Twenty-two months ago Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was in the throes of a full-blown crisis surrounding the Fighting Irish football program. The team had just completely stumbled to a 4-8 record shattering the floor that some believed could never occur under Brian Kelly, the program was without a defensive coordinator following the prolonged disaster (and subsequent firing) of Brian VanGorder, while plenty of arrows were flying Swarbrick’s direction for his apparent lack of public acknowledgment–and responsibility–for the situation in late 2016.
When Swarbrick finally stepped into the light on his radio show on December 3, 2016 he mentioned it was ‘business as usual’ for the football program and that he never looked at one season in isolation as the 2015 season was ‘one of the best coaching jobs he’d seen’ in his career.
To be sure, Swarbrick’s comments ruffled some feathers insofar as they were a complete backing of Brian Kelly in addition to being, at least a little bit, somewhat tone-deaf to the frustration of fans who wanted more concrete answers to Notre Dame’s problems. In many circles, the Irish appeared ripe for major changes all throughout the football program, including a good hard look at the head coach. Swarbrick’s apparent calmness and public vibe that everything was fine flew in the face of the swirling turmoil.
Throughout this time, our 18 Stripes staff remained mostly ambivalent. Some agreed Kelly should be fired or that it was time to move on although the prospects of finding the next head coach weren’t very exciting*. Some agreed he should probably remain in South Bend although that very ambivalence about the situation was a really poor sign for the future.
*In late November 2016 we published The List of 30 coaches who could be realistic options to take over for Brian Kelly. Since then, 5 of those coach’s have been fired, 3 are inching closer to being fired, and while a couple have maintained their lofty status (Dabo Swinney, Chris Petersen) and weren’t that realistic to begin with there’s only a couple coach’s from 30 a year-and-a-half later that have clearly improved their programs: Jeff Brohm and to a lesser extent Justin Fuente. Not coincidentally, many people were in favor of those two.
I leaned towards the former group of a firing but wasn’t too stressed about it because I felt Kelly’s tenure was coming to a close, 2017 would tilt the balance, and if needed the program would have a full year to find a replacement as the buyout decreased by several million dollars. An extra year to get the right hire wouldn’t have bothered me one bit.
To be fair, Swarbrick wasn’t nearly as calm about the situation after he green-lit extensive changes to the coaching staff outside of Kelly. Swarbrick’s patience with this situation took a lot of guts and his doubling down–not just on Brian Kelly but a full 2.0 rebuild of the staff and program–has paid off to a degree most didn’t see coming. Since the beginning of 2017 the Irish are on a 17-3 run winning 85% of their games while matching the best 20-game streak of the Kelly era that previously stretched from October 29, 2011 through August 31, 2013.
Needless to say, the coaching carousel doesn’t appear to be coming to South Bend any time soon. I’ve been utterly convinced that the end of Kelly’s tenure would be full of bitterness and acrimony and yet today the path forward appears as smooth as any since November 2012. The Irish are winning, the facilities have been upgraded in a way that seemed ridiculous a decade ago, the assistant coaches are thriving, and recruiting remains productive with quality player development.
Nearly everyone who doesn’t have an ax to grind with Notre Dame agrees that it’s a really difficult place to win today but is it possible we’re underselling the appeal of this job as head toward the 2020’s decade?
This brings up an interesting possibility of Kelly’s “good times” occurring as both he and Jack Swarbrick near retirement. Notre Dame’s AD is currently in his 11th year with the program and is over 7.5 years older than the Irish football coach. How much longer will Swarbrick be around?
Additionally, the current contract for Kelly expires following the 2021 season which means in the modern game of “why let anyone negatively recruit you” he should be due another extension some time this December. Maybe it’s just a one-year extension but even if it’s longer it’s pretty crazy that we were talking not that long ago about Kelly’s shrinking buyout in relation to a coaching search and the school may be adding an additional $10+ million to the ticket relatively soon.
With a two-year extension, Kelly’s new contract would take him one year removed from when he said he’d be on the beach sipping mai tai’s for the 2024 game against Texas A&M.
Is it fair to predict Kelly will now be the longest-tenured Fighting Irish head coach in school history? Will he put together 3 more seasons beyond this current campaign? Are we moving towards a most likely scenario where Kelly will retire from coaching and step away from Notre Dame instead of being fired?
One thing is certain, thanks to the even-handed justice of the NCAA there will be no run at Rockne’s wins record. Without the NCAA’s prudence, Kelly would be moving within ~25 wins of the school-record mark near the conclusion of this season. Instead, he’s still just half way toward the record.
For Swarbrick, he will have to juggle how much praise (and money!) to dish out to the current coaching staff because he may not be around to see the end of those decisions, and there’s also a harsh lesson at Notre Dame, that what looks good today may not necessarily look that way tomorrow. Everyone making those high-level decisions in South Bend right now has to weigh those concerns. As difficult as it may be for some to think right now, imagine a 10-3 finish to this 2018 season. Now what does the future look like with regards to million dollar contracts?