Analysis: How image, trust and the Big Ten factor into a possible revival at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a hotel room in California late Saturday night, doubling down on recruiting and auditing the existing spring practice structure, Brian Kelly was eventually nudged out of his cocoon.

A little after 3:30 EST Sunday morning, he was concocting a prepared statement to neutralize two image-abrading reports that the Notre Dame head football coach reportedly had been oblivious to for hours.

The statement regurgitated Kelly's allegiance to ND, similar to what he'd offered up hours earlier at the press conference following a 45-27 Irish loss to USC at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

And it was constructed to contradict Yahoo Sports and ESPN reports, which surfaced in between, that Kelly had been sniffing around for other jobs. Supposedly, that was occurring well before the NCAA's bombshell of an announcement Tuesday regarding vacating victories and a two-game losing streak to conclude what's now tied for the second-losingest season in school history.

This is how year eight under Kelly was ushered in — after hours and with rancor, confusion, speculation … but ultimately resilience. And it's a pattern that doesn't figure to subside anytime soon.

So it's not just about melding likely a new starting quarterback, sophomore Brandon Wimbush, or less likely a re-energized one, in junior DeShone Kizer, with a large surrounding cast eager to shed the stench of a 4-8 season.

And it's not just about making the right staff moves, starting with a defensive coordinator hire that can help redefine Kelly at Notre Dame or nudge him out the door in 2017.

He has to rebuild his image, and more fundamentally, rebuild trust.

Not of Kelly's athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, who extended the coach's contract through 2021 11 months ago and who continues to support him, but seemingly everyone else outside the locker room. Former players. Influential alums. People with thick checkbooks who are part of the ND power structure or believe they can influence it.

The sources in the reports who claimed Kelly was job-shopping aren't manufactured. But what is their motivation for leaking such information? And is the information they leaked real or an intentional swipe at further eroding Kelly's image?

“I felt that I was clear with the media following (Saturday's) game at USC when I was asked about my desire to be back as the head football coach at Notre Dame, but in light of media reports that surfaced afterward, let me restate my position,” Kelly said in the statement.

“I have not been, am not, and will not be interested in options outside of Notre Dame. I am fully committed to leading this program in the future.”

It would be inconsistent with Kelly's way of doing business if the job search were authentic. For instance, he has always been supportive of his assistants when they've had opportunities to move up and out, but he has publicly stated he wouldn't tolerate them interviewing for a lateral move.

As far as his own career is concerned, most ND fans remember Kelly's flirtation with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in January of 2013, days after the Irish were bludgeoned by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

In a one-on-one interview with the South Bend Tribune a couple months later, the coach openly regretted the way he handled the situation, including going off the grid for a few days.

“So if this happens again in December, how do you anticipate handling it? Will you listen? Will you say, 'Go away?' ” Kelly was asked in 2013.

"There can't be a courtship,” he said. “There is no courtship. I either go and take an NFL job or I coach at Notre Dame forever. This time, I did listen, because it was more I wanted to learn a little bit more about the NFL, because I never had that opportunity.

“But if I get into that situation again and (don't hang up) on an NFL team when they call, I'd better take the job. That's how I see it. And I have no interest in doing that. But there won't be a situation where, 'Hey, coach Kelly's talking to the 49ers.' They should fire me here if that happens.”

How Kelly distances himself from that possibility during the 2017 season or following it shouldn't be about focusing on “x” number of wins in 2017 — not from his standpoint anyway.

And he's going to have to pick his battles when his integrity or image is brought into question, because there are some worth fighting, but not enough time or energy to confront them all.

But rebuilding trust starts with change. Not wholesale change. Not change to quiet the masses. Meaningful, evolutionary, sustainable change.

Kelly has vowed to take a look at everything. Here are two places that can't be overlooked in feeding that process.

LSU

Tigers first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who presided over the nation's No. 12 defense this season, is considered one of the top targets Kelly should consider pursuing as deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's permanent replacement.

Interim head coach Ed Orgeron being retained as Les Miles' replacement, though, certainly lessens what already likely was a long-shot hire.

But what LSU did to lure Aranda from Wisconsin after the 2015 season, knowing Miles' status was shaky, is worth noting. The school threw money and security at the problem.

Per the Baton Rouge (La.) Advocate, Aranda is LSU's highest-paid assistant at $1.2 million a year, and he also has a contract that will pay him through March 31, 2019.

Given how excelling at the total defense stat category continues to be the most reliable common thread among teams that play for and win national titles in the BCS/Playoff Era, money should not be an object for Notre Dame.

And patience shouldn't be an object, either. If the right candidate can't interview until after the bowl season and he's worth the wait, so be it.

The Big Ten

The juxtaposition of the Ohio State-Michigan game Saturday, first preceding then pre-emptying (for a while) ND-USC on ABC was more than symbolic.

When the SEC was dominating college football in tandem with Alabama's continued supremacy, Notre Dame's fan base could appease itself in the thought climate was working against the Irish in recruiting and ultimately the bottom line.

With the Big Ten's ascendance, with four cold-weather teams taking up residence in the top 10 of the national polls, it's become an empty consolation.

But it can also be a source of inspiration.

All four — Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State — are ranked in the top 20 this season in the mega-relevant total defense category. ND, after sitting at No. 103 the weekend VanGorder was fired, actually improved to No. 44 (55 if you remove the hurricane game), but needs to take that next step.

Those four Big Ten teams are also much better than the Irish in three of the four other key stat categories that tend to show up in the résumés of national champs:

• Rush offense: Irish 80th, Ohio State ninth, Michigan 30th, Wisconsin 44th, Penn State 62nd.

• Rush defense: Irish 72nd, Ohio State 15th, Michigan 14th, Wisconsin third, Penn State 41st.

• Turnover margin: Irish 96th, Ohio State 3rd, Michigan 25th, Wisconsin 13th, Penn State 29th.

In pass-efficiency, the Irish are at least in the ballpark (39th), Ohio State 37th, Michigan 36th, Wisconsin 68th, Penn State 25th.

You could argue Ohio State and Michigan are in a better place recruiting at the moment, but what about Wisconsin and Penn State?

The Big Ten's rise strongly hints that there's nothing inherently unfixable about Notre Dame. And the one thing just about everyone can agree upon when it comes to Kelly is that he doesn't engender indifference, as some of his predecessors did.

He also doesn't spark feelings that the Notre Dame brand is on a collision course with obsolescence. On the contrary, he showed getting back to the No. 1 spot in the polls is possible.

The argument now is whether he's the man who can do it all over again.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field for the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game, Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)