Haunted hayrides and scary movies aren't the only things that used to frighten the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's fans this time of year. Under Charlie Weis, the last night of October was just the beginning.
Weis lost his job because of the Irish's struggles in the season's final month. Weis' last two years in South Bend snowballed, with the former Irish head coach losing eight of nine games once the calendar turned to November. Those horror shows included heartbreaks vs. Syracuse on Senior Day, an overtime loss to UConn, a painful blowout against USC and a defeat at the hands of Navy, even though the Irish never punted the football.
When athletic director Jack Swarbrick decided to cut ties with Weis (no easy decision when you consider he had what looked like a fully guaranteed, 10-year contract), it was because the team continually failed down the stretch. As Swarbrick looked for a replacement, he sought out a coach that could build and sustain a football program, something Weis was unable to achieve in his first job as a head coach.
People often say that schools often hire the opposite when they look to replace a head coach. That doesn't quite fit when you look at the criteria that made Brian Kelly attractive to Notre Dame, but it certainly rings true when you look at the work Kelly did coaching his football teams down the stretch run of a season.
In the four years leading up to his hiring at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly was 14-2 between Central Michigan and Cincinnati in November. That alone served as a valuable data point when selecting a coach that already had 19 seasons running a football program. But since arriving in South Bend, Kelly has somehow managed to improved his team's late-season success, winning 10 of 11 games, pushing his record to 24-3 since '06.
Kelly's late-season success in South Bend is a far cry from that of his predecessors. And it's also all the more impressive when you consider this staff has needed to retrain a team that was used to having the bottom fall out when the pressure intensified late in the season (something that still plagues the Irish fan base when the going gets tough).
Kelly talked briefly about his formula for late-season success, something the Irish will need as they put together a run at an at-large BCS bid.
"October is for pretenders and November is for contenders," Brian Kelly said today on his weekly Sunday conference call. "We try to ingrain that within our players' and coaches' minds that this is now the time to kick it into gear, because this is where you get the opportunity to play for championships."
That mindset has taken hold on the program and shows the difference between Kelly and the three head coaches before him.
|Notre Dame Coaches' Late-Season Success|
|Brian Kelly||Charlie Weis||Ty Willingham||Bob Davie|
|'12: 4-0||'09: 0-4||'04: 1-2||'01: 2-2|
|'11: 3-1||'08: 1-4||'03: 3-2||'00: 3-0|
|'10: 3-0||'07: 2-2||'02: 2-2||'99: 0-4|
|'06: 3-1||'98: 3-1|
|'05: 3-1||'97: 4-0|
|Regular Season W-L record after November 1st|
Taking a wider look at Kelly's success, you start to understand why the Notre Dame head coach is considered to be among the elite at the college level. For all the complaints Irish fans have about Kelly's play-calling, offensive system or personality, his late-season success is elite even among the best coaches in the game.
|Elite Coaches' Late-Season Success Over Last Five Seasons|
|Brian Kelly||Nick Saban||Urban Meyer||Chris Petersen||Gary Patterson||Les Miles||Bob Stoops|
|'12: 4-0||'12: 4-1||'12: 3-0||'12: 3-1||'12: 2-2||'12: 3-1||'12: 5-0|
|'11: 3-1||'11:3-1||'11: 0-0||'11: 4-1||'11: 4-0||'11: 5-0||'11: 2-2|
|'10: 3-0||'10: 2-2||'10: 2-2||'10: 4-1||'10: 3-0||'10: 3-1||'10: 4-1|
|'09: 3-0||'09: 5-0||'09: 4-1||'09: 5-0||'09: 4-0||'09: 2-2||'09: 2-2|
|'08: 4-0||'08: 4-1||'08: 6-0||'08: 5-0||'08: 2-1||'08: 2-3||'08: 5-0|
|Regular Season W-L record after November 1st|
For the Irish to achieve their preseason goals, they'll need to summon up some more of that November magic. That means taking care of business this weekend against Navy, pushing Notre Dame's record to 7-2, and winning their third straight in a six-game season that Kelly rebooted after the bye week.
To navigate another November, the team will follow a plan that's long been part of the head coach's blueprint.
"You can't have a great November without a great plan as it relates to your conditioning," Kelly said. "That goes back to what you do in June. If you're trying to win the battle in June and July and August, you're probably going to come up short in November."
Climbing into the BCS rankings for the first time at 25th, Notre Dame has set itself up to have a chance, needing to play mistake free if they hope to set up a win-and-in scenario against Stanford to punch their BCS ticket in the regular season finale. Lucky for the Irish, they've got a coach that's shown he knows what it takes to do it.
"I think we're still in a pretty good position as long as we win. We've got to win more football games," Kelly said. "I really believe that as long as we just take care of week‑to‑week, we're going to be fine when it's all said and done."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first hand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.