Notre Dame football: Johnson becomes a Kelly fan

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

Gus Johnson admits while growing up in Detroit he used to cheer, cheer against old Notre Dame.

“Lifelong Michigan fan,” the 46-year-old Johnson, the closest thing sports casting has to a rock star, said in the interest of full disclosure.

So much of a Michigan fan is Johnson, in fact, that the former Howard University catcher/third baseman said if he ever has a daughter, his future wife would have to agree to name her “Bo” after the late Wolverine coaching icon Bo Schembechler.

That aside, Johnson is thrilled to be the play-by-play voice of the first-ever Notre Dame regular-season football game to be broadcast on FOX. (The Irish did play in a bowl game on FOX, the 2007 Sugar Bowl). Analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Kristina Pink complete the broadcast team.

The 25th-ranked Irish (8-3) close out their regular season Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif., against No. 8 Stanford (9-2). Broadcast time is 7 p.m. EST.

“It’s a pinch-yourself moment,” Johnson said via telephone earlier this week.

For as playfully resentful as Johnson remains about ND “stealing” Michigan high school products Jerome Bettis and Rodney Culver, among others, he looks at Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly in a much different light than some people inside the Notre Dame bubble.

In fact, from the outside looking in, Johnson sees a coach he thinks is the long-term answer to ND’s post-Lou Holtz Era intermittent funk.

“Whoever decided to hire him as the head coach, they got it right,” Johnson said of the fourth-year Irish coach. “No nonsense, disciplined, passionate, makes players accountable. At the same time he’s not a tyrant. He’s not running guys off.

“He’s right out of Central Casting. I just like him. I think Brian Kelly is cut from the same cloth as Bo. You look at what he’s done. A lot of coaches prior to coach Kelly, we would talk about how they couldn’t get guys in school, all that kind of stuff.

“Coach Kelly hasn’t had that problem. Just like Stanford, even Duke this year, and Vanderbilt. You’ve got bright guys on the field who can ball.”

And as long as David Shaw is on the opposite sideline, Johnson sees a game that’s annually going to be meaningful, rather than a non-descript prelude to, say, a quiz bowl.

In this particular matchup, there’s something historical on the line as well. If the Irish do pull the upset of the 14-point favorites and Johnson’s Wolverines lose to No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday, Notre Dame will retake the lead as college football’s all-time winningest team (by percentage) for the first time since the Tyrone Willingham coaching Era (2002-04).

The Irish moved into a virtual dead heat last weekend, at .733. Michigan has the edge when you calculate out to the fourth decimal place.

“Oh you had to go there,” Johnson said.

Shaw, meanwhile, is Stanford’s third-year head coach, who just happens to have a 7-0 record when televised by FOX. There have been no signs of a fade once his former boss, Jim Harbaugh, left Stanford to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

The former Stanford wide receiver is 32-6 since succeeding Harbaugh and 23-4 in Pac-12 games. If the Cardinal can beat Arizona State for the second time this season, next weekend in the Pac-12 Championship Game , Shaw will have reached the BCS plateau in each of his three years as head coach.

The Cardinal also reached the BCS in 2010, Harbaugh’s last as head coach and when Shaw was offensive coordinator.

“Well Jim Harbaugh is a Michigan man, so obviously he’s an intellectual,” Johnson said with a laugh. “But he put together a great road map. And David, the bright Stanford graduate that he is, is smart enough not to screw it up.

“He’s recruiting the same kind of players. He’s running the same kind of physical schemes on both sides of the football. He is the gang leader of a group of intellectual bullies. I can’t put it into better words.

“David is cerebral, but David is vicious. His teams play with the attitude, ‘We’re going to cut your throat and drink the blood.’ And that’s it. And that’s what makes this such a great matchup. The way Notre Dame plays so hard, there’s going to be a lot of people punching people in the mouth, so to speak.

“It’s going to be a physical, blocking, tackling, hitting game. I hope our parabolic mikes are working, because you’re going to hear some massive collisions during this one.”

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly talks to his team during the game college football game between Notre Dame and Brigham Young on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN