Saturday, January 12, 2013

This is the way the season ends

Note: This post is a post of verve and depression and may involve slightly disgusting words like pupa. But this is just something we are all going to have to live with.

Notre Dame 14, Alabama 42

This is the way the season ends. Not with a bang, but with a bust.

I'm going to end the season the way I began it: by saying Rick Reilly, you are STILL WRONG.

As it all unravels and the season respools, there are those who will tell you that the season amounted to very little. Trophies were not claimed. Banners were not brought home. The SEC was not unseated. Notre Dame is not "back."

The coaches are not what you thought.

Everything hurts. It hurts through my swollen throat and my cough-battered lungs and my energy-sapped muscles. I've suffered the last several days with an illness that was probably the result of post-holiday, post-bowl game depression, and my head's been in a wordless fog that wouldn't clear. For 48 hours, I took the thread-ends of the year and spun them into a chrysalis, setting all thoughts of football into a protective pupa until they were well-formed enough to burst into something tangible and brightly-winged.

And the seethe, the anger, the wallop of disbelief have mostly faded to the backdrop of forgotten plays. What springs forth is the stuff worth remembering. 
 Like Manti Te'o and the thousands of leis and the strength of his faith and the soul of the team
and Big Lou and the Chocolate News
and Theo Riddick and the way he charges through defenders like a bull
and Cierre Wood and how he's always catching opposing backfields with their pants down
and Chris Brown and the long ball against Oklahoma
and Kapron Lewis-Moore and his mad-hattery as the campus  Superfan
and Stephon Tuitt and his 11 sacks
and the defense and their six picks against Michigan
and Braxston Cave, local hero
and Prince Shembo's bike seat
and the goal-line stand against Stanford
and the Golic brothers and John Goodman (aka gramps) and Trick Shot Monday
and Cam McDaniel and his one-man drive against Miami
and the way the entire team stuck it to USC
and Bob Diaco and his disarmingly attractive hair
and Tyler Eifert, the nation's best Tight End
and Robby Toma, for being the man overlooked
and Zack Martin, for never allowing a sack
and GAIII, for being the next big thing
and Everett Golson and his piano-playing hands
and the terrifying way he holds the football when he runs
and the ridiculous strength of his spirals when he's flushed out of the pocket
and the luck of the smash-mouth overtime against Pitt
and the way we absolutely owned it all in Ireland
and how far we've come
and how far still to go
and it how it felt to see those golden helmets run out in Sun Life Stadium to play for the national championship game
and to think the dome they represent
and the lakes and the grotto and the spire
and the stadium
and the echoes.

I love this team and this school and I know it's not perfect--we're not perfect--I know there's a whole roiling quagmire of muck going on in college football in general--but for right now, I don't care; for this season, WE WERE PERFECT. And no one--NO ONE--not the the pundits or hack writers or the AP poll or the fakers-who-fell-off-the-bandwagon or the Crimson Tide and their completely fabricated number of national championships can change that. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Alabama fans are gonna crow. The SEC will reign supreme. ND haters can call us delusional all they like. But it doesn't matter.

And moreover, I don't think it's true.

I think we belonged in that game.

Of course, we didn't play like we belonged in that game, so no one will believe me.

Shattered glory

I don't know what happened to our team. I don't know if they all had sunstroke or they peaked at the wrong time or they were somehow subconsciously affected by having a head coach who was secretly plotting his escape to the Philadelphia Eagles (more on that bullsh*t in a minute) or WHAT--but for unknown, unfathomable reasons, everyone on the defense simultaneously forgot how to tackle, and we imploded like an undercooked souffle.

Look, I know Alabama's good, but unless they're all pumping steroids, it's not like they're superhuman. A tackle is a tackle. You should know how to make one. You do know how to make one. We saw it all season, against opponents with running backs our team wasn't supposed to be able to tackle. So what the hell?

Maybe it got to them, finally, being the underdogs. They didn't look aggressive. They didn't attack. They sat on their heels most of their game, waiting to see what Alabama would do. By the time they caught on, it was too late.

Alabama had no such problem with nerves. Of course they didn't. They were just here last season. 'Bama took too much from us too fast, and we deflated. Midway through the game, I began to long for players I haven't had much cause to miss. Jamoris Slaughter. Aaron Lynch. (Harrison Smith.) Only a very few looked the way they've looked all season. Louis Nix, for example.

Nobody can block Big Lou. Not even Alabama.

