The word “legacy” gets thrown around a lot in sports. It’s often used to describe how we remember someone, whether it be a coach, player or collective team. Your legacy is something that sticks with you for the rest of your life.
For Brian Kelly and the 2018 Notre Dame football team, their legacy hinges on what they do on Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas.
There’s no denying the success Kelly has had in nine seasons in South Bend. He has a 60-33 record, not including the 21 victories that were vacated from the 2012 and 2013 seasons due to academic violations. He’s only had one losing season — a disasterous 4-8 campaign in 2016 — but has followed it up with 10-3 and 12-0 seasons. He’s 5-3 in bowl games with the Fighting Irish. Statistically, he is the sixth greatest coach in Notre Dame football history, which is saying something given the elite coaches the Irish have had in the past.
If you ask many Irish fans and pundits, however, his legacy is tied to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. It serves as a microcosm of being “close, but no cigar.” Every year following that title game has featured some sort of late-season stumble from the Irish, costing them potential College Football Playoff berths in 2015 and 2017.
For as many games as Kelly has won patrolling the sidelines in blue and gold, he’s never won “the big one.” Sure, he’s 6-3 against USC, but when it’s come to the game’s biggest stages, the Irish have usually faltered.
It started with the 2013 BCS title game. A loss at No. 2 Florida State in 2014 sent then-No. 5 Notre Dame derailing, blowing a 6-0 start to finish 8-5. The 2016 Fiesta Bowl furthered the narrative that Notre Dame wasn’t actually “back,” as they lost to Ohio State 44-28. They were ranked as high as No. 3 last year before falling flat on their faces at No. 8 Miami.
That’s why next Saturday is huge for Kelly. A win in the Cotton Bowl would go a long way in changing the narrative — and legacy — for him at Notre Dame. Talking about that, though, hasn’t come up for the Irish head coach.
“No, no. Sounds really good. This is really a focused group on wanting to win a National Championship, and it’s been that way since we started this journey in January,” Kelly said. “Each and every week during the year we didn’t really talk about, ‘Hey, let’s beat Michigan and what that does for us.’ It got us to 1-0.
“So there really hasn’t been much talk. Certainly, (the players) understand that they’ve got to stay focused on their process, but they’ve listened to everybody talk about how they are underdogs. So, there’s a little bit of that, but this is really about keeping this going and winning a football game, more so than any of the big picture stuff.”
Speaking of the players, their legacy is also defined by what happens at AT&T Stadium in seven days. For the big-named players like Ian Book, Te’von Coney and Julian Love, games like the Cotton Bowl go a long way in how they’re remembered in a Notre Dame uniform.
But for guys like Drue Tranquill, it means even more than that. The graduate senior is at his last stand with the Irish. A player who’s played multiple defensive positions in his five seasons in South Bend, Tranquill has become the leader for Notre Dame in 2018. He knows what awaits his team with two more victories in the next three weeks.
“We talk about wanting to leave our name on the wall and continue the rich history here. Every recruit talks about coming to Notre Dame, the tradition of Notre Dame. That’s one of the reasons why you come, and I’m like, ‘What does that really mean if you’re not continuing it yourself?’ We’re a small piece in a massive puzzle,” Tranquill said. “There are so many players that have come through here, so many great teams. And we want to be unique, we want to separate ourselves. We want to go down as the best team in Notre Dame history.”
A chance to become the “best team in Notre Dame history” is on the line next week for Notre Dame. A chance to re-write narratives, re-write perceptions and re-write legacies.
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN