Lesar: Notre Dame's lack of passion exposes leadership issues

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Passion: /paSHen/ noun: Strong and barely controllable emotion.

For those who didn’t see it in the Notre Dame football team’s 38-35 Duke debacle Saturday, that’s what passion means.

It means somebody cares about something. Saturday, nobody cared. What’s another loss in an already forgotten season?

This almost takes the Belk Bowl out of play for the Irish. Given the current malaise hovering over the Gug now, is an above-.500 record even possible?

When a program lacks passion, what does it have?

Leadership issues. A problem like this starts at the top. Character comes into question.

“There's no passion,” is the way Irish coach Brian Kelly stated his case, showing much more emotion than most of his players. “There's no passion for it. It looks like it's hard to play; like we're pulling teeth. ‘You're playing football for Notre Dame.’ It looks like it's work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There's no fun. There's no enjoyment. There's no energy.

“We’ve got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that's where we’ve got to go.”

Better go fast. This season’s on the verge of going in the dumper before the leaves turn color.

Kelly’s threat is playing time. All positions but long snapper – Scott Daly must have snapped with passion – are up for grabs. Big deal. If guys don’t care when they’re playing, why would they care if they’re not?

Kelly framed this disaster around the players – which has its merits – but only generally referred to concerns about the guys making the calls.

“I'm a 1-3 coach (no argument there), we're all 1-3 coaches; so we're in the same boat as all of our players,” Kelly said, qualifying his criticism. “So let's be clear on that.”

He went so far as to say he was pleased with aspects of his defense’s performance.

Wait a minute… Pleased? That was Duke, for Knute’s sake. Duke. Not Stanford. Or Ohio State. Or Texas. Or Michigan State. Duke. Duke!!!???

And this ain’t basketball.

This was the same Duke that scored 27 points – combined – against Wake Forest and Northwestern, leading up to this game.

The Irish defense just gave up 498 yards (well, at least it kept it under half a thousand, so that’s a plus) and 31 points (seven came on the kickoff return).

And heck, the Irish did get a sack, so that monkey’s off their back.

So … Does that mean defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is the one beacon of positivity to come from the ruins?

“Actually, (defensive coaching is) probably the one area that I feel better about today,” said Kelly, trying to sell that to a bunch of startled media skeptics. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. Coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective.

“Obviously, we put our defense in a bad situation today and they gave our offense a chance to win, quite frankly. Those (three) turnovers were deadly, and obviously the (96-yard) kickoff return for a touchdown just put us in a tough situation.”

Notre Dame’s football program is at a crossroads. Not just this season, but what happens over the next two weeks could have a profound impact on the direction the Irish go in the future.

The danger is, three losses into such a young season, players might be tempted to quit on their coaches; quit on their teammates.

All week, Kelly made an effort to stress the importance of a sense of urgency. Then Saturday, to come out with such a listless, uninspired attempt at playing a game built on emotion, it’s like every guy in his locker room stall thumbed his nose at the plea.

When a coach’s words fall on deaf ears, the disconnect must be addressed.

The next few weeks will give an idea as to the extent of the damage. Is it beyond being salvaged?

Passion is supposed to run deep.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, right, and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe speak on the field before the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN