SOUTH BEND | For the record, Lou Holtz isn’t any harder to live with when he’s constantly right than when his heart and his prediction track record have been stomped on.
ESPN studio host Rece Davis gets to see it all unfold firsthand — years of inflated presumptions about Notre Dame football, eventually evoking snark by Holtz’s ESPN college football analyst colleague, Mark May.
This year was different. This year, the former Notre Dame head football coach got it right about his former team. Somehow that led to May ending up in a leprechaun suit on TV late last month.
“I think that might have been the best part of it,” said Davis, the calm in the chronically stormy Notre Dame debate. “I’ve been very happy for Lou, because he loves Notre Dame so much. And to see them have some success and see him happy has been kind of cool.
“And Mark’s enjoyed it too, except for the leprechaun part of it.”
Moving forward, Davis sees Holtz being right a lot more often. Why? Because he doesn’t view Notre Dame’s run to the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game in Miami as a miracle.
Rather, the Alabama grad perceives it as the beginning of an enduring renaissance for Notre Dame football.
“People talk about unrealistic expectations, and I dislike that phrase,” Davis said. “What’s wrong with expecting to be excellent, whether you’re at Notre Dame or Alabama or Auburn or Oregon or wherever?
“I think that because of that expectation, both internally and externally, you always got the feeling that the powers will return if it’s important enough to the people in charge.
“I think for it to be sustainable over the long term, for it to be a program that sets the standard of excellence habitually, you have to have the right guy in charge. I think Notre Dame found that in Brian Kelly.”
Kelly began the year 16-10 at Notre Dame, three steps behind his purged predecessor, Charlie Weis, through 26 games and one behind Holtz’s successor, Bob Davie.
He’s now in lockstep with Holtz (28-10) through their first 38 games at ND. Kelly also has Notre Dame back knocking on the door to reclaim two lost distinctions.
Should the Irish win the national title, with a victory over No. 2-ranked and defending national champion Alabama (12-1), and Texas lose its Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl matchup with favored Oregon State, Notre Dame would move into a tie with the Longhorns for the No. 2 spot on college football’s all-time win list, behind Michigan. Texas blew past ND during the Weis Era in 2008.
And should the Irish finish 13-0 and the Wolverines lose their Outback Bowl matchup with favored South Carolina, ND would creep within .0001 of Michigan for the top spot in all-time winning percentage, an accolade that slipped away during Tyrone Willingham’s watch — the 2004 season to be exact.
That would set up, presumably, a prime-time showdown Sept. 7 in Ann Arbor, Mich. to battle for the winning-percentage mark. That’s assuming the Irish and Michigan take care of Temple and Central Michigan, respectively in their 2013 openers. A Notre Dame win would give the Irish the edge — .7347107 to .7340764.
Kelly, meanwhile, has won a couple national Coach of the Year awards, including the Eddie Robinson/FWAA version. That doesn’t always guarantee lasting success. Weis, the 2005 winner at ND, was fired four years later. Kansas’ Mark Mangino, the 2007 recipient, was pressured into resigning two years later.
“It’s not enough just to have a guy,” Davis said. “All of these guys — even all the guys who have gotten fired over the past few weeks — they all know football. Some of them know football better than the guys who are winning championships. The question is can you lead the program the right way?
“And to me that is the most important factor for the head coach and it’s the most important factor in developing perennial championship contenders. The things that lead me to believe Brian Kelly has those qualities are a lot of the same things I like about (Alabama coach) Nick Saban and the way he runs it. It is very process-oriented.”
Davis saw the same thing in Holtz during his successful run at Notre Dame.
“Lou always referred to it as ‘W.I.N. — What’s important now?’” Davis said. “And it’s a very similar mind-set. It’s simplistic, and sometimes you see people and fans roll their eyes at it, but it’s really the only thing that matters.
“Brian has been able to get his team to buy into that mind-set, because he has some extraordinary veteran leadership on that team — most notably Manti Te’o. As a consequence, after being almost combustible on the sidelines the first couple of years, he’s been able to pull that back, because he now trusts them. He knows how they’re going to respond.
“He knows that they know how to take steps in order to give themselves the best opportunity to be successful. And it’s because of that single-mindedness on taking care of those things and not worrying about all the external things that go along with being Notre Dame that I think gives them the best opportunity to have success over the long term.”