LOS ANGELES – Jack Swarbrick exited the L.A. Coliseum field pumping his fist. Halfway up the tunnel, the Notre Dame athletic director grabbed center Braxston Cave and bear-hugged him. He shook hands and embraced countless people wearing blue and gold.
Four years ago, in the very tunnel where Swarbrick rejoiced over Notre Dame’s return to national title contention Saturday night, the scene was starkly different. He's ebullient now, was embattled then.
“About 40 of you (reporters) had me up against the wall,” said Swarbrick, smiling after watching his team beat USC 22-13 to go 12-0 and earn a trip to the BCS Championship.
Four years ago, the Fighting Irish had been humiliated 38-3 by USC, completing a dismal regular season at 6-6. They produced four first downs all game, none of them until the final play of the third quarter. And that gang of 40 reporters in the tunnel had one question for Swarbrick: Are you going to fire Charlie Weis or not?
Swarbrick deflected questions that night, ultimately defying the lynch-mob mentality of the moment. He did not fire Weis. I thought it was a mistake at the time, and I had a lot of company.
It turned out to be a brilliant decision. Swarbrick could not have envisioned it on that November night in 2008, but his patience set in motion a series of events that made possible this giddy celebration as the nation’s only unbeaten team.
Keeping Weis helped make two things happen: It allowed Weis and his staff to close the deal on a five-star linebacker recruit named Manti Te’o; and it allowed Brian Kelly to fashion a 12-0 regular season at Cincinnati that signaled him as the clear choice to replace Weis a year later.
Four years after that program-altering decision was made, there were Te’o and Kelly embracing in the Coliseum and sharing a few heartfelt words – one a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, the other a leading candidate for national Coach of the Year.
“We’re in this together,” Kelly explained later. “It’s about both of us, player and coach, driving this thing.”
That they have driven it this far – from the dysfunction of the Weis regime to a showdown with the winner of the mighty Southeastern Conference for the national title – is one of the great achievements in Notre Dame history. The record books show that the third year tends to be crucial for every coach of the Irish – Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third year, while the likes of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Weis busted.
But nobody realistically saw this coming.
For years, we’d been fed the standard line that Notre Dame was obsolete. Critics said the school was an anachronistic independent with stringent academic standards, lousy weather and ugly girls – a series of detriments keeping it from recruiting elite players from Sun Belt states.
Truth is, the school didn’t have to sacrifice its standards on the altar of gridiron glory after all. What the Irish needed was the right coach, aided by a special leader in Te’o and a sufficiently gritty and talented supporting cast.
“Notre Dame showed me they have phenomenal senior leadership,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin, whose own leadership of a Cadillac program is in serious doubt after this 7-5 debacle of a season.
But perhaps Pat Haden’s decision to stand by Kiffin another year will one day be as smart as Swarbrick’s was with Weis. Look back at the players who joined Te’o in Weis’ last recruiting class, then look at the stat sheet Saturday night:
Theo Riddick, who arrived as a running back, became a wide receiver and then returned this year to running back, ripped the Trojans for 179 yards from scrimmage and scored Notre Dame’s only touchdown.
Tyler Eifert had four catches for 69 yards, becoming the school’s all-time yardage leader for tight ends – at a school that has had a ton of great ones.
Running back Cierre Wood and receiver Robby Toma chipped in four catches and eight rushes for 73 yards.
And on the defensive side – the side where this and so many other Notre Dame games this season have been won – Class of ’09 products Zeke Motta, Dan Fox and Te’o combined for 13 tackles.
“That’s how we play,” Kelly said. “We come up big defensively at some time during the game.”
The last few yards before the Notre Dame end zone are the most difficult yards to get in college football in 2012. Ask Stanford, which was beaten with a goal line stand in the rain in October. And ask USC, which had nine snaps inside the Irish 5-yard line in the fourth quarter and scored a total of three points.
The end zone looks so close from just a few feet away, yet you can’t get there against the Irish.
“You just put the ball down and we’re going to battle,” Te’o said. “We’re not going to give up.”
This will be heresy to the supremacists living South of the Mason-Dixon line, but Notre Dame has an SEC defense. The Irish are punishing tacklers, fast enough in the secondary and very athletic up front. In fact, the entire makeup of Kelly’s team is similar to what you’d find at an SEC power.
Quarterback Everett Golson is a steadily improving talent – he threw for 217 yards, ran for 47 and did not make a single significant mistake. The Irish ran the ball 42 times and passed it 27 times – the kind of ratio a guy like Alabama coach Nick Saban can appreciate. The only area in which the Irish lack SEC-level physical prowess is red-zone running, where they often struggle to finish drives with touchdowns.
But credit Kelly, a guy who got the job largely based on his spread-offense wizardry, with sublimating his ego and building this team around defense. That departure has led to a team that is more careful with the football: the Irish have 14 turnovers this season, after committing 29 last season. There is less risk built into the offense, because coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense allows Notre Dame to stay in every game.
Of course, staying in games as opposed to dominating them has led to a chorus of critics. They’re convinced the scrape-by Irish are destined to be drilled by whichever SEC team shows up in South Florida on Jan. 7.
I say this: dismiss Notre Dame at your own peril.
But there will be weeks to come of handicapping the title game. For now, this is Notre Dame’s moment unto itself – the program is back, at an exalted level many thought it would never see again.
“We’ve literally seen everything,” fifth-year defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “The lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs.”
They’ve seen both ends of the spectrum right here, in this stadium in southern California. The climb back to relevance began four years ago, when Jack Swarbrick made a decision that changed the future of Notre Dame football.
Fantasy advice from the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Minute:
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Jeff Passan: Marlins should trade Giancarlo Stanton
• NBA Power Rankings: Clippers gain ground
• Will Shabazz Muhammad lead UCLA back to relevance? (video)
• Surprising state among the few trying to keep cursive alive