This time, there will be no empty passenger seat on the flight back from Salt Lake. This time (knock on wood), there will be no scrambling to Plan B because Plan A lied on his resume.
Brian Kelly, the presumed next coach of the Fighting Irish for ... oh, about two months now, is officially coming to South Bend. Really. No more flimsy rumors about Randy Edsall or Jim Harbaugh. No more cockamamie fantasies about Urban Meyer defecting from Florida or Brian Billick defecting from whatever it is he does these days.
By all indications, Notre Dame wanted Kelly, and the Cincinnati coach wanted Notre Dame. Which means the South Bend school's latest coaching marriage is already off to a better start than those of Tyrone Willingham (the backup to George O'Leary) and Charlie Weis (the backup to the backup for Meyer).
In the 10 days since AD Jack Swarbrick sent Weis packing, media old and new, national and local, tossed out every rumor imaginable in the hopes one might stick. (Remember when a certain national sports network declared Bob Stoops' Notre Dame contract to be "all but a formality?") While it's possible that Swarbrick put out early feelers to Stoops and others (through the use of a third-party search firm, standard practice in today's coaching searches), the only guy the Irish fully pursued -- certainly the only guy that pursued them back -- was Kelly.
It was a highly targeted, and highly successful, search.
Kelly, 48, is the toast of his profession right now, and rightfully so. He turned a Cincinnati program suffering from a half-full 35,000-seat stadium and a non-existent practice field into a two-time BCS participant. He led a team that had never previously finished a season ranked in a Top 25 poll to the No. 3 spot in this season's BCS standings. He went 33-6. And he did it with the type of gregarious personality and theatrical salesmanship that's been missing in South Bend since the days of Dr. Lou. That he's a Northeast Irish-Catholic is merely a bonus.
Will Kelly win at Notre Dame? It's hard to imagine he won't. He did so, and did so quickly, not just at Cincinnati but at Central Michigan (MAC championship in his third season) and Grand Valley State (consecutive Division II national titles, six playoff appearances in 13 years). The spread-offense mastermind takes over a ready-made team that returns a touted quarterback (Dayne Crist) and a slew of offensive playmakers (Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Armando Allen, Robert Hughes). It's not unreasonable to think Kelly can come in and make a major splash immediately, a la Weis in 2005, with a team that has suffered not just from bad coaching, but bad chemistry.
The Irish weren't lacking for offensive production under Weis. According to the various rating services, he recruited pretty darn well, too. Yet the momentum of consecutive BCS bowls in his first two seasons eventually gave way to mediocrity in years three through five.
For Kelly to become a Notre Dame savior, he'll have to do more than just draw up exciting plays. He'll have to significantly upgrade the Irish's talent on defense. And he'll have to do what his three immediate predecessors (Weis, Willingham and Bob Davie) could not: Build a consistently successful program.
At a Nov. 30 press conference announcing the start of his search, Swarbrick made clear the level by which the next coach would be measured. "The standard for success in this industry now is to be in a position to be selected for the BCS each year," he said. "Some years we may not make that, but our standard ... is, are we in a position to compete for a BCS berth?" He also offered a noteworthy opinion about how the Irish will get there. "My personal view is that given where we play and who we play, we need to be able to play good defense. And if you look at the defensive rankings of the leading teams this year, there's a correlation between BCS standings and defensive abilities."
Presumably, Kelly -- like I said, a master salesman -- said something to convince Swarbrick he can produce those BCS-caliber defenses, even though that's hardly how this year's Bearcats got to the Sugar Bowl. They won two of their last four games by scores of 47-45 (UConn) and 45-44 (Pittsburgh). Kelly's first important recruit won't necessarily be some linebacker from Joliet; it needs to some highly respected defensive coordinator. One can only assume Notre Dame, which practically mints money outside its student union, will give him the means to do that.
As for consistency -- we're just going have to wait to find out.
I've stated on previous occasions my opinion about the obstacles hindering Notre Dame from returning to the realm of the truly elite -- its location, its stringent academic standards and its lack of conference affiliation among them. Notre Dame still holds plenty of clout nationally (just look at how much attention the Irish received for going 16-19 the past three years), but no more so than Florida, Texas, Ohio State, USC or others. Kelly, for the first time in his career, will have to recruit both nationally and selectively. There's little reason to doubt he's up to the task; the question is whether even the greatest imaginable coach's best efforts are capable of meeting Notre Dame's inflated expectation level.
Kelly, by any reasonable standard, should be deemed a highly successful coach if he can win at least seven or eight games annually and nine to 11 occasionally. If he can one day duplicate his 12-0 mark with the Bearcats and lead the Irish to their long-awaited (21 years and counting) 12th national title, he should have his own mural painted behind the other end zone.
Five years ago, Notre Dame's dream coach at that time, former Irish assistant Meyer, opted instead for Florida instead because he deemed it a more ideal locale to win national championships. He's since won two. Interestingly, Kelly shares a whole bunch of the same traits that Utah's Meyer did then -- the 12-0 record, the brief but successful MAC stint, the offensive wizardry, even the Catholic heritage -- but with one significant difference.
This time, the Irish's coveted candidate chose them, too.