A 4-8 season in a head coach’s seventh year at a Power Five school most of the time will guarantee his ouster. In the rare instances it doesn’t, though, the inevitable suspicion — at least from the outside looking in — is his days at the position are numbered.
Such was the case with Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly this past recruiting campaign. While the losses mounted, the decommitments from prospects followed. A 2017 recruiting class that was ranked as high as No. 6 in mid-October with 18 verbal commitments gradually began to erode. Five prospects switched their allegiance, most notably Beaver Falls (Pa.) High defensive lineman Donovan Jeter and Indianapolis Cathedral linebacker Pete Werner.
What especially stung was Jeter switched to Michigan while Indiana native Werner, from a Catholic school no less, opted for Ohio State. The Wolverines were ascending back toward national championship contention under esteemed program-changer Jim Harbaugh, and the Buckeyes’ three-time national champion Urban Meyer reinforced why he remained the fantasy coach to many Irish faithful.
While Ohio State and Michigan were reaffirming their status as the alpha dogs in the Midwest, Kelly dubiously succeeded Charlie Strong as the college coach on the hottest seat in America — with Strong accepting the South Florida position after getting fired at Texas.
Notre Dame recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston admitted that as of mid-January, he had his doubts about whether the Fighting Irish would get past the 15 verbal commitments that remained true blue with the Gold & Blue.
The shaky situation necessitated the presence of school vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to take a role in the recruiting process more than usual through the fall and winter.
“Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick met with our recruits,” Kelly noted. “That’s unusual. I don’t think that happens everywhere, that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.”
Of course, Kelly would have preferred that not needing to be the case because of the circumstances.
“In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly stated. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.
“So having Jack’s involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are.”
Where Notre Dame was at the end with its 21 players signed was ranked as high as 11th nationally and no lower than 16th, including No. 13 by Rivals.com, among the four national recruiting outlets. The final seven to 10 days finished with a flourish, landing six players overall, with three additions on National Signing Day — safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (originally committed to Virginia), defensive end Kofi Wardlow (originally committed to Maryland) and Hawai'i defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — was quite a coup, all things considered.
“With the kind of season we had, the first question out of everybody, ‘How long is Coach Kelly here?’” stated the Irish head coach frankly. “‘Is this his last year? What kind of year does he have to have?’ [Swarbrick] assured them there’s no problems with the football program. This is a program that is on solid ground. It was not the year that anybody wanted.
“We’re certainly not going to come in here and invest in all the coaches we’ve invested in because we think we’re in a short-term situation. We’re in a great situation here. We’re going to build on the young players that we played last year, and we’re going to return Notre Dame to where it should be.”
Also noted by Kelly is he was able to recruit a coaching staff — six on-field assistants and two major new support staff figures in director of football performance Matt Balis and assistant David Ballou — with no restrictions from Swarbrick or the school.
“We were given the opportunity to go out and find the very best,” Kelly said. “This was not, ‘Look, we’re limited. You can only get this, you can only spend this much money.’ We were given the opportunity to find the very best. The charge was: find the very best coaches.”
For Kelly, the charge in 2017 is to make it all pay off both on the field and on the recruiting circuit to reinforce Swarbrick’s faith.
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