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Thursday, December 10, 2009
Notre Dame's miracle worker?

By Melissa Isaacson

CHICAGO -- If Brian Kelly is smart, he will enjoy every bite of his dry chicken at Cincinnati's football banquet on Thursday night. He will savor whatever accolades he receives for leading the Bearcats' football program to its first true taste of greatness.

And then he will try to work another miracle with expectations that even he may not be able to fulfill.

Given Kelly's track record, it's hard to call his next mission, to resurrect Notre Dame's football program as its new head coach, impossible.

Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly's accomplishments at Cincinnati are laudable, and rival only Pete Carroll's restoration of USC's program.

Kelly's accomplishments at Cincinnati -- the team's 34-6 record the last three seasons (including this year's 12-0), its back-to-back Big East titles and two straight BCS berths -- are nothing short of remarkable and rival only Pete Carroll's restoration at USC as the two biggest accomplishments in college football's modern era.

Without a practice field, any football tradition and completely over-matched in his own state in talent and in the Midwest in recruiting, Kelly has not only persevered but triumphed. What he has achieved at Cincinnati has been harder in many ways than what he will face in South Bend.

Except for one thing.

At Cincinnati, Kelly could find talent and he could recruit speed, something Notre Dame has not consistently been able to do since Lou Holtz threw up his hands 13 years ago when it became clear that the school's academic standards were not compatible with national championship ability.

And so the Irish embarked on a challenge that, more often than not, has ended one yard, one step, one second short.

Kelly can coach, he can motivate and adversity clearly does not rattle him. His ability to stay in complete control of Notre Dame's hiring process while steering his team to its dramatic victory at Pittsburgh may have been as impressive as anything he has done. And he will need every bit of that control, and the confidence he breathed into his team when the Bearcats were down 31-10 against the Panthers, when he arrives in South Bend.

It is a brand of confidence that for all his bluster, former coach Charlie Weis never really possessed at Notre Dame. And it is a brand of confidence that should sustain a fan base that needs to trust Kelly and back off for a few years.

As soon as Kelly took the forefront among Irish coaching candidates, USC message boards reflected the respect and concern that he deserves. It was one big "Uh-oh" and rightfully so. Notre Dame fans will question many things because that is what they do. They will no doubt ask whether Kelly can win without five wideouts and without throwing the ball all over the field, though he did it in the snow in Pittsburgh, his offense holding up in a way that had to make Weis drool.

Of course, Kelly also did it with Mardy Gilyard, who amassed 374 total yards and three touchdowns on 12 touches and was academically ineligible to play the 2006 season.

Understandably, it may be hard for Irish fans to have trust in this hire because they were right not to trust the last several. It will also be hard to come to terms with the notion that it's no longer the 1940s, when the third-string Irish quarterback played in the NFL.

Irish fans have themselves a big-time college football coach now, as qualified as they come. But with the excitement must come some serious reconciliation, for if Brian Kelly cannot make Notre Dame into a program of national championship caliber, it cannot be done.

And if it cannot be done under Kelly, it will be time for the Irish to finally reset their expectations and to aspire to athletic and academic success along the lines of Stanford.

That wouldn't be the worst thing.

It really wouldn't.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for