But for the first time all year, the disparity in experience and talent on our team became egregiously apparent, and we didn't play enough like a unit to make up for it. Zeke Motta had 16 tackles--6 more than Manti Te'o. Any time a safety is your leading tackler, you're losing the battle in the trenches. This is where the game needed to be won, and we didn't. We couldn't.

I don't know why.

There were a couple of huge momentum shifts early in the game that could have made everything different.
Are you sure that wasn't a catch, refs? I'm pretty sure it was.
Are you sure that shady fair-catch penalty was really a penalty? I don't think it was.
If it had been a turnover, it could have made the game. Or at least made it close.

But no. Instead we got a game full of missed tackles and a head coach ready to split for the pros.

Bye bye baby, baby good-bye

In case you have been living under a rock (or encased in a very large pupa), you are most likely aware that the day after the national championship game, Brian Kelly interviewed with the Eagles. (The Philadelphia Eagles. Keep your pants on.) Evidently Oregon's Chip Kelly and Penn State's Bill O'Brien have talked to the Eagles, too, but both have decided to stay with their current programs--unlike Kelly, who is apparently meeting with the Eagles again this weekend. (According to the Internet, which as we know is the font of all truth and no lies.)

You know what, Brian Kelly? If you wanna go, go. This ain't a revolving door. You can't just sally up to whoever you want and then waltz right back in expecting a pay raise. So if this is what you want--if this is all the loyalty you've got--sally forth. And good luck.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. After all, this is what Kelly did to Cincinnati, isn't it? Cut and ran for Notre Dame when his team was 12-0 and playing for the Sugar Bowl?

I do recall Kelly saying that if the Bearcats had made it to the national championship game that year, he wouldn't have left. Because how can you do that to a team, right? How can you abandon them once you've taken them so far?

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Of course, there are semi-reasonable, semi-bullshit excuses one could make for why Brian Kelly left Cincinnati the way he did. After all, among the 119 FBS schools, there are Cincinnatis galore, but there are only a few programs like Alabama, USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, etc., that are gonna give you the big bucks and the rabid fan base and stay on everybody's radar year after year whether they're bowl-eligible or not.

And--let's be obnoxious for a second--there's only one Notre Dame.

So if you're the head coach at one of those top-tier programs , you've pretty much reached the apex of your career. For elite college players, heading to to the NFL is the obvious next step. But I don't think the same holds coaches (no matter what people like Dan Wetzel might say). Unless you're moving from a coordinator position to a head-coaching position, moving from college to the NFL (or vice versa) isn't a step up or down. It's more like a lateral move. And most coaches are not--for example--like former ND coach Charlie Weis: they don't bounce back and forth between college and the NFL two or three times within a three-year span. (Since leaving Notre Dame, Weis has been named offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators, and head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks.) Partly this is because most coaches don't have the resume that Weis does, but partly, I'm convinced, it's a case of apples and oranges. The college atmosphere is inherently different  from the NFL, and some coaches simply prefer one over the other. Ain't no shame in either.

Of course, no one's surprised when supercilious snot-rags like Pete Carroll bolt for the NFL while their team's staring down the barrel of an NCAA investigation. But odds are, if you've spent 20+ perfecting the art of being a college head coach, probably that's your calling. And probably you should stick with that. Like Bob Stoops, for example. (Man, I wish we could get somebody like Bob Stoops. Though seriously, guys--we're never gonna get the actual Bob Stoops, and that's okay. I'd think less of him if he left Oklahoma at this point, anyway.)

I don't know what's going on in Brian Kelly's head, of course. Maybe he's always wanted to coach in the NFL. Maybe this was always his end goal. Or maybe he really is just flirting for a pay raise.

But I doubt it.

Allow me to make some conjectures here that are way above my pay grade. I surmise that BK's original end goal, in truth, was to make it to one of the elite-level college programs and win a national championship. Or two. Or three. Or whatever.

And then he got to Notre Dame and everything was so much more ridiculously batsh-- insane than he'd envisioned that he started to feel like he was living in a pressure cooker all the time, and it threw him for such a loop that it took him like two years to settle back down and start coaching the players the way he'd ALWAYS coached the players--and it was good enough to get them to a national championship game.

So then national championship season rolls around. And at the end of the year, for whatever reason, the Philadelphia Eagles come a-callin'.

