The parallels between Lou Holtz’s third season at Notre Dame in 1988 and Brian Kelly’s third season in 2012 are the kind you can’t make up.
Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly share a laugh with Ara Parseghian at a golf outing last summer.
• Both entered their third seasons with 10 losses at Notre Dame: Holtz 13-10 and Kelly 16-10.
• Both were 51 years old.
• Both ended their second season with a miserable second half in a bowl loss, with Texas A&M out-scoring Notre Dame 17-0 in the final 30 minutes of the 1988 Cotton Bowl and Florida State tallying the final 18 points in last season’s Champs Sports Bowl.
• Both banked their future on a multi-dimensional quarterback from South Carolina — Tony Rice for Holtz and Everett Golson for Kelly — to help get them out of the doldrums, even though there were huge question marks with both, either as a passer or with experience and grasping the offense.
• Both were thought to be “a year away” from legitimately vying to be a national contender again. (We won’t even go into both winning by the same 20-3 score at Michigan State in September.)
In fact, Holtz believes his lone national title team in 1988 was maybe the third or fourth best he actually had at Notre Dame.
“’1989 was the best football team I’ve coached,” said Holtz of the unit that defeated seven teams that finished in AP Top 18, including No. 1 Colorado (21-6) in the Orange Bowl. “The ’93 team was outstanding also, but the ’89 team was excellent.”
This year’s Notre Dame team wasn’t even in the preseason AP Top 25. Next year, Holtz noted, the Irish could well be in the preseason Top 5 and maybe even pick up more “style points” during the season — but that doesn’t mean it will be as good record-wise or playing for the national championship.
“Next year’s football team will probably be better than this year’s,” said Holtz, even though a plethora of exceptional leaders, headlined by Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, among many others, will no longer be with the program.
The X-factor is the way the ball can bounce.
“You’ve got to be lucky to win a championship, I’ve said that all along,” Holtz said.
During Holtz’s third season, ultra-clutch Michigan kicker Mike Gillette missed a 48-yard field goal attempt (he made one from 49 a few minutes earlier) on the last play to preserve a 19-17 Irish win. Pitt quarterback Darnell Dickerson was running in all alone for a touchdown to put the Panthers ahead … when inexplicably and with no contact he fumbled the ball and the Irish recovered in a mad scramble in the end zone for a touchback. Miami had seven turnovers, including one at the goal line in which it appeared the runner was already down …
One year after Notre Dame found every possible way to lose — including two fumbles near the opponent’s one-yard line that were returned for touchdowns — it almost seemed like karma was trying to even everything out this season to compensate for years of ill fortune. There have been numerous examples, most notably Pitt’s missed 33-yard field goal in the second overtime that would have won the game — and the officials not even seeing that Notre Dame had two players wearing the same number on that play, which would have given the Panthers a first down at the Irish 11.
But it’s “one of those years” where even if Pitt had the ball at the 11 with a new set of downs, it probably would have lost a fumble on the next play.
“When things start happening, falling your way like Miami [in ‘88], then you start getting a mentality, ‘Hey, we’re a team of destiny! This is meant to be,’” Holtz said. “Then they start building the confidence and all of a sudden the players start getting accolades, the girls start smiling at them that hadn’t before … this is pretty nice, let’s keep this going.
“Then all of a sudden next year they think it’s going to happen automatically, and that’s the difficult job coaching.”
Holtz said it’s easy to look back now and say Notre Dame “just had great talent” in 1988. But back then, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was a raw freshman who caught 13 passes and wasn’t even a starter until mid-season. Ricky Watters was a somewhat skittish sophomore flanker who split time with walk-on Pat Eilers. Sophomore nose guard Chris Zorich was a converted linebacker who had never played, senior left tackle Andy Heck was a tight end a year earlier, veteran Frank Stams had never started on defense but became an All-American end …
The Irish had lost their entire starting offensive and defensive lines from the previous year — plus Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, similar to record setting Michael Floyd graduating this season. Subconsciously, that can enhance team chemistry because of diminished expectations on the outside.
“You don’t have a star and everybody bands together,” Holtz said. “… We didn’t know how great Rocket was going to be. Ricky Watters was still young….”
No coach can ever win without great talent — but they can lose with it. That’s where Holtz credits Kelly and his staff for developing not only older players like Te’o, Eifert, Zeke Motta, Zack Martin, etc., but also newbies such as Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley in the secondary, Golson at QB, DaVaris Daniels at receiver, Danny Spond at outside linebacker…
Like a master chef, a staff might have good ingredients, but does he blend them well?
“When a young man comes in who is a great football player — and they always are great when they come to Notre Dame — they’ve got to learn how to accept their role on the team,” Holtz said. “…They’ve never had that before. How to take criticism … how to budget his time, how to do little things. They’ve never had that discipline and adherence to little things … and then getting everybody to blend in together.”
Holtz also said it’s no coincidence that Kelly could become the sixth Notre Dame coach to go unbeaten and/or win a national title in his third season.
“Why the third year?” asked Holtz prior to answering his own question. “Because by that time, you’re comfortable with it, the players have brought into your system, you’ve been able to recruit for your system and you’ve been able to build a camaraderie and a trust between the players and the coaches. That isn’t there immediately. When you go anywhere, there’s never that trust. These are some of the things you learn as you go there.
“You feel [as a coach], ‘I’ve got to be different, I’ve got to be special’ — and you don’t. Just be yourself and by the third year you start to feel that.”
In Year 3, just like Holtz in 1988, Kelly and Co. have been plenty comfortable in their own skin.