Tonight, for the first time since the 1989 Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, the University of Notre Dame will vie for college football’s national title, the 2013 BCS National Championship in Miami. After years of peaks and valleys in both on-field performance and flashy regime changes, Notre Dame is oh-so-close to once again sitting atop the peak of college football.
But there’s so much more to the renaissance of the Irish program. What makes this rebirth so special is that the Irish are doing things the right way. #1 means a whole lot more than in just a football poll. An unprecedented feat, a college football team is ranked #1 in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), #1 in Graduation Success Rate (GSR), and rated #1 by respected recruiting services all at the same time. Notre Dame has achieved exactly that as they prepare for the title game at Sun Life Stadium.
But is this so surprising? Is the so-called “return to glory” for the Irish football program impossible to have imagined?
Believe it or not, there is a significant amount of alignment between the success of the Irish and the 14 principles of The Toyota Way. Coach Brian Kelly’s program has demonstrated that it has a foundation built on continuous learning and reflection, a long-term philosophy, development of leaders, respect for people/partners/suppliers – all things valued within the philosophy of the Toyota Production System.
Many key building blocks that align with the 14 principles have been evident for some time, but only now has the effort put forth finally come to fruition.
Here is how Notre Dame aligns with the 14 principles – starting with the first seven.
There are very few schools that truly emphasize “Student” in Student Athlete like the University of Notre Dame. The team’s philosophy genuinely starts with players being students first. The school itself has a reputation for being academically rigorous, but Notre Dame also prides itself on having higher academic standards for its athletes than other schools have for their athletes.
According to starting nose tackle Louis Nix,
“I don’t listen to the SEC hype. I could’ve been an SEC player. All those schools recruited me. I’ve got friends who play in the SEC. They tell me it’s about like it is here, except they say they don’t do much school stuff at all. I tell him, ‘Man, this [expletive] at Notre Dame ain’t no joke.'”
Not only does this generate self-discipline for the athletes themselves, but it also prepares them for life after football is over. Accountability is key, and only a handful of schools hold their students more accountable for their actions. For example, star defensive end Stephon Tuitt missed a class last season while he was a freshman. As a result, he was suspended for the following game at Purdue. Quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese were suspended to begin this season after issues with police at an off-campus party at the end of the last school year. All three have learned from their mistakes and rebounded to play critical roles on the ascent of the team.
Notre Dame could have let academic expectations slide if it meant football glory. They could have brought in a mercenary one-and-done superstar quarterback like Auburn had with Heisman winner Cam Newton. Instead the school embraced the academic rigors, the recruiting challenges, and the locker room leadership of a true Notre Dame man in linebacker Manti Te’o and are now a flagbearing institution of how to have football success without sacrificing the ideals that makes the school special.
Continuous flow means eliminating how long problems and projects sit idle while waiting for work to be done. The use of continuous flow reduces work-in-process or carryover of materials that are purchased and procured but sit idle.
Every year the Irish recruit players to fill out their full scholarship allotment of 85. Early on, the team decides what players will be used on the field during their freshman season and which players would greatly benefit from a year off the field but spent in training to get bigger, stronger, faster, or more agile.
This activity of holding onto an extra year of player eligibility by not letting them see the field is known as redshirting at other schools (Notre Dame has a little different program for retaining player eligibility than what is traditional). By retaining a year of player eligibility, players won’t simply let a year of eligibility disappear through lack of use on the field. It’s hard to get 85 players sufficient playing time but through retained eligibility the Irish and the players both receive the added benefit of being ready to play (bigger, faster, stronger) when called upon down the line.
Just like in a pull system the team replenishes what it consumes but it also must make sure it has the in-house capacity to backfill what is lost.
This season’s defensive secondary is a shining example of a pull system with the “next man in” philosophy. Already a thin unit after losing starters Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith, and Gary Gray to graduation, the Irish suffered three significant injuries to key players expected to start – cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles, safety Austin Collinsworth separated his shoulder, and safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles. In addition, key cornerback recruit Tee Shepard enrolled early but left school prior to spring camp.