And maybe Brian Kelly thinks to himself: holy sh*t, an escape from all this madness? CAN IT BE TRUE? (Because let's face it: If you don't wholeheartedly love Notre Dame's particular brand of madness, it will eventually crush you.) But Kelly can't say anything just yet, because National Championship. So maybe Kelly tells the Eagles, "look guys, I got this game to prepare for, and if we win, maybe don't even bother to call."

Because if you win a national championship at Notre Dame, we will LOVE YOU FOREVER AND ERECT STATUES IN YOUR HONOR. No joke.

But if you lose a national championship game....

Wait, sorry, what was it Kelly thought was gonna happen if we lost? Did he think we'd vilify him? String him up and leave him for dead?

As I recall, the day after the championship, one of the headlines in the South Bend Tribune read something along the lines of: DESPITE LOSS, FANS FIND REASONS TO STAY OPTIMISTIC.

Because who saw this season coming? Who honestly thought we'd be 12-0 at the beginning of the year? Just the team. Just the coaches. They proved it to all of us. And they can prove it again. The pain of loss I felt after this game was full of more disappointment than desolation. I didn't walk away from it thinking, That was it. We'll never have this chance again. HELL NO. I walked away from it thinking, sh*t, that sucked--but just give us 2 years, when Golson's a junior and we've got these kick-ass recruiting classes locked in, and we'll be right back here. RIGHT BACK.

And now Kelly's threatening to pull the plug. Is this what he does? Build programs up just to cut them down? Or did he just think life would become absolutely unbearable if we went to the championship and lost? Right, because clearly the solution to that is to go go the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, who are so well-known for having kind, patient, loving, stalwart, feel-good-family-movie kinda fans. (Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.)

If that's what Kelly thought (and I'm not saying it is, but just humor me here)--WHO THE HELL HAS HE BEEN TALKING TO?

Because seriously--honestly--adverbially--there is only one actual response when Notre Dame loses a game, ever, and it is not the Rick Reilly response of "f*** it, I'm throwing in the towel."

No, the only actual response is to stand up and sing the alma mater. The only actual response is

Love thee Notre Dame

Maybe the dude's just suffering from exhaustion. But I don't know.

If he can't deal with ND by now, then what-the-effing-effer.

Just go.

Onward to victory

So as to not leave things on a completely sober note: in a hysterical turn of events, Notre Dame is still #1 in the BCS rankings. (Thanks, computers!) Which I'm sure is another excellent reason the BCS is being demolished.  Technically speaking, though, the sign on top of Grace Hall could still be lit. (ha.)

I can hardly think about the off-season right now. Whatever Kelly's doing, he better do it quick. Ain't no time to waste with all those recruits on the line.

Let's Go Irish. Beat off-season.

It's gonna be a bumpy ride.

Edit: Kelly's staying.

I hope he means every single word he said and it's not just a bunch of political backtracking.
"This week, I had an incredible opportunity to speak with one of the premier organizations in sports about becoming their head coach," said Kelly.

"Like every kid who has ever put on a pair of football cleats, I have had thoughts about being a part of the NFL. However, after much reflection and conversation with those closest to me, I have decided to remain at Notre Dame.

"This decision was motivated purely by my love for Notre Dame and the entire Fighting Irish community, the young men I have the great fortune to coach, and my desire to continue to build the best football program in the country. "We still have a lot of work to do and my staff and I are excited about the challenges ahead."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

12 Thoughts to Tide You Over 'Til Game Time

I've been living in a bubble (the Notre Dame bubble?) waiting for the championship game to begin. I've hardly watched, read, or listened to anything pertaining to Notre Dame football in almost a month. (ScaNDalous.) Today, I watched enough ESPN to hear Dr. Lou say that--despite his love for Notre Dame--as a professional, he is going to be completely unbiased about this game (hahahaha), and clicked through enough videos to wonder why Ryan Camden keeps pronouncing it "Nutter" Dame (seriously, this is very distracting, Ryan).

This is a total reverse of what I usually do during football season, which generally involves imbibing as much #NDFB related media as humanly possible. (I'm officially 31 days sober. But I'm jumpin' off the damn wagon again tomorrow, and it is going to be the best hitchhike back to sanity EVER. Though if, in fact, they win, I may just decide it isn't worth it, and I shall stumble around in an Irish-induced stupor of eternal bliss forever and ever or until they decide to win a national championship game again. Amen.) In leaving myself to mine own thoughts, I have come up with a few notions, which I shall now share.

Let us pretend that there are twelve of them, because things will just be easier that way.

