Four Notre Dame coaches finished with losing records in Year 3, and for each it became pretty much impossible to restore faith amongst the Irish masses afterwards.
Bob Davie had a strong staff that included Urban Meyer (far right), but a 5-7 finish against a challenging slate in his third year (1999) created a fragile coaching future.
• The first was Hunk Anderson (3-5-1) in 1933, and he was ousted that same year despite an astounding upset of unbeaten Army in the finale.
• The next was Terry Brennan (2-8 in 1956). Even though Brennan would help orchestrate a remarkable 7-3 turnaround the following year, the residual effect of that third season would haunt him in his fifth season (1958), when an Irish team expected to vie for Top 5 contention finished 6-4.
• In 1999, Bob Davie’s Irish plummeted from 9-3 a year earlier to 5-7 in Year 3 despite a sensational individual campaign from fifth-year senior quarterback Jarious Jackson. Jackson broke Joe Theismann’s 39-year single-season Irish passing standard with 2,753 yards through the air, and he was also second on the team in rushing with 464 yards.
• Charlie Weis became the fourth (3-9 in 2007). Davie (35-25) and Weis (35-27) finished their Notre Dame careers with nearly identical records and were fired shortly after their fifth seasons (both six-loss campaigns).
In Davie’s third season, the Irish could have finished 10-2 or 2-10. Reality fell somewhere in between. After opening with a 48-13 pasting of Kansas, Davie was embroiled in clock-management issues when the Irish lost consecutive games at Michigan (26-22) and Purdue (28-23) after time had elapsed with the Irish in the shadow of the opponent’s goal line.
Michigan State toppled Davie’s squad on an 80-yard TD pass (on 3rd-and-10) with 5:11 left – and then Davie opted to punt on 4th-and-1 from his 45 with 3:10 remaining, with the hope the Irish could get the ball back. But MSU sealed it with a field goal (23-13).
The Irish went on a four-game winning streak on the strength of Jackson’s heroics. Notre Dame trailed Oklahoma (30-14) and USC (24-3) at home before rallying for dramatic 34-30 and 25-24 conquests, and Jackson led an 11th-hour drive against Navy, including converting a 4th-and-10, in a 28-24 victory, with the winning tally occurring with 36 seconds left.
Notre Dame finished with a four-game losing streak, falling to Tennessee (38-14), Pitt (37-27), Boston College (31-29) and Stanford (40-37). It marked the second time in history the Irish closed a season with at least four straight setbacks.
How Did It Happen?
At the end of the season, Davie made this assertion: “Without a doubt, it’s the toughest schedule Notre Dame has ever played.”
Any schedule that includes Michigan (road), Oklahoma, USC and Tennessee (road) promises to be treacherous. However, Oklahoma was coming off three straight losing seasons and was only in its first year with new coach Bob Stoops, and USC was reeling under Paul Hackett, finishing 6-6.
Stanford, under Tyrone Willingham, went to the Rose Bowl that season, but it had four losses, including 69-17 to Texas. Boston College, Purdue and Pitt were solid, but not necessarily better than the Irish. Michigan State did prove to be outstanding with a 10-2 finish.
The schedule was onerous, but it definitely wasn’t the “toughest ever” at the school, and probably not even top 10.
Offensively, Jackson led a unit that was young at the skill positions, including future pros such as sophomores Tony Fisher and David Givens, as well as freshman Julius Jones, to complement veterans such as Bobby Brown, Joey Getherall and Jabari Holloway. The offense averaged 419.7 yards per game to rank 19th nationally.
Defensively, the Irish yielded a school record 383.7 yards per game. The front line featured future pros such as Anthony Weaver, Rocky Boiman and Grant Irons, not to mention veterans such as Brad Williams, Lamont Bryant and Anthony Denman.
Davie and his staff had assembled excellent recruiting hauls in 1998 and 1999, with both deemed as consensus Top 5 harvests.
Ramifications of Year 3
Davie’s finally three years at Notre Dame mirrored Brennan’s. First there was the horrid third season which put him under fire and had him facing a fragile future. Then there was the dramatic rebound year in Year 4, with Brennan finishing 7-3 and No. 10 and Davie going 9-2 before getting blown out in the Fiesta Bowl by Oregon State (41-9).
Finally, there were the high expectations in Year 5 with a veteran cast. But Brennan was only 6-4 and Davie 5-6 versus strong schedules, and it resulted in their pink slips.
How Does It Relate to Brian Kelly?
Recruiting hype is the eternal opiate of the football masses, but now it’s easy to forget how well Davie and Co. recruited in 1998 and 1999 — both top-3 ranked harvests.
Davie’s 1998 class featured a dozen future NFL players, including Arnaz Battle, Jordan Black, Boiman, Fisher, Givens and Weaver. The 1999 group was classified as even better with people such as Darrell Campbell, Glenn Earl, Jeff Faine, Cedric Hilliard, Jones, Gerome Sapp and Courtney Watson (plus soccer star Shane Walton walked on and became a future consensus All-American).
In Davie’s third year, however, those luminaries were just sophomores and freshmen.
Crucial to Kelly’s long-term success is avoiding a 5-7 type of season Davie had in 1999, because that rocks the foundation of the program — no matter how touted your recruiting classes might be. Like Davie in 1999, Kelly is facing a schedule filled with land mines (including Oklahoma on the road this time).
One of the biggest mistakes Davie made in Year 3 came after the Michigan State loss dropped the Irish to 1-3. He casually stated: “I don’t think I’m busting anyone’s bubble when I say, ‘Was it going to be a national championship team? Was it going to be a Bowl Championship Series team?’ I mean, you graduate all the players we graduated and play the teams we play…We’re a young football team.”
Davie was pretty accurate in that assessment — but it’s not the type of quote Irish faithful want to hear after three consecutive tough losses.
Kelly faces a similar situation in his third year. Beyond Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, many might contend that the “star power” in 2011 are in the sophomores and freshmen classes — or “his guys." Similar to 1999, no rational person is categorizing the Irish as a national-title contending team in 2011. A top-25 finish for the first time in six years might evoke "heading in the right direction" conversation.
But if the Irish do suffer a few early setbacks this year, Kelly cannot afford to make similar comments about toughest schedules ever or having realistic and lowered expectations. That usually just inflames the Irish faithful and makes people lose trust in him.
This spring Kelly already had his quote misinterpreted about winning at least eight games three years in a row for the first time since 1991-93. It was perceived as eight wins becoming the new bar. His statement instead referred more toward continuing to build consistency within the infrastructure.