WEST LAFAYETTE – The names of Theismann, Montana and Rice are legendary throughout the Notre Dame football universe. To hear the stories told of their exploits, the former Fighting Irish quarterbacks never made a mistake and they always found a way to win.
Perpetually criticized Tommy Rees can only dream of such adulation; this, despite the fact that he is in the process of crushing statistically those aforementioned legends in the Fighting Irish annals.
With his two touchdown passes in a 31-24 victory at Purdue on Saturday, Rees has climbed into a tie with former No. 2 NFL Draft selection Rick Mirer for career touchdown passes (41) and has a legitimate shot to finish his career trailing only Brady Quinn (95).
His next scoring pass will double the number that Joe Montana had while leading the Irish. That isn't too bad of an achievement for a player who hasn't been shown love by Irish fans - or the media - in years.
“I really don't care what you guys (the media) think about Tommy Rees,” Kelly said Saturday. “You guys can have your own opinions of him.”
The fourth-year Notre Dame coach is correct in that it really isn't relevant what the media thinks of Rees. It is more important to learn how Kelly assesses his quarterback.
However, in fairness to the media, we're not the ones who have benched Rees (at least not literally) each of the three previous seasons.
After his latest victory for the Irish, Kelly was singing the praises of the player whom he has continually doubted and wouldn't be playing now if not for Everett Golson being a poor decision maker in the classroom.
“He's one of our players and the guys love him,” Kelly said.
That much is absolutely true. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex who doesn't give full support to Rees (Kelly included at this juncture), and taking this season into account, that's with good reason.
Rees has completed over 60 percent of his passes this year and thrown for five scores with just a pair of interceptions (one freakish in nature that wasn't his fault).
The Irish offense has talent – and inexperience – at multiple positions and Rees' knowledge, maturity and ability have been needed as much as ever, and he has continually delivered so far.
Without Rees leading this team, Notre Dame would be 1-2 right now and in serious peril as it looked at its upcoming schedule.
When it comes to football intellect, Rees is the smartest guy in the Irish program and has often backed that intelligence up with superior play through three games this fall, including orchestrating a 28-14 second half rally Saturday.
“I'm really proud of how he settled down in the second half (against Purdue) and helped our football team win,” Kelly said.
Kelly was quick to note that too much evaluation shouldn't be done on his quarterback from afar. He stated that Rees “is a college student that goes to class. He still has pimples.”
But the starting quarterback at Notre Dame plays in front of thousands of fans in person each Saturday (and millions more through TV screens) and is on magazine covers and front pages of sports sections from California to New York, so appraisals by the populace are part of the deal.
“I can't think about (his legacy) and all of those other things,” Kelly said. “I'm sorry.”
Perhaps the coach can't think big-picture when it comes to his quarterback, but the media can. And Rees is in the process of leaving Notre Dame with a legacy of loyalty, effort, production and success that should be admired by many for a long time to come.