Commentary

Changing Notre Dame Irish expectations

Updated: September 13, 2011, 12:20 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

It's time to declare a national moratorium on any expectations for Notre Dame football. No more lofty and unwarranted predictions, no more use of the words "Notre Dame," "Irish" or "Golden Dome" in conjunction with the letters BCS. And above everything else, no more gasps of surprise when it loses, no matter how ghastly the loss. Frankly, everyone should know better by now.

Notre Dame is an independent, so let's treat it independently. Let's start by saying it is no longer eligible for polls, especially preseason polls. At this point, the annual reflexive over-ranking has become a national dysfunction. The name alone has become a siren call for pollsters, too tempting to resist.

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Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrian Kelly has had animated conversations with players such as QB Tommy Rees.

Unrealistic expectations have been killing Notre Dame coaches and lining the pockets of therapists for too long now. The people who rank Notre Dame (0-2 on your television dial) in the top 25 before every season are the same people who pine for the days of the Cold War and a Saturday night spent with "Hee Haw." There's a chance -- a small chance, but a chance -- that removing Notre Dame from consideration from polls and eliminating the Irish from the incessant public cacophony of prognostication will allow them to go about their business in relative calm.

It's the Zen approach: If there are no expectations, there can be no disappointment.

Only success.

At the risk of being serious for a moment, is there any other entity in American society that has existed solely on reputation longer than Notre Dame football? Coaches have been fired for not living up to an ideal that stopped being realistic 15 years ago. You know all this already, but it's worth repeating: The days of Notre Dame being able to out-recruit schools like Florida and Alabama are over. The academic standards are far more rigorous at Notre Dame, and the prospects of living in South Bend and actually going to class are, amazingly, less attractive than the prospects of living in a warmer climate and taking what might euphemistically be termed "a less strenuous schedule."

You could make the case that ND's preseason ranking was understandable this year. The Irish won eight games last season, including a bowl, and they brought back 19 starters. Moreover, they appeared to have acquired some semblance of continuity. But they're 0-2 this year and 24-28 over the past five, which means they're really nothing more than Kansas State with a better PR department.

However, there's one important thing Notre Dame's on-field canonization of Denard Robinson accomplished Saturday: It got the attention off Brian Kelly's dirty mouth and back onto his team's performance. Whether that is a good thing for Kelly is an open argument, but I know some folks who work in college athletic departments who say they would have had a closed-door meeting with their coach if he'd been shown on national television raging at players with that kind of vulgar vehemence. And those are secular institutions we're talking about.

Kelly's swearing touched off a storm of protest among those who write in the ultra-Catholic press. (Warning: Watch your step in there.) Those folks wanted him fired on the spot for besmirching the good name of American Catholicism, proving they've never watched Notre Dame blow a lead with the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus.

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Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNotre Dame players such as Cierre Wood have had glum faces in recent years.

(As a further aside, it's clear Kelly needs to designate a swearing coach. The designated swearer must be of sufficient stature to demand respect but not high enough to have a camera in his face the entire game. I'm convinced the hard-ass college basketball coaches designate a happy coach, the guy you see popping off the bench at every timeout clapping his hands and slapping backs like every guy on the floor just won the Nobel Prize even though his team's on the bad end of 12-0 run. Why shouldn't Kelly have someone assigned to swearing?)

This Saturday, Notre Dame plays 15th-ranked Michigan State at home. An inexplicable loss to South Florida followed by a crazy loss to Michigan makes it hard to pick Notre Dame. It's starting to look like the Irish exist only for God to find new and more heinous ways for them to lose. And if they find an even newer way to lose this Saturday, there will be predictable calls for Kelly's head. Someone will undoubtedly start a website called firebriankelly.com …

… oh, wait. Just checked. It's already out there, and they're fired up. Some dude calling himself B_Kelly_is_a_joke writes of his semi-namesake: "He's a loser and a total fraud."

That seems a bit harsh for a guy whose offense just put up 513 yards. (Obvious flip-side: 10 turnovers in two games.) I know Kelly's a pro, he should be able to take the heat, he knew what he was getting into. I know he gets paid a ridiculous fortune to teach a bunch of kids how to run the plays that bubble through his brain, but maybe he shouldn't be fired right away. Maybe the howls for his head are echoes of the same howls for Bob Davie's head, and Tyrone Willingham's head, and Charlie Weis' head. Maybe it's time for someone to howl for sanity. A howl from someone willing to say, "You know what, maybe we're a whole lot more like BYU than we'd like to admit."

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of "Pawn Stars" star Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," also available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com