Thursday December 10th, 2009

A lot of people don't like Notre Dame. If you have spent any time in this country since 1918, you have probably noticed this. And it's a shame, because in so many ways, Notre Dame represents the best of college sports.

The vast, vast majority of Fighting Irish players graduate. The administrators don't just talk about balancing academics, behavior and football -- they mean it. (Remember: The beginning of the end for Lou Holtz came when the administration told him he couldn't sign Randy Moss.)

Notre Dame is not perfect, of course. But it is inconceivable that the school would send pretty recruiting "hostesses" to faraway high schools to woo recruits, as Tennessee is accused of doing (according to The New York Times). If Notre Dame had recruiting hostesses, they would wear pantsuits and escort the players to church.

And as college sports have gradually descended into a cesspool over the past half-century, Notre Dame has tried to stay clean. If anything, Notre Dame cares more about preserving its soul than it did 70 years ago.

This, I suspect, is why so many people hate Notre Dame. Notre Dame is different, and people don't like different. Notre Dame has high standards, and that makes people uncomfortable. And, of course, for most of its history, Notre Dame has won big anyway, which is what really ticks people off. Most people don't hate Vanderbilt.

And this brings us to the essential question of the Fighting Irish coaching search, especially as it relates to the hot candidate, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly.

What matters most to Notre Dame right now: being Notre Dame, or winning?

This is the second-winningest program in NCAA history, behind Michigan. Yet the last four times the Fighting Irish hired a head coach, they did not hire the consensus best available coach or the hot candidate. They hired a coach that seemed to fit Notre Dame.

Bob Davie had never been a head coach, but he was the school's extremely likeable defensive coordinator. Davie probably would not have gotten the Texas or USC or Miami jobs at that time. But Notre Dame officials thought he was right for them.

George O'Leary went 7-5 in his last year at Georgia Tech. He managed only one 10-win season there. Yet he seemed to fit the Central Casting image of a Notre Dame coach -- a true Irishman for the Fighting Irish. O'Leary only lasted a few days, because of a résumé flap -- I believe he claimed to have led Ireland into World War I. Nonetheless, the point remains: O'Leary was not the best big-name available, and if Notre Dame had not contacted him, I don't think people would have blinked. But to Notre Dame, O'Leary seemed like a Notre Dame coach.

Tyrone Willingham had losing records in three of his last five years at Stanford. But it was Stanford, after all. Notre Dame, a wonderful academic institution, likes to be associated with places like Stanford. After the O'Leary embarrassment, Willingham seemed like the last guy who would embarrass Notre Dame.

Charlie Weis had never been a head coach anywhere when Willingham was fired. But Weis was a Notre Dame guy. Not just an alum, but somebody who seemed to understand, intuitively, that Notre Dame belonged at the top of college football. And I think Notre Dame needed to hear that after almost a decade out of national championship contention.

Brian Kelly is just another great football coach.

That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. Kelly has won big at Cincinnati, just as he won big at Central Michigan and Grand Valley State before that.

I first met Kelly when he was at Grand Valley, on the western side of Michigan, putting up absolutely ridiculous numbers. It was October 2001. At the time we talked, Kelly's quarterback, Curt Anes, had thrown 32 touchdown passes and 50 incompletions. Ponder that for a moment. Not 50 interceptions -- 50 incompletions. Grand Valley averaged more than 40 points in the first half.

And he told me: "I found a diamond in the rough. I have what I consider the finest job in college football. I have the opportunity to compete for national championships and not have the trappings of the Division I arena, the incredible pressure to win at all costs.

"I have absolutely found the job I want."

Kelly left for Central Michigan three years later. He had two goals there: win as quickly as possible ("We were on a five-minute plan," he said later) and get a better job.

He won very quickly. He almost got the Michigan State job, but he didn't. He thought he had the Iowa State job, but he didn't. Finally he was on the verge of signing a contract extension with Central Michigan -- and he left for Cincinnati. He hadn't even told his athletic director at Central Michigan that he had interviewed with Cincinnati.

As Central Muchigan linebacker Doug Kress said at the time, "Nobody has a problem with him leaving. It is just how he left." CMU athletic director Dave Heeke called Kelly's exit "disappointing and shocking, but it is what it is, so we'll move forward."

So I had to laugh when I saw the quotes from Cincinnati players recently that Kelly promised them he would stay in Cincinnati. I don't know exactly what he said -- people tend to hear what they want to hear in these situations. Maybe he said he intended to stay.

But Brian Kelly is a climber, as much as he is a winner. He is confident bordering on cocky, and cutthroat when he feels he needs to be. I don't think that makes him different from most great football coaches. And Kelly is a great football coach. After almost two decades of treading water, Notre Dame needs to decide if this great coach is the right coach for Notre Dame -- and how much that even matters to Notre Dame right now.

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