Last weekend I made my first trip up to South Bend for the 2017 season to watch the Fighting Irish play Miami (OH). Earlier this year I wrote about the large question marks looming over coach Brian Kelly and the Irish coming off a 4-8 record last season.
There has been much made about the changes Kelly made to his coaching staff this past offseason, along with the numerous changes that were made to Notre Dame stadium. I wanted to see firsthand the renovations Notre Dame made to their stadium and if the changes Brian Kelly made to himself and his coaching staff were foundational changes or if they are just cosmetic in nature.
Let’s start with the stadium upgrades and talk about Coach Kelly later. The changes, dubbed the “Campus Crossroads”, are the “Intersection of Academics, Athletics and Student Life” according to the University. To start, Notre Dame calls the renovations they made within the stadium and concourses “art-deco” style. To me, there is some irony in decorating the stadium in an era that was popular during the 20’s, 30’s & 40’s, which some see as the football glory days that the university and fan base (myself included) continue to live in. I just found this to be really ironic while walking through the concourse and actually admiring the upgrades.
This will likely sound like an “ND homer” take, but Notre Dame Stadium is a gem of history and does a great job of capturing the history of the program. The simplistic brick styling that covers the entire structure just feels right for a historical college football stadium. The art-deco styling meshes perfectly with the traditional style of the stadium. They even incorporated old pictures of ticket art throughout the stadium to show seating sections, which I found to be a really cool addition. The concourses are lined in classic chandeliers that look like they came straight out of The Great Gatsby. Now, some football junkies would say that chandeliers don’t belong in a football stadium, and at first blush I would have agreed, but they actually fit perfectly.
The old wooden bleacher seats that were swapped out for new plastic ones were even repurposed throughout the concourses as bar tops along the walls for folks standing to grab a bite to eat.
In addition to the more cosmetic changes, suites and additional seating line the tops of the stadium along both sidelines. Also, two new halls were added with classrooms and various school departments along with a new student center that includes lounges, rooms and dining areas among other student amenities.
The cherry on top of the updates is the new video board atop the south end of the stadium. Yes, it took Notre Dame University until 2017 to install a video board capable of video replay in its football stadium. Welcome to the 21st century!
I think that the upgrades to the stadium were not only past due, i.e. the video board and adding a few extra inches of space for each bleacher seat, but the upgrades are also classic updates on a timeless piece of college football Americana.
Now onto Brian Kelly. He basically cleaned house following a disappointing 4-8 campaign his Irish had last season. He brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators, among other new faces added to his couching staff, seven new coaches in total. Coach Kelly also spoke of a “renewed focus” from his football team.
Just two games into the season and that new “focus” was called into question when the Irish lost a primetime home tilt against a good Georgia team. The Irish struggled to move the ball offensively in the second half resulting in another loss by one possession. Kelly’s team lost seven of eight games by one possession last season and the loss to Georgia looked a lot like the many close losses the Irish had in 2016.
After the game, Coach Kelly was pressed on the growing habit of his team losing close games. Irritated by the question, Kelly snapped at the Indy Star reporter.
Although Brian Kelly’s staff and team look a lot different this year, it’s clear that the same Brian Kelly remains. To be fair, Brian Kelly is a good football coach and ranks only behind Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops for total wins since 2001. The problem is that his ego far outweighs his coaching chops and when you lose seven out of eight games by one possession, your ego will only save you from unemployment for so long.
As of now, the Irish sit at 4-1 and have looked good in their four wins, albeit against average opponents. The Georgia loss could be a good one by year’s end if the bulldogs keep winning. The next true test for the Irish will be on October 21st when the Irish host USC for a night game in South Bend. It will be a critical game for the development of Brian Kelly 2.0.
The upgrades to Notre Dame Stadium stand out when you step on the grounds. Brian Kelly’s upgrades seem only to be skin deep, but if he can find a way to win 9+ games this year they will be changes that the fan base, boosters and Jack Swarbrick, the ND athletic director will have to live with.