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Brian Kelly’s ‘excitement’ not enough for Notre Dame alums hungry for a title

Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly

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Updated: May 23, 2012 8:15AM

I did a double-take to make sure I was in the right place last week as the Notre Dame Club of Chicago’s annual Knute Rockne dinner got under way inside a Sheraton-Chicago ballroom.

The usual cast of ardently believing Domers was on hand, only not as many of them. Not nearly as many. In past years, the hotel would set up extra tables to accommodate the throngs eager to be enthralled by Ara Parseghian or charmed by Lou Holtz. Even Charlie Weis might draw a full house as he blustered on about the Decided Schematic Advantage he’d brought to South Bend.

The dinner’s proceeds support a good cause: scholarship assistance for Chicago-area students attending ND, a high-end-and-climbing university. (In fact, if you plan to enroll your toddler, start saving now.) It may be a sign of the times that the room was maybe two-thirds full for Brian Kelly; the Irish are coming off back-to-back 8-5 seasons and have won 10 games only twice in the last 10 years.

It was an oddly subdued crowd, too — not especially interested in enhancing its modest size with fervor.

With the Rev. John Smyth laid up after hip surgery, the Rev. Raymond Klees served as a pinch-hit greeter for the reformed Irish hoops enforcer, whose post-basketball career has been a selfless crusade for the betterment of young lives. And the Rev. Gene Smith’s invocation was an inspiring reminder that a life-threatening stroke doesn’t have to be life-altering.

Kelly, though, was the undisputed headliner. And while he proclaimed himself ‘‘excited’’ by a laundry list of recent developments, he didn’t shake down much thunder.

Too much sugar at times

Jeff Jeffers — ND grad, South Bend TV personality and unabashed Domer homer — served as emcee and did his best to set Kelly up, offering sunny accolades to everything Irish and inviting Kelly to elaborate. It was downright noble, for instance, for linebacker Manti Te’o to eschew certain NFL riches and return for his senior year, wasn’t it?

Likewise Tyler Eifert. The rangy senior brings a lot to the tight end position, but best ever at the school that produced Hall of Famer Dave Casper, all-world beast Mark Bavaro and three current pros? Let’s call that a stretch.

It’s not that Kelly lacked confidence. There was a hint of a swagger in his voice as he talked about the program he is building and the system he is installing, and the staff changes he has made reflected the degree of each aide’s compatibility with both.

He’s excited about them, too.

One of my tablemates said he’d be a lot more excited about that system if Kelly had beaten Tulsa or South Florida with it, never mind Michigan or Stanford. But this was not a night for skepticism.

From his first day at Notre Dame, Kelly has insisted that restoring Irish relevance starts with a defense that was grievously neglected in the Weis era. Thus there was no way he could feign excitement over the departure of homesick defensive end Aaron Lynch, a fast, athletic pass rusher, the type of wild-eyed defender who rarely shows up in South Bend and whose absence factors into ND’s disappearance from the BCS discussion.

Meanwhile, Kelly can only hope his quarterbacks are as elusive as he was when Jeffers broached that topic. Football sage John Madden has always maintained that a team with two quarterbacks really has no quarterbacks. Where does that leave the Irish with their four? Kelly said he’s excited about each of them, even Tommy Rees, who inspired all those purple-faced sideline tirades during an up-and-down sophomore season.

8-5 won’t work for long

Say what you will about Weis, but he didn’t shy away from expectations. He’d come to ND to compete for national championships, he said, and if he didn’t, he expected to be fired.

Done and done.

Kelly, for now, is hanging his hat on an eight-win season in 2012 being Notre Dame’s third straight, the first time the Irish have managed that in 18 years.

Now that might get a coach an extension with a raise at Grand Valley State or Central Michigan or Cincinnati. It could get him fired at Notre Dame, where fans consider national titles their birthright. The Irish are coming up on 24 years without winning one and 19 without contending, which is one reason they’ve been through five coaches since Boston College infamously denied Holtz a second title in 1993.

As the program drew to a close, my tablemate seemed resigned to spending the holidays at home.

‘‘At least we’re good in women’s basketball,’’ he said.

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