Friday, December 11, 2009


It's a mixture of relief and--dare I say it?--optimism: Brian Kelly is the 29th head football coach at the University of Notre Dame. For a lengthy, in-depth recap of Kelly's coaching credentials, I recommend the always superb Blue-Gray Sky.

For now, all you need to know is that this is a man who just coached the Cincinnati Bearcats to a perfect season, and now they're going up against Florida in the Sugar Bowl. (Although popular opinion seems to be that Cincinnati's going to get smeared all over the Superdome. I offer no opinion on this except to say that you all should know how I feel about Urban Meyer by now, so--Go Bearcats!) And now Mr. Kelly is forgoing the chance to coach in New Orleans by taking up residence in the Gug's big, cushy corner office.

Before I get going on the new coach and start paraphrasing everything I just heard in the press conference, I just want to say: mad props to Jack Swarbrick for keeping the lid tight on this thing right until the very end. I commend you, sir. Also, I found it a very classy move that you presented our new head coach with a medal of Mary instead of a helmet or a football jersey. Way to be true to the spirit of Notre Dame.

Coach Kelly--apparently a Boston Irish Catholic--seems to get the spirit of Notre Dame, too, which is pretty much essential for anyone who's going to attempt to lead the football team at Our Lady's University. He spoke of the university's tradition, its high academic and athletic standards, and approached the university not only as a fan but as a coach. He spoke of developing players who work hard on the field and are gentlemen off the field. He spoke of Notre Dame in a way, I thought, that represented Notre Dame.

Plumes of reactionary optimism

For as despondent as I've felt since the end of the season, I have to say I was pretty darn pleased to get that e-mail announcing Brian Kelly was our new head coach--because if it wasn't gonna be him, who else WAS there? I think, at this current moment in time, we actually did get the best man for the job. And I have to say, I'm way more up-in-the-clouds about all this than I thought I'd be.

Part of this, I think, is reactionary: looking for (and finding) things in the new head coach that were lacking with the last. This sort of amplifies the feeling of all-around glee at the thought that Notre Dame finally has a coach who
A) comes in with a .747 win percentage after 19 years of coaching
B) has proven he can turn limp programs into national champions (Grand Valley State, D-II) and conference champions (Central Michigan, Cincinnati)
C) has been a head coach--IN COLLEGE--for almost two solid decades

This man has a proven track record. He's not being sucked in through the NFL. He is not a gamble. (You know, so I assume.)

In case you've missed out on my biggest beef with Charlie the last couple seasons, here are the two things I've griped about the most:
1) Lack of fundamentals
2) Having a head coach who's still learning how to be a college head coach. (And by that I mean--watching in agony as he figures out that no, you can't treat college kids the same way you treat guys in the NFL, and no, college players don't come pre-conditioned with great fundamentals, and no, no matter how clever you think this play is, if your players aren't disciplined and consistent, all the scheming in the world isn't going to help you.)

And pretty much right off the bat Brian Kelly proved that he understands the nature of being a head coach in the college game.

Two little words that one reporter called "vague," but which were music to my ears: player development.

Ah, yes--YES! There it IS! College players have to be DEVELOPED! That is the why college football has become so crucial to the success of players in the NFL, is it not?

This is not to say that Charlie didn't know how to develop a player. I mean, he developed Brady Quinn. I'm just saying--Charlie came from the pros, he ran a pro-style game, he's a pro-style man, and I...

You know what, I'm just going to stop talking about Charlie. He came, he did what he did, he helped turn the program in the right direction, I wish him the best.

Back to Brian Kelly and player development. I liked this quote:'s not just about being bigger, faster, stronger, it's getting your players to trust. It's getting your players to be accountable on a day to day basis. It's developing them as young men, and you have to do that through relationships.

Boom! Right there. This is a man who knows he's dealing with college kids, knows he's dealing with people who are still maturing and learning how to manage themselves, and that is as crucial a part of the college game as anything else. Another choice example:

Eating at Burger King at 3:00 in the morning is not going to make you the best for your 8:00 workouts. Not being on time, not paying attention to detail, not being purposeful in what you do on a day to day basis. Attention to detail is absolutely crucial in this process of winning, and so when I talk about working on winning, I mean you do that from the first day you step on this campus if you want to win.

This is not me accusing the players or the previous coaching staff of anything in particular. This is just me saying that the new head coach is talking like a man familiar with success, familiar with making success happen in a college system, and familiar with how college kids work. And that, to me, is extremely promising.

Another comment that I particularly liked was this one, which almost certainly struck a chord with me because it's exactly the sort of thing I've been griping about for the past few seasons:

You don't win on Saturdays with Xs and Os. You win on Saturdays because you've been working on it all week, and so it's that attention to detail. It's morale, it's camaraderie, it's one voice.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! THANK YOU. Thank you thank you thank you. You have NO idea how good that is to hear. No idea.

(Once again, not trying to disparage anybody. I'm just sayin'--when your life for a few years is X's and O's, like Charlie's life was, you tend to approach the game in X's and O's.)

Something else that pretty much made me want to jump up and down and pump my fist in the air:

I think it's important to point out that you win and lose football games as a whole.

Yes. YES. YES!!!! I mean, I know this is sort of obvious to anyone who pays attention to the fact that football is a team sport--but it strikes me that, too often these days, people don't really approach it that way. I mean, theoretically head coaches do, but speaking as a lay person, it seems like teams are often lopsided--strong on one side or another--due to the leanings of whatever position their head coach happened to coordinate before he became the head coach.

I have this problem as a fan, too; I expect teams to be lopsided one way or another. For example...when I'm watching the Indianapolis Colts, I pretty much expect Peyton Manning to go out there and win the game for them. I know, somewhere in my head, that of course the defense has to do its job, and Peyton would be nothing without his O-line and his receiving corps of thrifty ballcatchers. But let's face it--when the game's on the line, I expect Peyton Manning to go out there and win.

It's the same problem watching defensive teams--you know, like how Da Bears used to be. How many teams can you watch throw six picks against Arizona on Monday night and still expect them to be able to win? The Bears did it a couple years ago. It was absurd.

Anyway, the point is--at the very least, Brian Kelly is approaching football the way a head coach needs to approach football: as a head coach, one who will oversee ALL aspects of the game:

So offense, defense and special teams has been what I'm an expert at. And when I talk about expert at it, I mean I don't just rely on one side of the ball. As a head football coach, you are responsible for all those areas, and as you can tell probably from my experience in Division II, we had when I started two full time coaches. So you couldn't just be the offensive coordinator; you couldn't just be the defensive coordinator; you had to be involved in all those areas. I will be intimately involved with what we do defensively as the head football coach.

Now, of course, we don't know how any of this is going to translate, but I hope for the best.

I look forward to our special teams next year.

Enough about the past. Let's talk about the future.

First off, Brian Kelly is a living-in-the-present type of guy:

Well, we go to work right away. We don't get a five year plan. This is a five minute plan. I mean, we're working on it immediately, and we expect our football players to play at a high level immediately.
Boom! