By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Surrounded by the wreckage of a ruined season, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly has been reduced to looking for a rescue.
The Fighting Irish gave up the fight Saturday, collapsing in a 49-14 loss at USC that capped a dismal four-game losing streak, leaving their record at 7-5. Kelly was quick to pin the struggles on his young players, many of whom have been forced into action due to injuries.
“This is not a program situation,” Kelly said afterward. “This is personnel.”
So it’s certainly not coaching or anything like that, then. Got it.
Whatever the reasons for Notre Dame’s dismal turn, Kelly’s position in South Bend is oddly precarious for a coach so recently removed from national awards and an ensuing contract extension. But rather than the start of bigger and better things, the national championship loss to Alabama two seasons ago now looks like it was the peak.
And the Irish were exposed as pretenders in that game, you’ll remember, with the 42-14 final not even playing that closely. After a soft schedule treated them favorably, Nick Saban’s superior athletes did not, and Notre Dame’s status as any kind of elite contender proved as real as Manti Teo’s fake dead girlfriend.
In 2013, it was 8-4 and a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl in the Bronx, with the year ending with a 29-16 win over a 6-6 Rutgers team.
“A good season that could have been a great season,” Kelly called it.
We’ll see how he describes this one, after his team plays whomever in this year’s bowl, be it a return to the Pinstripe or some new experience in the Belk, Sun, Music City or TaxSlayer Bowl. After five seasons, Kelly’s record is 44-20, and he’s treading water.
The years have been marked by all kinds of other difficulties as well. In 2010, student videographer Declan Sullivan was killed in a fall from a scissor-lift after being instructed to film practice in dangerously high winds. That same year, Kelly appeared to help stonewall a rape investigation involving linebacker Prince Shembo after the alleged victim committed suicide. Then came the entire Teo “catfishing” saga, and this year four players were suspended for academic fraud.
After all this, Kelly’s relationship with athletic director Jack Swarbrick is said to be in total disrepair despite the deal that runs through the 2017 season. Swarbrick has a reputation as a micro-manager and meddler, and the fact that he never moved to South Bend – choosing instead to commute from Indianapolis – hasn’t resonated well with many at the school. He himself has been rumored to have been working back channels for his own potential job search, even as Kelly has been in the spotlight.
Kelly may be kicking himself for not pushing harder when the Philadelphia Eagles called him for an interview after the national title game, instead using the leverage for that sweetened extension. Now he can only hope that some desperate NFL team still sees him as viable after this year’s collapse and the deterioration of quarterback Everett Golson from Heisman hopeful to benchwarmer. It’s possible he missed his best chance to bolt an uncomfortable situation.
Meanwhile, other traditional powers are also looking for restoration. Michigan and Nebraska are acting on the expectations that befit their respective histories, as is Florida after an unconscionably bad showing despite existing in the most fertile recruiting ground. A lateral move for Kelly seems unlikely, but nothing can be ruled out.
Notre Dame is ordinary under Brian Kelly, and Notre Dame can’t live with itself in that state, even if confronting that truth would be for the best. Other than having its own television deal and gobs of ancient, gooey mythos, it’s just another faded Midwestern power.
Unfortunately for both parties, there’s no obvious savior right now for either one of them.