SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Having watched the Notre Dame football team all season in 2011, athletic director Jack Swarbrick was concerned. He had seen all the good that was coming, had seen a coaching staff rebuild everything from strength and conditioning to culture, and could see that there might be a breakthrough on the horizon.
But that schedule. Oh, that schedule.
“I could tell the team was much better, but I was worried that the difficulty of the schedule might mask it,” Swarbrick said. “I was worried that the progress I knew was there — I could see it when I was at practice, I could see it when I was at the building with the kids — might be obscured. Thankfully, it hasn’t been.”
No, it hasn’t. The Irish stand at 9-0 entering Saturday’s game at Boston College. They are one of four unbeaten teams in the nation, on the brink of bringing a titan back to its rightful place in college football, a place Notre Dame hasn’t been in quite some time.
So, is Notre Dame back?
“What is different is the foundation of a successful program is back,” Swarbrick said. “So I think those building-block elements are now in place, that we will have the opportunity to be successful in the future where we didn’t in recent years.
“Getting those addressed, in that sense, Notre Dame is back.”
For two decades, Touchdown Jesus has presided over mediocrity, if not failure. There has been plenty of disappointment — for players, administrators, alums, and NBC. Notre Dame brought in big names to fix the program: Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis, and, for a second, George O’Leary.
None could restore the sheen.
But Brian Kelly has done it, guiding Notre Dame to that sparkling record, bringing the pride back to a university so synonymous with football.
“I’m not sure if we’re back,” said star linebacker Manti Te’o. “We’re just at that competitive level now. I think the biggest example of that are those close games. Before, it’s kind of like everybody’s praying: ‘I hope we win, I hope we win.’ But now it’s, ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to find a way to win.’
“We have that confidence about ourselves. That, for us, is a sign that, yeah, we’re not back yet, but we’re on our way.”
Flashes amid frustration
In his third year at the helm — traditionally a make-or-break year for Notre Dame coaches — Kelly has the team fourth in the BCS standings, behind undefeated Alabama, Kansas State, and Oregon.
The most famous of Notre Dame coaches, the ones with bronzed images on campus and gates of the football stadium named after them, saw their great success start in that third year. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third season. Knute Rockne delivered an undefeated season, his second straight.
“When I went about the process of trying to bring a new coach into the program, demonstrated history of having built a program was really critical to me,” Swarbrick said. “Not, ‘What scheme do you run?’ or ‘Are you a great recruiter?’ It was, ‘Have you built programs?’ And Brian had. He had built them and built them to sustained success.”
Kelly has indeed built programs, at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but those last two stints each lasted three years. He didn’t get beyond that, didn’t prove that the winning would continue.
He’ll have to do that at Notre Dame, because the Irish faithful have seen this before. In those 20 years of frustration, there have been only brief flashes of possibility.
Willingham led Notre Dame to a 10-3 record in his first season; Weis went 10-3 in his second. Those are the only two double-digit-win campaigns since Holtz’s 11-1 squad in 1993. There have been seven seasons of six or fewer wins.
And many of those other seasons, while good enough elsewhere, are not good enough here.
“There’s a college football head coach and then there’s a head coach at Notre Dame,” Te’o said. “It’s different. It’s hard dealing with that pressure. Notre Dame is under such a spotlight where everything you do everybody sees.
“Everybody has such big expectations, and if you don’t reach them, you’re a failure.”
There are, however, reasons to believe in this program again, reasons to believe that Kelly will be the one to return Notre Dame to that aforementioned sustained success.
Swarbrick has seen a culture change begin, with the team becoming more “student-athlete driven,” instead of the more professional-team model that once prevailed.
“There’s an ownership by the student-athletes, which has fully taken hold,” he said. “I see that difference more than anything else.”
“It’s a climb,” said Kelly. “You’re developing a football program on a consistency that you want your team to have. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing that consistency.
“The challenges each year are different because of the different players you have. But it’s still the same. It’s still habits on a day-to-day basis. It’s still preparation. It’s still performing. That hasn’t changed.
“Now you have a group of players that know what you expect from them going into where we are right now.”
Matters of trust
The effects of the resurgence are not yet tangible. There is no evidence that the school will see a spike in applications — there are plenty of those, no matter how the football program does — but there are ways to measure the interest, the importance of a return to prominence.
Television ratings for Notre Dame football games are up 76 percent over last season, when the Irish went 8-5. The number is up to 4.68 million viewers this season, as opposed to 2.66 million last season, according to NBC Sports.
“The ratings this year have really helped reinforce the notion that there’s an interest in this team and this program that far exceeds the number of people who have graduated from this school,” Swarbrick said.
But heightened interest doesn’t mean Notre Dame will now contend every year. It doesn’t mean Notre Dame will become the power it once was. There are other things, though, that to Swarbrick and Kelly indicate that it will.
Swarbrick recalled his first year in South Bend as athletic director, five years ago, when the defensive front seven lost an average of 13 pounds during the season. That isn’t happening anymore. The injury rate is down, including almost no hamstring issues.
“Our approach to medical services, training, strength conditioning, nutrition, scheduling of the student-athletes, all are important building blocks in trying to create a program,” he said, “and I feel really good about where those are.”
There also is trust. The players trust in Kelly. They trust that he will make them better. They trust that he will lead them in the right direction, a direction that this season has led to wins over Michigan, Stanford, and Oklahoma, and might just lead to the national title game, if a few things break their way.
And if that happens, Notre Dame fans might just find their past becoming the present.
“I just think there is an immense amount of pride in Notre Dame followers and our alums, that they want to see their university well-regarded as it relates to intercollegiate athletics, and in particular football,” Kelly said. “It’s part of who we are.”