Noie: Brian Kelly is gone, but patient Notre Dame refuses to panic for replacement

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Two straight days that should’ve been more quiet than controversial saw college football rocked to its core with news of coaching hires that seemingly came from a land of make-believe. 

Notre Dame made sure that it wasn’t three in a row by, well, being Notre Dame. 

On Sunday afternoon, Lincoln Riley stunned the sport when he left Oklahoma to become the head coach at USC. Barely 24 hours later, word began to swirl that LSU was ready to make a serious run at Brian Kelly. In reality, it already had. 

No matter that Kelly had all but guaranteed a week prior that he never would take another coaching job other than Notre Dame. By sunset Monday, Kelly the Irish head coach was Kelly the former Irish head coach. 

► More:What Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick had to say about Brian Kelly departure

► Hansen: Brian Kelly breaks a long-held promise to himself in chasing new dream at LSU

No chance to chase a spot in the College Football Playoff for the third time in four years at Notre Dame. No opportunity to settle into the new house he just built south of campus. Out recruiting on the West Coast for the Irish one day, then gone (or is it geauxn?) to Louisiana the next. 

The times are a changing. Maybe not necessarily for the worse or for the better. Just, changing. 

As athletic director Jack Swarbrick stepped to the podium Tuesday morning inside the Notre Dame Stadium interview room — in the same spot where Kelly confidently said that, yeah, I’m not going anywhere — you held your collective breath, sat on the edge of your chair and waited. 

What bombshell was dropping next? Would Swarbrick deliver the third seismic shift to the ever-changing landscape of college athletics? Would he even introduce the next head coach, the hot young guy that’s surely on every athletic director’s short list? Even Swarbrick’s, if he kept one? 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick answers questions regarding Brian Kelly's resignation Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Would the school actually shell out close to $100 million, seemingly now the going rate today for the home-run hire? Would Swarbrick boast that the one-man search committee’s work already had been completed? 

For so many early weekday afternoons during Kelly’s press sessions, including the last one, the mood was light. On Tuesday, the whole room felt heavy. 

Given what happened the previous two days, when schools serious about winning college football games proved just how serious, you wondered about arguably the most storied college football program in the country. 

All that tradition. All that mystique. All those national champions and Heisman Trophies and stories about the greats to run out of the nearby tunnel and onto that field. Surely, Notre Dame would offer a clue to what it would do to keep pace with life in college football’s fast lane. 

Instead, Swarbrick spoke in a measured tone for 25 minutes about doing what Notre Dame has long done, and doing it in a way that has seen the program go the last 32 seasons (season No. 33 still is in progress in case you’ve forgotten) between national championships. There would be no home-run hire announcement. No word on a $100-million offer to that gotta-have coach for the next 10 years. No payoff of not one but two houses for said coach, which is what USC did to reel Riley to Los Angeles. 

No nothing. 

But all Notre Dame. 

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick introduces Brian Kelly as the new head Notre Dame football coach in this Dec. 11, 2009 file photo.

This is how that place works, how it always has worked and always will work. College football is moving at a pace that makes you dizzy with the money and the expectations and the demands and the chasing of those coveted national championships at any and all costs. 

First it was USC. Then it was LSU. But when it was time for ND to prove that it’s seriously serious about winning, that it knows this is amateur athletics in name only, the athletic director preached patience. 

Noie:Remember these 10 Notre Dame football wins during Brian Kelly's tenure?

Doesn’t matter if it takes a week or two, a month or two, Swarbrick will find the right guy and the right fit for Notre Dame. 

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick stands with Brian Kelly following a 20-19 loss to Georgia, Sept. 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Swarbrick said Tuesday that the university will take its time in finding the right replacement for Kelly who is leaving to coach LSU.

There you go. This is college football and that is Notre Dame, which decided long before Kelly or Charlie Weis or Tyrone Willingham or Bob Davie and even before Lou Holtz asked to be loved by the administration but simply wasn’t, that it would not sacrifice its core values to chase athletic excellence. 

The small school seemingly in the middle of nowhere is among the game’s biggest power players, but it’s more than OK letting the other guys make all the power moves. Shell out nine figures for a coach? No. Go all-in right away on the gotta-grab candidate? Let someone else make that leap. 

This is Notre Dame. This always will be Notre Dame. It plays the same game as all the others, on a field that’s 100 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide and carries with it four 15-minute quarters. But when it comes to the arms race game of the high-stakes coaching game, Notre Dame’s playing an entirely different one. 

The long one. The patient one. The pragmatic one. 

Some look at where college athletics is today — with name, image and likeness issues and the ballooning coaching contracts and the build-it-bigger-and-better facility races and shudder. Where’s this all headed? To purists, the answer down a really dark place. 

College football has an image problem. Schools don’t like what their highly-paid head coaches are doing three or four or five games into a season, just fire them. Don’t like Year Two of a multi-year deal? Snap it and start over. 

That’s not Notre Dame. That never will be Notre Dame. 

Is defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman on the short list for Notre Dame? Is he headed to LSU with Brian Kelly?

Swarbrick will find his previously-mentioned right fit. That might be defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who wouldn’t cost as much as USC paid Riley and LSU paid Kelly. That might be Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, who could command such an astronomical, but going-rate salary. 

Coaching searches move at their own pace. So does a certain school that now finds itself involved in one of the first time in 12 seasons. Back then, Kelly was the right guy then. Who’s the right guy now? 

Wait out the Notre Dame long game and see. 

On a day when college football needed a breather, one of the game’s most storied programs offered one. Let those other schools in other parts of the country operate with a sense of football urgency. Notre Dame’s going to be Notre Dame. 

There eventually will be a new football guy in charge at Notre Dame, but it will be the same, old Notre Dame. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI