- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the eyes of many, Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik have all given new meaning to the term "re-building." Each won a national title in his second season with a school, re-setting the bar for new coaches at powerhouses everywhere.
The accelerated timetable was no different at Notre Dame last season upon the hiring of Brian Kelly from Cincinnati. With a political background and quick success at his previous stops, Kelly had the charm and innovation required to resurrect a giant that had gone without a championship since 1988.
On Thursday, Kelly made some comments about the difference between his players and those of predecessor Charlie Weis', and many of the Irish upperclassmen voiced their displeasure through social media. Be it a calculated statement to get his team to rally together against him, or be it a slip of the tongue (which is bound to happen with a mic in one's face seemingly every hour of every day), Kelly's words backfired, forcing the coach to apologize the next day. On Saturday, Notre Dame routed Navy, 56-14, at least temporarily halting the chance for this latest controversy to grow into something more.
Notre Dame began this season speaking openly of reaching a BCS bowl game, talk that was tempered with an 0-2 start and all but officially put to rest following a third loss last week, against rival USC.
Frustrations mounted with a ninth loss in 10 tries against the Trojans, and, as to be expected at a big program like Notre Dame's, many questioned Kelly's progress. And many pointed to Stoops, Tressel, Meyer and Chizik as coaches who had meshed their predecessors' leftovers to win immediately.
Stoops' tenure was jump-started by quarterback Josh Heupel, Oklahoma's current co-offensive coordinator and the Heisman Trophy runner-up during the Sooners' national title season in 2000. At Florida, Meyer may not have even gotten the chance to play for the national title had USC not been upset by UCLA during the season's final week. Chizik benefited from Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 NFL draft pick Cam Newton, who led Auburn to a perfect 2010.
The Tressel era has since been marred by scandal, though only star tailback Maurice Clarett's name from the 2002 national title team brings up a sour taste for Ohio State fans.
Before Kelly's controversial comments Thursday, he was asked a question about adversity in wake of a 4-3 start.
“I think last year’s team overcame adversity," Kelly said. "This year’s team needs to overcome itself. They gotta play better consistently. Adversity to me is a bigger picture. We had adversity last year. This year our guys need to just play better football.”
Following what seemed like a never-ending series of off-the-field drama last year, Notre Dame rallied to win its final four games, setting the stage for grand expectations in 2011. Barring anything unforeseen in the national landscape, they will not be met.
Kelly has done his part to make his mark on the program in the early stages, however, from openly vying for a JumboTron and FieldTurf to shiny new helmets, from creating a more electric game-day atmosphere to adding a training table for his players — no small steps at a school that has trouble drawing the line between progress and interfering with tradition.
On the field, the transition phase seemingly took a detour last week, but captain Harrison Smith said following Saturday's game that everyone is on the same page.
"I would probably say different staffs do things differently, and so there is gonna be like a period of transition where things are just different," the fifth-year safety said. "But we've been with Coach Kelly for almost two years now, so maybe there is a transition phase early on to me. But ever since the first couple months, first couple workouts, I feel like everybody's just been 100-percent bought in, and I feel like we've been on the same page ever since."
With a daunting slate ahead in 2012, these last four (and likely five) games of 2011 provide a good chance for everyone to get on the same page. It's not as if all of the previous regime's players will be gone next year, anyway, since Kelly will have just two of his classes by next season.
For Notre Dame and its huge fan base, a lack of a BCS bowl or national title in year two under Kelly cannot equal a lack of progress.