FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Notre Dame football fans have waited a very long time for this day to arrive.
The No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) will battle defending champion and No. 2-ranked Alabama (12-1) tonight in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m.).
The current players and coaches have waited, they'll tell you, a very long time for this day to arrive. But in reality, it has only been 44 days since the Fighting Irish secured a berth into tonight's game with a victory at USC. That is a mere blink in comparison to the 8,771 days that the Irish Nation have endured while watching their team heap disappointment onto calamity over the past 24 years.
When Notre Dame topped West Virginia in convincing fashion 34-21 on Jan. 2, 1989 to claim the 1988 national title, no one felt it would be long until the program got back to this point. But it was, and three years ago, Brian Kelly was hired to change the culture of the program from one of acceptance to one of expectation.
“I think it starts with setting a clear goal for the program,” Kelly said. “You know, really what is it; are we here to get to a bowl game, or are we here to win National Championships? So the charge immediately was to play for championships and win a National Championship.”
That is nice coach speak – and Kelly will have to forgive the Notre Dame faithful if they doubted his message earlier in his tenure. However, what he has shown over the past six months is that he has the plan to continue taking the program in that championship direction.
Kelly is not overseeing a one-year wonder. Notre Dame is back, regardless of a victory or a loss tonight, and it isn't going anywhere (other than to more BCS National Championship Games) anytime soon. That's not just my opinion, but also the belief of the nation's most elite high school recruits.
“Playing in this game is an incredible springboard into the next season,” Kelly said. “Because as I just mentioned, you set a goal, you set a bar. They've already been here. You come back the next year; it's unacceptable for a standard to be any less than being back here again. So it's an incredible springboard.”
Max Redfield believes in the future of this program.
The nation's No. 4 athlete and Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School senior decommitted from USC in November and on Friday pledged his allegiance to, and belief in, Kelly's program. He joins Indiana's 2012 Mr. Football, Bishop Luers High School stud Jaylon Smith, in a class that now ranks as the best in the land according to ESPN's recruiting class rankings.
No, Notre Dame isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
“I really think it's about winning and winning in everything that you do,” Kelly said. “So if there's a cornerstone - if I asked everybody out here, what do you know about winning, most would understand that you put more points on the board. There's so much more to it than that; it's morale, it's the right people, it's creating an atmosphere where when your players come to the football building they enjoy being there.”
Kelly has been here and done this before. He built a dominant NCAA Division II program at Grand Valley State, and the success of the Laker program continued even after he left for the same job at Central Michigan.
“When I was playing for championships at the Division II level,” Kelly explained, “it just changes everything when you walk into that building on a day-to-day basis. Everybody is playing for championships. So this will be a great springboard in making sure that we get back to this game.”