What did the Irish do? They shift freshman running back KeiVarae Russell to cornerback, bring up special teams stalwart and former wide receiver Bennett Jackson to start on the opposite side at cornerback, and move Matthias Farley, another former wide receiver, to safety. Safety Zeke Motta, the only healthy returning member of the secondary with notable game experience, takes the leadership reins of the unit. Like a chain being as strong as its weakest link, the secondary becomes the team’s surprise unit and is looked upon as a strength instead of an expected weakness that got a lot weaker due to injury and graduation.
Another piece of the pull system is replenishment of consumed resources and the Irish have had fantastic seasons in recruiting. Over the last 5 years (including 2013) Notre Dame’s recruiting classes have been ranked #1, #9, #9, #21, and #14 by ESPN. While others might argue otherwise, this is a very hefty achievement because the higher academic expectations the Irish have for their recruits severely limits the talent pool from which they can bring in players.
Notre Dame is a multi-faceted team that is strong in every unit. There is no over-reliance on one facet of game – they have a multi-talented starting quarterback in Everett Golson that can beat you with his cannon of an arm and his legs, Mackey Award-winning tight end Tyler Eifert headlines a deep receiving corps, a monster running back trio of Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson, and a defense that is #1 in points allowed – which means there are few ways to stop the Irish.
Take away the running game by stacking the box? Golson can elude rushers and hit receivers on the run.
Try to develop a stout passing game against the defense? Sure, they’ll give you the short stuff but don’t expect them to allow the big plays.
It will take a hearty effort by the Alabama Crimson Tide to take down the Irish, despite the fact that Alabama has won two national titles the last three years. This will be the best defense Alabama will face all year.
Ignoring problems just makes the elephant in the corner that much bigger. Identifying issues and rectifying them as quickly as possible prevents the issues from getting larger and having a greater impact.
The most notable example of fixing problems can be found in the recent drubbings of the Naval Academy. Armed with their traditional triple option offense, in 2010 the Midshipmen outcoached, outmaneuvered, outflanked, and outplayed the Irish due to a poor defensive coaching performance and game plan organized by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and he even admitted as much. Fast forward to 2011 and 2012, and the Irish have blown past Navy by a combined score of 106-24, including a 50-10 annihilation in Dublin, Ireland at Aviva Stadium. The Irish regrouped and learned from their mistakes in 2010 and created another winning game plan to get back on track.
Another example of identifying and fixing problems quickly was in this year’s game against Miami at Soldier Field. The Irish secondary got burned by two long passes by Miami’s Stephen Morris on the Hurricanes’ first drive but neither pass was completed. The Irish defense quickly made adjustments to prevent the big play and completely controlled the rest of the game.
The Irish know the value of digging deep into their player depth to generate game experience and preparation for use down the road. Through reliance on more than just the players in their starting lineup through using heavy substitution, the Irish get the valuable in-game experience to players who will put that experience to good use in later games and seasons when they are being counted on to replace players that graduate. Game experience and practice working with multiple levels of units provides the means for players to learn how to play with consistency and begin doing everything the same way every time, in the correct manner.
When center Braxton Cave went down with an injury last season, little-used Mike Golic Jr. snagged valuable game experience as his replacement that has translated to a fifth-year starting at right guard beside Cave (back at center) and creating big holes for Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood to plow through.
The wide receiver corps has not featured a game-breaking player, but instead has generated depth beyond the two-deep depth chart through heavy substitution and spreading the passes around. When players get injured their backups step up. DaVaris Daniels was injured late in the season, but the offense didn’t miss a beat with other wideouts stepping up into his place.
In football, statistics are everywhere and can be found lots of places. Only in baseball are statistics more scrutinized than football. Visual controls, however, go beyond just numbers. The primary purpose of visual controls is to quickly communicate states of activity, whether it’s numerically measured or simply demonstrates a state of being out-of-specification.
Last season the Irish used a system of signaling in alignments with large cue cards featuring pictures in unusual orders. This quickly provided the information the team on the field required without having to translate hand signals. Many teams use this approach and it looks silly, but the speed and effectiveness of the communication proves its worth.
(Part 2 Coming Soon)