Not too long ago I was reading one of our 18 Stripes Slack conversations on the criticism of Brian Kelly and it dawned on me, “Oh, my goodness we’re almost word for word repeating the same comments we made about Charlie Weis.”
Ever since then I’ve been poking around the internet trying to evaluate just how common this line of thinking has become during the off-season.
How much of it is really true? How much of it are we just projecting past experiences into a different situation to make them appear similar? Is it possible there’s something about Notre Dame that makes coaches fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes?
So I decided to take the top 5 issues that are being discussed and work through today’s problems versus the past.
Poor Defensive Hires & Lack of Development
Looking at things from 10,000 feet the similarities here are striking. Weis featured a couple decent defenses to start his tenure (and even the ’07 defense played well all things considered) and then things went into a deep nose dive through the 2009 season. Following Weis’ 5 years only 7 Irish defenders were drafted in the NFL with just a pair of 2nd round picks.
Kelly’s beginning and peak with Diaco lasted longer and was refreshingly strong but the VanGorder decision was arguably worse than anything Weis did to the program. That it feels like VanGorder was here for 5 years and not just a little over 2 years speaks volumes to the mess created.
Truth Comparison: 85%
The similarities are unavoidable. Kelly gets credit for a higher peak and for actually proving he can lead a program with a strong defense. He also has 14 defenders selected in the NFL through 7 years with 6 coming in the first 3 rounds. There’s also some truth to Notre Dame not being conducive to recruiting defensive players as well as the offense, and thus more predisposed to bad coaching decisions looking even worse. Remember this for later!
Faltering S&C Program
We saw some criticism with the strength program in the recent past under Kelly with the rash of injuries and while that initially died down during the 2016 by the end of the campaign the S&C program was back in the spotlight once again. Poor 4th quarters and November losses reared their ugly head again, as did the old issue of player’s losing too much weight.
Weis dealt with nearly identical issues, especially late in his tenure. Worse for him, the offensive line was criticized much more widely for being soft and out of shape. Opponents looking “bigger and scarier” are creeping up again for Kelly but that was a big criticism under Weis.
Truth Comparison: 15%
This is one of the issues I think we are susceptible to “going from the script” when things go wrong on the field. Can anyone remember the last strength coach who left Notre Dame with a solid reputation? To me, these guys are unnecessarily made out to be scapegoats too often.
That doesn’t mean there can’t be some issues out there. I just think they’re overblown and if I’m honest it’s largely a Notre Dame culture issue that’s spanned multiple coaches. If there are problems for that long of a period when do we stop blaming the strength coach?
If there’s a common ground, it seems as if over time the players begin to tune out the strength program and go through the motions. Kelly recently stated that Paul Longo wasn’t able to get “down in the trenches” with the players like he used to, but there’s also plenty of rumors that players were slacking off on dietary issues, not giving 100%, and also getting too many academic exceptions to skip workouts, the latter verified by Kelly at his recent presser.
That sounds a lot like a cultural issue and not one easily solved long-term by one strength coach who shout loudly and blasts death metal in the weight room.
Genius Coach Thinks He’s Smarter Than Everyone
This summed up Charlie Weis perfectly. Ultimately, it was his greatest downfall because it distracted him from being able (or willing?) to run an entire program. Years ago, we talked about how Kelly was SO different as an offensive mind and play-caller. Today, he’s getting a lot of the same criticism.
To Weis’ credit his stubbornness was at least part of the reason why he was successful running an offense at times, or at least developing quarterbacks. Kelly’s system and playbook has always been different but it seems as though his lack of a strong hand in the offense has led to some issues, particularly this past season. Although, it is funny that out of the two it’ll be Kelly with the (likely) highest drafted quarterback–and from a much less heralded recruit.
Truth Comparison: 30%
Kelly, like every coach, has had his fair share of head scratching moments as a play-caller and offensive coach. Overall, he’s struggled far more with organizational issues (and hires) than trying to prove how smart he is as a beautiful mind. That was completely Weis’ mindset and he’d even tell you so.
Administration Not Spending Enough
When is this not a complaint? Say what you will about Jack Swarbrick but he hasn’t been shy about providing resources to the football program. The Gug continues to be remodeled with a renovated (or brand new) indoor practice field on the horizon. The training table and nutrition program have been expanded. Assistant coaching salaries have received a significant rise throughout Kelly’s tenure. Crossroads is pouring at least $100 million into the football program in one way or another.
During the Weis era the administration was just beginning to come out of its decade-long hibernation (the Gug opened in 2005, for example) although the training table was years away and coaching salaries, in particular, remained a large sticking point right through 2009.
Truth Comparison: 10%
It seems as if no matter what there will always be criticism that Notre Dame isn’t doing enough financially to make sure the program is at its best. Fifteen years ago that was much more of a legit argument and the truth is the likes of Alabama, Oregon, and Michigan keep pushing the budgets ever larger while Notre Dame is typically a step behind but not as much as in the past.
If this is a problem for Notre Dame it’s not a large one.
Poor Recruiting Organization
Charlie Weis never got tagged for poor effort. Even late into his tenure one of the positives always associated with his name was that he “proved” Notre Dame could attract super stars again. It took a while but Clausen, Kamara, Ragone, Gray, Floyd, Crist, Rudolph, Johnson, Te’o, and Watt were all elite recruits packed into his last 3 classes.
Weis did get criticized for star chasing and mismanaging too many defensive recruits thus creating a top-heavy roster that ultimately lacked depth. From day one, Kelly’s strengths were Weis’ weaknesses in this regard. Lately, Kelly has come under fire for a lack of effort, primarily for missing on too many elite players, poor scrambling late in the cycle, as well as underachieving on closing up to Signing Day.
Truth Comparison: 65%
Both coach’s strengths and weaknesses were seemingly polar opposites in some ways. In the big picture, Weis finished with better ranked but shallow classes while Kelly has lower ranked but better targeted classes. Either way, there’s always room for complaining about recruiting unless your Alabama and Kelly is headed towards his 4th straight non-Top 10 class, and possibly his lowest rated of his tenure. You can see why it’s a worry.
I have no doubt that we as Notre Dame fans sometimes unknowingly use our past experiences with old coaches to explain the current climate. At a place so tradition rich and obsessed with timelines (you gotta win a title in your third year!) we can make anything fit into something from the past.
In this vein, perhaps Kelly’s tenure feels somewhat like Weis’ except more elastic and drawn out.
Still, there are some striking differences between the coaches while the strength program, offensive tactics, and administration effort all look like more of a crutch for us to lean on when things start to go bad even if there are smaller similarities floating around through the years.
However, the defensive coaching blunders are a common trait and when paired with the problems in recruiting (which have tilted overwhelmingly toward defense) you have to wonder how much of this is a Notre Dame Problem. Perhaps that’s the lesson for any future coach–you’d better have a great plan for defense at every level of the organization and be able to adapt when assistants leave for other jobs.