All that separates Brian Kelly and David Shaw is a whistle.
Sure, we can argue about what might have happened if Stepfan Taylor's second-effort touchdown had been allowed to count on Oct. 13 in South Bend. But the much-discussed flash point of the seasons at both Notre Dame and Stanford remains a good place to start the Coach of the Year discussion.
No doubt, Stanford's Taylor got into the end zone in overtime that day at Notre Dame. Only one problem: The game had ended. After a review, it was determined an official's whistle had blown before the Cardinal tailback's secondary surge had nudged the ball over the goal line.
It was the difference in Stanford at least tying the game -- won by Notre Dame 20-13 -- and perhaps the difference in the season for both teams. For Notre Dame, it was one in a series of close calls that allowed the Irish (12-0) to vault to No. 1. For the 11-2 Cardinal, headed to the Rose Bowl, it kept them from being in the national championship discussion.
More than seven weeks later, Stanford's coach was asked if thought about what could have been.
"My vote doesn't count," Shaw said.
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Yes, but ours does. For their masterful work at developing their quarterbacks, for bringing their schools back to the top, for doing it "the right way," Shaw and Kelly are CBSSports.com Co-Coaches of the Year. It's a tie, no whistle needed.
One led the Irish to within a game of their first national championship in 24 years. The other coached Stanford to its first conference title in 13 years. They are of different generations, different backgrounds. Kelly is a 51-year-old Irish-Catholic who grew up in Boston. Shaw, 40, is a Cali guy having spent 15 of his 18 years as a coach on the West Coast. They have met twice, splitting a pair of games.
One (Kelly) is fiery, noted for his sideline, um, conversations with players. The other is cerebral, analytical. Shaw could probably be mistaken for a midlevel manager striding across the nearby Google campus.
But in the short time at their schools both have produced a Heisman finalist. Both paid their dues -- Kelly spending 13 years at Division II Grand Valley State before leading Cincinnati to the Sugar Bowl. Shaw spent nine years as an NFL assistant before joining Jim Harbaugh as a receivers and quarterbacks coach at the University of San Diego.
In 2011, Shaw came full circle, replacing Harbaugh at Stanford. This season -- his second as a head coach -- Shaw beat the then-No. 2 (Southern California) and then-No. 1 (Oregon). Through two seasons, he has won 22 of 24 games. The great Bill Walsh went only 17-7 in his first two seasons at Stanford.
In 2012, Kelly woke up the echoes continuing a trend of third-year turnarounds for Irish coaches. Kelly took a scout-team quarterback to the highest levels of college football. In doing so, the native of Everett, Mass., had to change the way he coached. Hired at Notre Dame because of his offensive prowess, Kelly realized early on this season he had a team that did two things well. It ran and stopped the run.
"The SEC has made a living on playing good defense and running the football," Kelly said. "We thought that was the model for success."
Quarterback? Well, that was an issue.
Redshirt freshman Everett Golson was ineffective at times. Against Stanford, he was injured. Reliever Tommy Rees threw the winning touchdown pass. In the much-analyzed Pittsburgh game, Golson rallied the Irish back from a 20-6 deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime. Wrap your mind around this: Notre Dame took off this season with a freshman quarterback who is still learning to fly.
Now he could become the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship since 1985 (Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway).
Shaw had his own quarterback issues. He had to make the tough decision to replace starter Josh Nunes with Kevin Hogan during the Nov. 3 game against Colorado. Nunes, a loyal Cardinal since childhood, had worked hard to win the job in the offseason but was gradually overtaken by Hogan, a redshirt sophomore.
"I did it once in the NFL," said Shaw, an assistant with the Eagles, Ravens and Raiders from 1997-2005. "I said the worst thing you can do for a quarterback is not playing him, it's playing him early. ... Kevin was not ready to do that."
Shaw cited former Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller, who played nine years in the NFL but never really distinguished himself.
"To this day the best thing in the world would have been for Kyle to sit and learn [early on]," Shaw said. "Kyle wasn't ready. We had to play him and he was our best option. First game as NFL starter was against Pittsburgh -- three interceptions. I'm never going to do that again."
In his fourth career start, Hogan beat UCLA for the Cardinal's first conference title since 1999. That topped off -- for now -- the best four-year run in Stanford history. Since 2009, Shaw and Jim Harbaugh have combined to win 42 games, play in three consecutive BCS bowls and produce a Heisman runner-up in three consecutive seasons.
Stanford better be careful. The words "football factory" may become attached to its name.
Not quite yet. Stanford and Notre Dame are the front of an academic-athletic resurgence in football. Add Duke, Vanderbilt and Northwestern to the mix and those five schools are bowling in the same year for the first time.
"Very rarely are we getting calls at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning about issues," Vandy coach James Franklin said. "You're able to sleep well at night."
"The culture that we've developed is one of not making compromises," Shaw said. "There are just enough guys across the country who say, 'I want it. I want a great education and I want to play great football.'"
Former AD Bob Bowlsby told CBSSports.com that Stanford recruits from a nationwide group of about 250 athletes because of academic restrictions. Shaw says it's less than that.
"The biggest thing we try not to ever do, we don't reach," Shaw said. "The worst thing you can do is take a lesser running back because he can get into school, because he can help us beat Oregon and USC. ... If we have more scholarships than [Stanford-quality] candidates, we stick that scholarship in our back pockets."
For Notre Dame, it has become a season of honor. It is the first No. 1 in the BCS era. The Irish also are No. 1 in graduation rate.
"This wasn't a guy selling me the spread offense," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said. "This was a guy talking about every element of the program. And if you didn't have them all, you weren't going to succeed."
During Kelly's interview, Swarbrick threw out a list of items that were nonnegotiable at Notre Dame: Players would live on campus for their first three years. The university decided discipline first. Kelly didn't blink.
"Absolutely," he said.
Both coaches are just getting started. Entering his third season in 2013, Shaw will attempt to land his second consecutive top-10 recruiting class. The Cardinal aren't going away with strength built in both lines. In the SEC, at Notre Dame or on The Farm, muscle is a good place to start.
Kelly? He is chasing ghosts, waking up those echoes. Doing it all a year early.
"I did think we were so well-positioned for next year," Swarbrick said.
In this modern era of Notre Dame football, Kelly will do what Ty Willingham couldn't, get to his fourth season. In a season for the ages, he is trying to carve his name in granite, make work for statue builders. After only three seasons at Notre Dame, national championships are expected.
Kelly would be the fifth Irish coach to do it.