Notre Dame football - What a difference a year makes


South Bend Tribune

Flashbacks to the Notre Dame football team's last postseason appearance disturbed the daydreams.

Now, that was a bowl game.

The day before the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, a South Beach hotel ballroom full of reporters and video types crammed in for the best vantage point at the final briefing for coaches Brian Kelly and Nick Saban.

Questions focused on specific matchups; nuances that could be significant come game time; situations that carried historical consequence.

Kelly, from Notre Dame, and Alabama's Saban were locked in and on point. Each handled his 30-minute time alone on stage, as the center of attention, with thoughtful responses that allowed his personality to come through.

The crystal football trophy, college football's top prize, was within the grasp of both coaches.

That seemed a million miles away Friday.

Lots of empty seats and even more empty questions greeted Kelly and Kyle Flood, his counterpart at Rutgers, as they sat together during their final media obligation before Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl.

At times, it was a painful process.

Probably the best thing about it was that it mercifully lasted just 15 minutes — total.

The Pinstripe Bowl trophy, which looks like the pipes of an organ, sat stage right.

Each coach came up with a quote worthy of being etched on his tombstone:

Kelly: "A game worth playing is a game worth winning."

Now, if that's not a ringing endorsement of the legitimacy of playing a 6-6 Rutgers team ...

Flood: "There's a big difference between 7-6 and 6-7."

OK, now that that's cleared up ...

As the minutes dragged on, the questions got more ridiculous and the sound bites more convoluted.

Let's see, there was the obligatory Tommy Rees legacy question; something about trick plays that surface in a bowl game; a request for Kelly to explain the ineptness of the Irish running game; the softballs about how tremendous the Big Apple experience has been; and a peek into the season of Rutgers running back Paul James.

Then, Kelly was asked what's keeping his program from producing double-digit win totals annually.

"We hope to get to nine (Saturday)," Kelly said. "If you look at the last couple years: We were as close to being (an) eight-win team last year as we were a 12-win team. We were probably as close to being a 10-win team this year as we were an eight-win team."

So, now he's playing the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" game? Whatever happened to: "It is what it is?"

"We're very close to being able to put up double-digit wins each year," Kelly said. "That's really the goal. We're close. We're not there consistently yet. Certainly the record is what it is."

More tombstone material?

Given that logic, eight wins is just as close to six as it is to 10.

"Our attention is winning this game and making the playoffs (in the future)," Kelly said. "Sounds like an NFL line, but now it will be getting this program to play for a playoff spot each and every year."

Speaking of the NFL, it might be too soon — since the Detroit Lions haven't fired head coach Jim Schwartz yet — to start the "Kelly watch" just yet, but ...

Kelly's name already has been included in the list of candidates if the Lions, as expected, pull the trigger on Schwartz after Sunday's season finale. Just like his brief post-Alabama disaster interlude with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, the Lions could try to sweep Kelly off his feet and out of South Bend.

That's just the nature of the landscape these days. Any college coach that finds employment as a head coach in the NFL will have Chip Kelly to thank.

The former Oregon coach and his dynamic offense matriculated into the NFL with the Eagles and proved that attack can work on the highest level. That could open the door for other teams, especially those with great but under-developed offensive talent (like the Lions), to turn to an offensive-minded guy (like Kelly) to be rescued.

Guaranteed, that situation would generate much more interest than anything that will come out of Saturday's rocking of Rutgers.

It'll be just like the old days.

It seems like a very long time ago that Brian Kelly was posing with this Bowl Game trophy. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER