SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Growing up, Corey Robinson had an up-close look at just how important a winning culture can be.
Robinson’s father, David, starred for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and won a pair of championships during his Hall of Fame career. The Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997 and won three more titles after Robinson retired.
It’s impossible for a college program to develop the same kind of culture instilled by David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich & Co. — not with the amount of yearly turnover that comes with players only having four years of eligibility and assistant coaches often leaving after a few years with a program. But that's still the younger Robinson’s model in working to help establish the right kind of atmosphere at Notre Dame.
“Last year you see how we kind of collapsed toward the end of the season, and we have all the talent in the world — that’s not an issue playing at Notre Dame,” Robinson, a junior wide receiver, said. “But one of the things that makes champions is that culture. I love the Spurs, right, and they have that winning culture so we have to understand (that) for us to become the champions that we can be.”
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Notre Dame’s unofficial motto for the 2015 season is culture beats scheme, which is less a shot at former coach Charlie Weis’ cringe-worthy “decided schematic advantage” quip and more a lifting of a quote from Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly. The point: Notre Dame can have a perfect gameplan and a talented group of players, but without the right kind of culture, it won’t succeed.
Culture, of course, is one of those nebulous, unquantifiable things that coaches and players point to, especially during spring and preseason practice (when there aren’t games to evaluate).
“It’s a standard that is set and needs to be upheld by the players,” explained center and returning captain Nick Martin. “It goes beyond the coaches. It’s accountability, it’s calling people out, and when it comes down to it that’s what you fall back on when you hit adversity. When you have more than one or two guys bringing up the team in those times, that’s when you become great.”
In 2014, Notre Dame crumbled as soon as trouble hit. After that gut-wrenching loss to Florida State, the Irish survived a scare from Navy and lost four straight games to end the season, though that was more due to Everett Golson’s struggles, a defense ravaged by injuries and a suddenly unreliable kicking game. It took a month off — and a new starting quarterback — for Notre Dame to pull out of its tailspin and upset LSU in the Music City Bowl.
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The 2014 Irish didn’t have a ton of leaders, and those who were weren’t always the team’s best players (Cam McDaniel was the team’s third-leading rusher; Austin Collinsworth was injured for most of the season). It was a young group made even younger by having to play so many inexperienced underclassmen.
Though left tackle Ronnie Stanley said a good culture is not necessarily about having veterans.
“I would say you have to have a lot of mature people,” Stanley said, “mature kids around our age who are able to have the balls to step into that role.”
The scenario is different this fall, with Malik Zaire, Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield joining established leaders in Martin, Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley.
The belief is having so many top players fill leadership roles will breed the kind of culture Notre Dame feels is necessary for a team to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“This is the deepest group of components,” Kelly said. “I think every year you'd say well, I'd like to have Michael Floyd or I'd like to have (Zack) Martin or I'd like to have this guy. … However, that doesn't get it done for you. It's how this group comes together. How they overcome adversity. How they stay together, hold each other accountable, that will be the mix.”
Notre Dame coaches and players are fond of reminding anyone who’ll listen they can’t play for a conference championship game, so the only meaningful trophy they have a chance of winning is a national championship. Winning a title is the undercurrent to everything Notre Dame does, even if it’s not a frequently-discussed topic during practices and team meetings.
“Do I get up there and talk about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated? No,” Kelly said. “Do I get there and talk about, hey, I want to get to the playoffs? No. They know what the mission is. They know when they come to Notre Dame what the mission is. We talk about, how do we get there. That's where we spend most of our time.”
For Kelly and his players, getting there involves having the right kind of culture. A culture which, at the end of the year, the Irish could say indeed beat scheme.