Kelly a perfect fit to revive the Irish
CINCINNATI -- If you are a Cincinnati Bearcats football fan, you walk around waiting for the anvil to fall on your head.
You're conditioned to it. The many coaches who couldn't get it done there? They tended to stay for years. But on those sporadic occasions when the program has enjoyed success, someone always comes to poach your coach.
Only three of the previous 12 Bearcats bosses produced winning records at the school. None of those three stayed more than four seasons before jilting Cincy for bigger and ostensibly better. Tony Mason fled for Arizona in the '70s; Mike Gottfried left for Pittsburgh in the '80s; and Mark Dantonio split in 2006 for Michigan State.
Even some of the non-winners jumped Cincinnati's historically leaky ship. Watson Brown turned in a 4-6-1 debut season in 1983 and immediately made a lateral evacuation to Rice. And then there was Tim Murphy, the guy whose hard work to pull the program out of obsolescence peaked with an 8-3 record in 1993. After that, he up and left for Harvard.
When you get jilted for Harvard, your inferiority complex is well-earned. So the Cincy fans have a justifiable sense of fatalism when it comes to current coach Brian Kelly. With the Notre Dame job now open and Kelly having taken the Bearcats to 11-0 and the top five of the BCS standings, the fans can almost see the moving vans coming.
Naturally, all of this comes to a boil the week Cincy is playing Pittsburgh for the Big East title, a BCS bowl berth, and its first undefeated and untied season since going 1-0 in 1887. Bearcat Nation is almost resigned to bad news compounded by bad timing.
Squaring off against decades-thick pessimism is the optimism of youth, as voiced by senior wide receiver Mardy Gilyard.
"I laugh when I hear it," Gilyard said earlier this month. "Fans ask me all the time, 'Is Coach Kelly going to Notre Dame or Michigan or some bigger place?' Ain't UC big enough? We're in a BCS conference, and we're winning. I think it's a perfect fit for Brian Kelly.
"We had another coach [Dantonio] who looked us straight in the face and said he wasn't leaving. We remember that.
"What better place is there to be than Cincinnati?"
Well, Mardy, there is South Bend. And what that town might lack in metropolitan amenities, it more than makes up for in football terms.
In spite of Gilyard's protestations, Kelly would have to be certifiably insane not to answer a call from Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. In fact, he probably wouldn't even take the call -- just seeing the 574 area code flash on his cell might be enough to make Kelly jump in the car and start driving northwest.
The question is this: Will Notre Dame call?
And if not, why not?
Because Brian Kelly is the guy to get it done beneath the Golden Dome. Brian Kelly can make four bad hires and 16 undistinguished seasons of football disappear in the rearview mirror. Brian Kelly can save Notre Dame football.
He is a relentless, career-long winner. He has had one losing season in 19 as a college head coach. He has won at least eight games 14 times in 19 years. He has racked up double-digit victories seven times -- all of them in his past nine seasons across three schools: Division II Grand Valley State (where he won two national titles), Central Michigan (where he won the Mid-American Conference title) and now Cincinnati (where he has won the Big East title).
Kelly has the personality and the savvy to handle all the public demands of a very big job, something Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggled with. He's an Irish Catholic with a background in politics who certainly can learn to love anything he doesn't yet know about the Notre Dame mystique.
He has a creative offensive mind, putting together the No. 4 total offense and No. 6 scoring offense in the country this season. But for those who believe Notre Dame needs someone with a defensive background this time, and worry that Kelly would be lost on that side of the ball (as Weis was), know this: He played linebacker in college; he worked as a defensive coordinator early in his coaching career; his 2008 Orange Bowl team was better on defense than offense; and he's hardly been an idle spectator as the current Bearcats rebuilt their D on the fly with 10 new starters.
Yes, he's a spread offense devotee, and sometimes that leads to annoying situations such as going five-wide shotgun formation on first-and-goal. But his teams at Central Michigan and Cincy have gained anywhere from 32 percent to 43 percent of their offense on the ground over six seasons, which is a higher percentage than Weis' teams offensive production at Notre Dame (28-32 percent over five seasons). Give him good backs and good run-blockers, and Kelly will strike a balance in his play calling.
But remember, it's more important in today's football to throw it well than to run it well. If you don't believe me, check the pass efficiency stats. The top four nationally all are undefeated. And only one of those four has done it while extensively playing two quarterbacks (guess who).
That's another hallmark of Brian Kelly football -- even at a school that has no right to have quality depth, Cincinnati has not been slowed by key injuries or massive graduation losses either of the past two years.
"We have built that into the fabric of our program since we arrived," Kelly said. "When they get called on, there's an expectation and a level to play at. And they better be prepared, or they're going to be on the sideline watching."
His teams tend to excel in the most important area of the game: turnover margin. Cincinnati is plus-18 in three seasons under Kelly, and Central Michigan was plus-8 in three seasons. In 2007, the Bearcats tied for the national lead in most takeaways with 42; in 2009, they are the national leader in fewest giveaways with seven.
And although he lacks the championship rings and national rep of Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops, he's far more likely to say yes to a Notre Dame offer. (Remember, Ara Parseghian was just a moderately successful coach at Northwestern before he came to South Bend and won two national titles.) Kelly will come. He'll stay. He'll win.
That would crush Cincinnati fans, who would be losing their best coach since Sid Gillman in the '50s. Then again, they're used to it.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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