USC-Notre Dame just doesn’t have the same kick to it anymore.
With both teams at relative low points, the bad blood in the rivalry doesn’t quite boil like it used to (at least on the West Coast, anyway — South Bend might be a different story).
Sure, the game will receive plenty of attention with its primetime spot on NBC, and the coverage of the rivalry would have you believe it’s as intense as it has ever been.
But that’s not the case.
Even USC Athletic Director Pat Haden, who you’d expect to sing out about the majesty and tradition of the game, realizes the stakes are unusually low.
“[To the kids], if you talk to them, this is just another game in a series of 12,” Haden told ESPN this week. “I think all of us — you, me, the old-timers — feel differently than the players do.”
It’s a little disheartening to take stock of the declining value of this once-historic matchup, and as fans continue to come to grips with the reality, they’re going to look for a scapegoat.
In Kelly’s case, the blow is somewhat softened by general mediocrity among the Fighting Irish’s coaches since Lou Holtz moved out. In fact, Charlie Weis’ disappointing tenure preceding Kelly had most calling for any type of change.
And Kelly helped his case by going into the Los Angeles Coliseum last November and downing the Trojans in the rain to end an eight-year USC winning streak — with a little help from a slippery field and then-senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson’s cleats.
But for the most part, these coaches are subject to widespread scrutiny and expected to right their respective ships, returning them to the glory they once shared.
In Kiffin’s case, the pressure has to be palpable.
Losing to Notre Dame was not a good mark on Kiffin’s first season at USC, especially for a guy who just can’t seem to do right by anybody. If he goes for it on fourth down twice in a game, converting one, few are going to remember the make. Everyone’s going to remember the failure and chide his decision-making for the next week. Even I’m guilty of it.
College coaches have to deal with hopelessly irrational critics, and these two in particular deal with masses that have sky-high standards and paper-thin leniency.
It might be fair to evaluate these coaches based solely on their performance, but to judge them based on how they stack up to predecessors and how well they preserve a legacy?
That’s just wrong.
Kiffin is not Pete Carroll. Kelly is not Holtz. The 2011 Trojans are not the 2004 Trojans, and the 2011 Irish aren’t the 1988 Irish.
There’s no way to compare teams across these eras when competition, recruiting, motivation, training and so many other variables are just that — variables.
Let them shape their own programs and get off their backs about the past.
For whatever reason we tend to concentrate the blame on the one person who has absolutely no reason to do any less than his best — when you work for one of these programs, you tend to like your job.
We act like Kiffin and Kelly walk out on the field every week, pull off their blindfolds and coach a game. They’ve studied the film. They’ve evaluated the players. They’ve made painstaking preparations.
But all they hear is how they aren’t as good as the people who did it at an elite level before them.
Maybe it is a matter of talent — and not just preparation — that makes a good coach.
Maybe Kiffin isn’t as talented as Carroll, and maybe Kelly isn’t as talented as Holtz.
But why should a lower level of talent give fans an excuse to vilify these figures?
It’s wrong to trash a player just because he doesn’t excel at the level we want. It’s widely done, but it’s wrong.
Often players’ success or failure is largely dependent on how they fared in the genetic lottery. The same goes for coaches.
So if we’re going to continue to treat Kiffin and Kelly as unfairly as we do now, let’s call this game what it really is.
The Scapegoat Bowl.
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