It’s a predictable occurence: February, May, June, and July are slow months so we spend our time talking about a boatload of potential recruits and we make predictions about the upcoming season.
How about instead of blind predictions for next year’s wins and losses, we do a little detective work to identify patterns and trends that can point us toward a wide and general path that Hurricane Notre Dame will most likely take?
Let’s do that in parts.
Notre Dame slowly but surely gets better.
That Notre Dame gets better: this is so very general and, frankly, not a very bold prediction, that it seems like a foregone conclusion.
But don’t take it for granted. Remember Willingham — 10-3 in ’02, then 5-7 in ’03.
The funny thing is: Willingham was the exception. Getting better in year two is the rule at Notre Dame. Even in the case of Faust — 5-6 in ’81 and 6-4-1 in ’82 — Davies — 7-6 in ’97 and 9-3 in ’98 — and Weis — 9-3 in ’05 and 10-3 in ’06 — there was improvement in year two. Looking back, I was surprised by that pattern. Surely, I thought, Faust and Davies got worse. But no, in the case of both Davies (5-7) and Weis (3-9), it was year three when it all started to fall apart. For Faust, there was very slow improvement from years one to two to three — 5-6, 6-4-1, and 7-5 — than continued mediocrity in year four — 7-5 — and the collapse in year five — 5-6.
So year three is the litmus test. Not only for the reason that everyone points to — Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, and Holz all winning titles by their third year — but also because the chinks in the armor seem to show up in year three for those coaches who will not have sucess.
But I digress. It is year two that we are about to enjoy. And history tells us that year two for a new coach at Notre Dame will be a fun one for the fans.
What about year two and Coach Kelly in particular? Can we see any trend in the way his teams perform?
GVS – the record went from 9-3 to 8-3. OK, not encouraging; but it is hard to read much into that. First of all, it was a long time ago. Second, Coach Kelly was green behind the ears: it was his second year as a Head Coach ever, anywhere, period. Finally, it was Division II: the minor leagues. Year three turned out to be even worse: he went 6-3-2. Bottom line: it took Coach Kelly almost seven years his first go-around to achieve excellence (9-2 with a conference championship in ’97).
GVS Part II – Interesting development in year 9 at GVS (yes, Coach Kelly coached a long time there): after a very solid 9-3 season with a conference championship the Lakers moved over into another conference (The Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference). They proceeded to have their worse year (5-5) under Coach Kelly. But they rebounded very quickly, going 7-4 the following year and then 13-1 with a second place in the National Championships the year after that. Year four and five they won it all.
Central Michigan – CMU had only won 17 games in five years: that’s an average of 3.4 wins per season. Coach Kelly had his only losing season (in 21 years as a Head Coach) his first year there; but he still helped them win four games. His second year, they won six.
Cincinnati – Coach Kelly won Coach of the year all three years he coached in the Big East. Interesting fact: Cincinnati went 8-5 the year before Coach Kelly arrived. 8-5: sound familiar? His first season was an improbable 10-3. Surely many experts were impressed but figured the chances were he would be unable to beat or even maintain that level of success at Cinci. So what does he do? In year two, he follows it up with an 11-3 season and a BCS bowl invitation.
Which of those circumstances most resembles Notre Dame in 2011? First off, GVS is so utterly distinct as a Division II school and Coach Kelly’s very first Head Coaching job. Also, it appears that he has developed the ability to adapt at a faster rate from his first years at GVS to his first years in the new conference at GVS to his first years at CMU to his first years at Cincinnati. Detractors might argue that coaching at Notre Dame is like starting all over again; but, if so, with Coach Kelly’s accelerated learning curve, it is also likely that he already went through those growing pains in year one. Considering Coach Kelly took over a Cincinnati team with an identical 8-5 record, and that it was only four year ago, 2007 may be the most relevant even though it was his first year. The Bearcats went 10-3, 4-3 in the Big East, that year.
Think back to right after the Tulsa game. All the gnashing of teeth and recrimination and “I told you so’s.” Heck, I was using both hands to keep my head from exploding as both Notre Dame homers and haters had at it (nice illiteration, huh?). A careful student of Notre Dame football and Coach Kelly would have sat back and said, “those first nine games were tough on us, sure, but there is no way this team and this coach finish under 0.500. In fact, chances are we finish very strong.” And look what happened.
Yes, hindsight is 20/20. That’s why we should use it more often. Identifying and projecting forward using the patterns and trends of the past is pretty good too. So if you are shading in the projected path of this mighty force we call Hurricane Notre Dame, taking into account that it is being directed by Coach Kelly, you have to say that nine wins is a minimum next year, ten wins is right in the wheelhouse, and up to eleven wins is a realistic expectation. Should be fun.