When Brian Kelly got his shiny new five-year contract Saturday, it was Notre Dame putting a big diamond ring on his finger. The marriage was on. I do. You might think that happens when a coach is hired, but really, that’s more like the first date.
At a historic football place such as Notre Dame, it takes a signature win, a big moment for fans, school, everyone, to commit till death do us part (or until a two-year losing streak).
Brady Hoke isn’t there yet at Michigan. For all he has done right to line himself up as the next Bo Schembechler — and that accounts for pretty much everything he has done — he still doesn’t have the ring.
Hoke needs Saturday’s game against this Notre Dame team way more than Kelly does. This is the one. Hoke has beaten rivals Ohio State (in 2011), Notre Dame (in 2011) and Michigan State (in 2012) already in his first two seasons.
But he still needs a meaningful game at the national level. Michigan has the better roster, and a home game Saturday. Hoke should be able to get this one, and it would be the signature moment he needs.
On the other hand, a loss would hurt Hoke significantly.
The game means more to Michigan, too, than to Notre Dame. That seems to really bug Michigan fans, but it’s true. Kelly already got the Irish back to No. 1 last year, and to the national championship game.
Even if it was a crushing loss there to Alabama, fans bought in.
That’s why Hoke can call Notre Dame a “chicken’’ for dumping this grand, regular rivalry next year while Kelly can call it just “a big, regional game.’’
He was needling Hoke with that remark, reminding him who is who this week. Kelly also said that he understands why Hoke would have made the “chicken’’ comment to his fans, as everyone wants to play Notre Dame.
And while that also served to put Michigan in its place, I have to say that I was wondering about some of this even before Kelly said it. After the Irish beat Temple Saturday, I asked a few players about whether Michigan was really their big rival, on the same line as, say, USC?
Quarterback Tommy Rees said it was, but acknowledged that Notre Dame has a lot of rivals. Receiver T.J. Jones would have as good a sense of this as anyone.
His dad, Andre Jones, who died in 2011, played on the Notre Dame national title team of 1988. His godfather is Rocket Ismail. Did Jones’ dad consider Michigan to be a rival game?
Yes, Jones said. What did your dad tell you about it?
“Nothing,’’ he said. “He just used to talk about the fight against Miami in the tunnel.’’
In the end, Notre Dame is going to start playing a heavy ACC schedule, which will help it to recruit in the South. It wants to play Stanford to recruit in the West. It wants a big game at neutral sites across the country, too. And — maybe this goes to Hoke’s point — it needs to have a few breathers on the schedule.
So Michigan is out after next year.
But that only makes this game even bigger for Hoke. Michigan is still looking for someone to replace Schembechler, honestly. Lloyd Carr won big, but didn’t have the personality to do it.
Rich Rodriguez, an outsider, was never given a chance, really. And now Hoke brings everything Michigan fans could want.
He has beaten the rivals. He has called Notre Dame a chicken. He takes a school that has called itself, pompously, The Ohio State University and calls it “Ohio.’’ He is a former Michigan assistant.
But most important, he just has that tough Midwestern style, and talk, and approach, and an eye to the school’s traditions, that make him the ideal Next Schembechler. You wouldn’t think it would take long, as Michigan wanted to get rid of the bad taste from Rodriguez. But it does take a time.
At Notre Dame, Irish fans were so desperate that they jumped into a disastrous marriage with Charlie Weis off, basically, a one-night stand. It took Kelly into his fourth season with the Irish to get that ring on his finger.
Hoke is in his third season. Everything has been just about perfect so far. This Saturday is it. Hoke arrives at the Big House ready to say “I do.’’