By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview
On November 26, 2016, the Notre Dame Football team walked off the field of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum 45-27 losers to archival Southern Cal. Mercifully, a 4-8 season—had come to an end and the dreams of many an Irish fan were in shambles.
Notre Dame Nation was shell shocked and the Notre Dame Football program, just 4 years after having played for a National Championship, was in disarray. Many fans wanted Brian Kelly fired.
Despite significant pressure, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick stood by his coach, but ordered up changes. An 8 and half hour post season meeting between Coach and boss outlined a plan and…..Brian Kelly got to working on a dream.
Gut wrenching decisions were made as long time assistants had to move on as the staff was overhauled. Fresh blood and fresh ideas including offensive, defensive and special team coordinators came on board. Nutrition, psychology, technology, facilities: no aspect of the program was left untouched. In all 17 new staff members were hired.
Kelly also hired a new strength and conditioning Coach, gave up play calling duties and resolved to reconnect with his players, in the locker room, at meals and on the sidelines. Kelly became less the CEO and offensive coordinator and more the head coach.
And Brian Kelly took up yoga.
During that off season the first tangible evidence of change came in the form of social media posts from the players. New strength Coach Scott Balis installed a new program and discipline and before long “body by Balis” along with before and after photos of players became an Instagram sensation.
The results looked impressive.
As 2017 finally rolled around progress on the field was obvious. Come November “33 trucking”, Josh Adams, Brandon Wimbush and an offensive line led by two future NFL top 10 picks was rolling and the Irish reached #3 in the polls.
But when “33 trucking” rolled in to South Florida in mid-November, a Saturday night matchup in front of a hostile crowd against a fired up Miami team turned…. into a 41-8 rout. The Irish learned a hard lesson that night….. one, that would make them better.
And work on the dream moved forward.
New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl presented an opportunity against a very good LSU team. Brandon Wimbush was ineffective as the Irish offense sputtered early in the game but the defense was doing their job. With 2 minutes left in the first half the game was a 0-0 tie. Notre Dame had the ball at their own 20 yard line.
Enter Ian Book.
Book led the Irish to points before the half and then threw the game winner, from 55 yards out to Miles Boykin late in the game to seal a victory.
The Irish finished their rebuild year in style at 10-3.
Soon thereafter a few more staff changes happened and most importantly the heart of the ND defense: Tillery, Coney and Tranquill all decided to put off the NFL for one more year…… of working on a dream.
During the build up to the 2018 season, the buzz was about the addition of Navy transfer Alohi Gilman at safety and depth and pass rushing athleticism on the defensive line. The Irish continued piecing together their dream as the work continued.
After the Spring game Brian Kelly announced that Brandon Wimbush would remain the starter, but that Wimbush and Ian Book were “1A and1B”.
And having learned a lesson at Miami in 2017, Brian Kelly talked about “the edge” as in don’t ever lose your edge…oh and…….. beat Michigan in the season opener.
With Wimbush at quarterback, Notre Dame did beat Michigan, and things were on track for a shot at a dream fulfilling season.
But lackluster offensive performance in wins over Ball State and Vanderbilt kept Brian Kelly working and he came up with the gutsy call to bench his 13-3 as a starting QB Brandon Wimbush and against Wake Forest……enter again…… this time for good…..Ian Book…… and the dream came into focus.
With Book running the offensive show and the addition of Dexter Williams a week later the Irish offense exploded and that made a “full of stars” defense, even better.
Notre Dame had balance on offense, was full of weapons on defense and they rolled to 12-0 and the College Football playoff.
The remake that Brian Kelly started after the 2016 season has been impressive and the process was validated with Brian Kelly being named National Coach of the year last week.
And now it’s simple math: 1 win plus 1 more win would equal: the 12th National Championship in Notre Dame’s storied football history.
And Brian Kelly will have worked the shambles of 2016 into a 2018…. dream.