SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Standing to the side as Notre Dame assistant coaches and players preparing for the upcoming BCS national championship game were interviewed nearby in the Loftus Sports Center, athletic director Jack Swarbrick considered what it had taken to make this seemingly inevitable revival of Notre Dame football actually happen.
The native of Yonkers, N.Y., recalled the words years ago of often-acerbic broadcaster Howard Cosell, pointing out the deficiencies of a ham-handed designated hitter forced to play in the outfield for a World Series game.
“'The game will find him, and it will expose that he can't catch a fly ball,' ” Swarbrick recalled, with a chuckle. “And sure enough, that's what happened.”
And, sure enough, that was what had been happening at Notre Dame.
“The great thing about elite athletics is if you've got a weakness, it exposes it; it will always expose it,” he said, adding by implication that much had unraveled or decayed: “You had to be willing to rebuild the entire program.”
It wasn't just that Notre Dame hadn't won a national championship since 1988, the longest drought between titles since the school captured its first in 1924 and clutched 10 others an average of every 5.8 years.
It was that the Fighting Irish had become “almost nationally irrelevant” in the eyes of some pundits, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said, moments after making an unrelated point that testified to why Notre Dame never should be relegated to that.
“No. 1 graduation rate in the country; No. 1 fan base in terms of size . (and television) viewership,” he said. “There's a lot of things that the school, the university, sells itself.
”So you shouldn't have to concede anywhere.“
But Notre Dame, in fact, had been receding, bottoming out when Charlie Weis' last three teams went 16-21 from 2007-2009, the final fallout in what was in some ways a chain reaction to the last Irish title.
Lou Holtz guided that 1988 team and in 11 seasons went 100-30-2, leaving him just five wins behind Knute Rockne's school record. For reasons that remain fuzzy, Holtz left after the 1996 season.
”Now everybody says, ‘Oh, you were a great coach, we loved having you,' “ Holtz, now an ESPN analyst, said during a Dec. 19 teleconference. ”Well, where were you when I was there?“
But Holtz essentially answered his own question.
”What happens is when you win (the title) everybody puts you on a pedestal. And once you're on a pedestal, no matter what you do, it ain't good enough,“ he said. ”We finished second in the country, and everybody called me an idiot. A guy finishes last at medical school, they call him ‘doctor.' When you win, you didn't win impressively enough and you didn't win big enough.
“You get nothing but criticism after that time. . Once you're on top, the only story then is coming down.”
Holtz's tenure wasn't without off-the-field controversy that surely contributed to his demise, but it's also true that after Notre Dame's 12-0 1988 season he had three other teams that lost only one game and, at least to him, were deemed disasters.
The dominoes of inflated expectations tumbled after he left, with Bob Davie going 35-25, begetting Tyrone Willingham (21-15) and, finally, Weis (35-27).
Sweeping changes no longer were an option to Swarbrick.
“People kept on saying, ‘this coach' or ‘this scheme' or ‘this approach to recruiting,' ” he said. “Fans always want to talk about schemes and recruiting. Both matter.
”But how you schedule your student-athletes in the course of a day is every bit as important. What your academic services are like, what your nutrition (program) is like, strength and conditioning — any piece of that that's broken gets exposed.“
All of that helps explain why Notre Dame turned to Brian Kelly, who had gone 34-6 at Cincinnati — including 12-0 in 2009 — and previously was an aspiring politician, architect of a Division II powerhouse at Grand Valley (Mich.) State and resuscitator of Central Michigan's program.
”What so attracted us to Brian is he was a program-builder,“ Swarbrick said. ”He had done it before. He knew how to do it. And he could articulate it. That's really the defining thing. .
“It wasn't, ‘We've got to address all these things.' It was, ‘Here's how we'll address all these things. Here's what we need to do.' And he had a real clear vision about it.”
The vision included a key variable, though.
“He had a flexibility: He didn't approach it the same way at every place,” Swarbrick said. “If it was a guy with a one-size-fits-all (mentality), it wasn't going to work.”
So it was that a coach previously perceived as an “offensive guru,” as Swarbrick put it, spent 70 percent of his time in their interviews talking about defense.
So it is that Notre Dame went from 16-10 in his first two seasons and unranked at the start of this one to 12-0 and No. 1 entering the Jan. 7 BCS title game against Alabama (12-1) largely by virtue of the defensive emphasis of Kelly, 51, winner of multiple national coach of the year awards.
Led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, the Fighting Irish lead the nation in scoring defense (10.33 points a game; Alabama is second at 10.69) and are fourth in rushing defense and total defense — categories in which ‘Bama leads.
For context, consider that Notre Dame gave up more points in Weis' last four games there (128) than it has the entire 2012 season to date (124).
“That's why Coach Kelly is the best head football coach in America — because Coach Kelly will do what's necessary to try to be sure that we have one more point at the end of the game than our opponent,” Diaco said. “So he'll talk to who he needs to talk to. He'll change what he needs to change. He'll tweak what he needs to tweak. (And) he listens about it every day. It's one of his greatest, greatest assets.”
Time and again, people point to those communication skills as vital to his success.
Asked about his relationship with Kelly, Diaco said, “It's Batman-Robin. Obviously, he's Batman. It's the best. I know what he's thinking before he's thinking it. I'm on it. He doesn't have to come talk to me, (but) he does and he can and he knows I'm not going to be sensitive about it.”
Notre Dame's offense also became an asset after a sluggish start, in great measure because of the improvement of redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
“We had two things going on there: We had, ‘We're going to play a freshman quarterback,' and ‘We're not going to say it's a transition year,'” Kelly said at his news conference Dec. 19. “We're going to give him experience, take our lumps and move forward. .
”So with those two things coming together, you have to find a way to win those games, manage those games, limit possessions, hold on to the football.
“So because those were the two immediate factors, then you have to adapt to the way you run those games. That's how we came up with the formula this year to play the way we've played.”
The formula, enhanced by some blend of grit and fortune considering five wins came by seven points or fewer, was just another derivative of what brought Kelly this far.
“All of those experiences have made me who I am today, good and bad,” he said. “I mean, there's learning on the job at Grand Valley at 28 years old. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I really didn't. I was kind of learning as I went. .
”Being able to put staffs together along the way. Getting out in the community in Cincinnati and trying to build momentum for a football program.
“All of those experiences helped me get where I was here at Notre Dame. And then, there is no job like Notre Dame. No amount of preparation gets you ready for the job at Notre Dame.”
Not even his past in politics, including campaigning for his father, an alderman in Chelsea, Mass., and working for Gary Hart's 1984 presidential run.
Asked if he might consider a run for governor if the Irish beat Alabama, Kelly joked, “Yeah — governor of South Bend. Is there a governor of South Bend?”
With a smile, he added, “I was driving up to a location just north and at a muffler place (a sign) said, ‘Long live Brian Kelly.' So I think I got one vote from the guy from the muffler place.”
If Notre Dame loses, of course, that could change. And even if it wins, Kelly will create an entirely new challenge: sustaining.
“The expectations become different,” Holtz said. “You're supposed to be infallible, you're supposed to never make a mistake, your team is always supposed to have everything perfect.
”And I think (legendary Texas coach) Darrell Royal summed it up best, and this is what happened: When you win, it's a relief; when you lose, it's a catastrophe, and it's not much fun anymore.“
At least for another few days, though, there is nothing but fun for the Fighting Irish and their fans — who after nearly a generation without a title might momentarily appreciate that there was nothing inevitable about being back on the pedestal.
MCT Information Services