelly's opportunity for immortality. Bringing home crystal could guarantee him bronze.

Will it happen next year? Will it ever happen again?

Like life, there are no guarantees. This is a one-shot deal. Winner take all.

Losers are easily forgotten. Winners live forever, especially at Notre Dame, an institution founded on its religious values and its fondness for nostalgia.

(Insert joke: How many Notre Dame fans does it take to change a light bulb? Four. One to change the bulb, and three to reminisce about it.)

Tumblers have fallen into place in an excruciatingly difficult, but rewarding season. Somehow, some way, Notre Dame managed to navigate the choppy waters and come away without a scratch. Rare, and quite unexpected.

This was supposed to be a program set up to win next season.

All the goal-lines stands, missed chip shots, un-flagged penalties, narrow escapes and crowning achievements are history. Nothing that happened leading up to now counts anymore.

All that matters to the Notre Dame football program is between the lines over the next 60 minutes.

Kelly has been constant with his focus and demeanor.

Showdown at Oklahoma? That just makes the next game that much more important.

Survival against Pitt? Games like that are just part of the process.

Taking the Coliseum by storm in a "playoff" victory over Southern Cal? "We haven't accomplished anything yet," he said.

Don't worry beyond the next practice. Seal the bunker and protect the warriors.

If Kelly, who thrives on control, can't put his thumbprint on it, it's not worth the effort.

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the stakes may be astronomical, but there has been no deviation in the approach.

"We talk about both teams in each contest (throughout the season) — no matter what the contest is; no matter what time of year it is; no matter what stakes are on the line," Diaco said. "Both teams are about the same for the first few minutes of the game, and then the game kind of settles into itself."

"I've always been told that we have to understand ourselves, understand our opponent, and understand the terrain," said Irish linebacker Manti Te'o. "We know who we are. We know who Alabama is. (By Monday), we'll know the terrain.

"I've always been a believer that regardless of the situation, the field is still 120 yards long, (the) football is still the same shape, and everybody straps on their chinstraps the same way. We understand this is a big game, but at the end of the day, it's still football.

"When we start to do things differently than we've done all season, that's when we're going to start getting into trouble.

"(The coaches) do a tremendous job of keeping us settled; keeping us focused; keeping us calm. Do the same thing we've done for the last 12 games and we should be fine."

Alabama players and coaches know the drill. Three BCS National Championship Game appearances in the last four years haven't tempted them to start taking it for granted.

"You've gotta be real careful because you assume nothing when it comes to these games," said Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. "You (have to) assume this may be your last time in your career, and every chance is independent of the previous. It's like a statistics class I had. When they flip a coin, every time you flip it, if it's been 10 heads, there's no greater probability the next one is going to be tails. It's 50-50 every time. There are no guarantees."

This defending champion promises not to be fat and sassy.

"You've got to be careful about complacency," Smart said. "'(Is Notre Dame) hungrier than you?' If they're hungrier, that's a competitive edge. 'You better not let anybody be hungrier than you.' Teams that play with a chip on their shoulder, or have an edge, it always helps.

"We're hungry. We want this game."

Likewise, there is no fear on the Irish sidelines.

"Coach Kelly, as it relates to the culture change at Notre Dame, (has) infected the team with his personality," Diaco said. "He is the most fearless coach I've ever been around. He doesn't believe that any team, any opponent, anywhere, at any time...

"It's not coach-speak. He really believes that he can take any team he's coaching into any other venue against any other team and whip them."

Guys like that end up in bronze.

Staff writer Al Lesar


Notre Dame football: Can Kelly cap dream season?