12. This is the biggest road game on the biggest stage for the biggest game of the season (and the biggest Notre Dame game in 24 years. Or ~20 years. However you're counting). Everett Golson's gonna be fine.

(Naw, scratch that: Everett Golson's gonna be a boss pimp. Aight?)

11. Manti Te'o doesn't need to play against Alabama the way he played against MSU. Or Michigan. Manti can have a ho-hum day (you know, 8 or 9 tackles and a couple assists) as long as all the rest of the defense shows up to play their game. Which they will, because they don't know any other way to play.

10. Bob Diaco (and all the rest of the coaches) have had a month to put a solid game plan together. The defense will still need a little bit of an adjustment period before they're 100% locked in on the opponent, but I don't expect them to come out sluggish or slow. (Seriously, if you can't get your adrenaline up for the national championship game, you SHOULDN'T BE PLAYING FOOTBALL. The real danger is being too jazzed up--but that sort of bit them in the ass a couple times this season, so I don't think that's gonna be a problem either.) If they can stop the big play early, they'll be just fine.


8. Our defense has been compared to an SEC-style defense. Cuz we tough. We physical. (Our city is gangsta, you can tell by the gramma' / welcome to my city, South Bend, Indiana.)  We so tough we better than 'Bama at the goal line.

We so bad we gon' go down there and beat 'em at their own game.

And we gon' do it with a 99% graduation rate, b*tches.

7. It would be okay if Samantha Steele never appeared in another Trick Shot Monday video ever again. However, this one involves bouncing shots off the crystal trophy, so I guess that's okay.

6. Pick-six for Manti Te'o. Yes? Yes.

Go forth, Manti, and reap the fruits of they labor. Reap it from the overextended arm of A.J. McCarron being simultaneously chased down by Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt, aka the Scylla and Charybdis of pass disruption. Let Old Man Kap plow your the way to the end zone, for the bearded one is wise and knows ways of furrowing your opponents to the ground whilst you make a mad break for gridiron glory.

It is time, Manti. Reach out and pluck your blessings from the heavens. They shall rain on you like a thousand thousand leis. (Or, you know, like one really ill-timed pass attempt.)

5. 'Bama will be the best team we've played all season. No joke. And if we had to face them with the offense that we had at the beginning of the season, we'd be in dire straits. But the team from September is not the team we have now. We've earned our way here. We've clawed our way to the top, and don't let any fan--Pittsburgh, Stanford, or otherwise--tell you different.

We, like Thomas Alva Edison, find that the harder we work, the more luck we seem to have. And we have found our thousand and one ways not to make a light bulb.

But the filaments atop Grace Hall are lit.

And despite the SEC's best efforts, none of their teams made it through the season unvanquished. And they did not wipe the floor with everyone in the bowl games. Their throne is precarious. And we can topple the crown. Even if it takes us multiple metaphors to get there--by gosh, we'll get it done.

We're gonna go out there, and we're gonna fight, fight, fight, fight
and we're not gonna stop until we get over that goal line.

We're not more experienced. We're not better-coached. We're not a perfect team.

But I believe we've got a team that's become a family. And if it comes down to a battle in the trenches, I believe our boys will fight harder for each other than Alabama's. Maybe that's hearsay to the entire population of the South.

But sorry, South. You don't have Manti Te'o. 

I think most of the Notre Dame fan base would be willing to strap on pads and play for Manti Te'o, even if (like me) the closest they've ever come to a contact sport is non-competitive youth league soccer.

Between our team and the cheering thousands, we've got what it takes to turn the tide.

4. If this game goes into overtime, I will explode into hyperbole and become and untenable mess of syllables until the game is over. Also, should we lose (which I wouldn't bet on), do not attempt to contact me for at least twenty-four hours, as I'm sure to be lost in a state of wailing and infinite vowels, and there's really no point attempting to communicate with me until I find consonants again.

The same may be true if we win, but then you can call me all you like and I will scream joyously at you until my voice gives out.

3. The numbers favor us. And not just the Numbers-Never-Lie numbers. Or the third-year-of-coaching magic numbers. ND Magazine's got you covered with more conspiracy-theory-coincidences than you can shake a shillelagh at (you know, if you go in for that sort of thing):

2. They have names on the back of their jerseys. This is tradition for bowl games. Anyone who is remotely upset by this can just get over it.

#1. Right, that's still us.  Number one in football. Number one in graduation rates.

And if you don't like it now, just wait until tomorrow night.

In the words of Bennett Jackson's Twitter feed:

Bring it.