College Football Showcases Coaching as Best in Class

The college football regular season winds down this weekend and teams have post-season prospects or they don’t.  When all’s said and done – by which I mean when Alabama or Georgia reminds us all why the SEC is the dominant conference of the modern era – fans will shift their focus to other sports and otherwise mundane aspects of life.  But not so the college football coach, who simply puts his program in a different gear and pivots to the recruiting process where the future is now.  So many bright young stars in the universe to find, recruit and cultivate.   This is not just the stuff of possibility; it is also cause for being reflective.  Participating in the BCS and SEC title games is are programs hell-bent on getting there every year.  This is purely and exclusively a coaching thing.  It is too easy and simplistic to mistake the starring players for the more universal attributes of a well-coached college football program.  The BCS championship game is a matchup pinning Notre Dame and its rich history against the eventual SEC champion.  It is not about who has the players who performed best in high school football.  This is about who designs, develops, manages and leads a college football program to success.  The notion that simply having the best players wins games does not ring true.

Brian Kelly has done a masterful job this year.  He may or may not win a national title in 6 weeks (and I am on record as suggesting that the SEC will deny him this honor), but in only his third year as head coach of the most storied school in college football he has done something that hasn’t been done in 25 years. He has returned the program to the pinnacle of the college football elites.  Lest we forget, there were fine but unsuccessful coaches at the helm during the intervening years, and Notre Dame’s recruiting program has never suffered for talent.  But Kelly’s leadership, vision and execution gelled the program into excellence.  Okay, so Notre Dame’s season did not go off without a hitch, as dominant performances were punctuated by some near-miss clunkers that could have cost them their shot at the title. The Irish had many goal line stands and field goals that could have gone another way.  A loss or two would have identified the Irish as a program on the rise, inexorably marching toward a future BCS title challenge.  But these Irish are where they are, overachieving or not, because Kelly and his staff put them in the right position at the right time to make the plays needed to win. It’s as simple as that, and when Notre Dame was down late in the fourth quarter to Pitt with a loss staring them dead-on, Kelly kept his team focused on the task at hand and elicited the best fight in all of them.  At that moment, in that team, on that field, against Pitt,  Kelly provided the kind of inspired leadership that Knute Rockne provided his Four Horseman.  Magical, legendary stuff.  The stuff of champions.

Brian Kelly has a way to go before being realistically paired with the ghost of Knute Rockne, but if he manages to pull a convincing win out of the underdog hat against the SEC champion then many – certainly every Notre Dame fan, and there are more than a couple out there – will relive a long proud history of superlatives over and over again.

So kudos to Brian Kelly and his team on a great season.  There now remains one last, large, looming opponent; the identity of which will be known at around 7pm CST Saturday.

While Notre Dame gets all the deserved attention, anther Irishman deserves honorable mention.  Penn State’s Bill O’Brien found himself under the harshest, most scrutinized light and toughest circumstances yet led his team to a winning record and an impressive close to the season.  The Penn State Nittany Lions still have three years left on probation after the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked not only college football but a town and a nation. However O’Brien faced the challenge head on and told his players if they stayed they would be apart of something they would never forget. That is almost certainly the case. Every single Penn State game was on national television, the team lost their best running back Silas Redd to the preseason number-one team in the country, and other blue-chip defenders decided to take their leave and move to other programs. Seemingly unfazed, O’Brien played the hand he was dealt.  Unsurprisingly, he lost the first 2 games of the season, but then went 8-2 the rest of the season while only losing to Nebraska on the road (the Big10 championship contender) and Ohio State (12-0).  Bill O’Brien has 8 years left on his deal and comes from a system where coaches don’t often do well after moving on to other things.  If you asked Bill Belichick for his opinion of his former offensive coordinator’s season enveloped by penalties and notorious distractions, he’d probably say he couldn’t have done a better job than O’Brien.  O’Brien will have NFL teams reaching out to him in the near future, but first the AP needs to recognize him as Coach of the Year, which is probably unlikely in the sensitive context of this year’s events.

Notes:

Silas Redd was the most sought-after player in the wake of the Sandusky Scandal yet ended up being a mere backup on a team that didn’t live up to expectations and finished with a worse record than PSU.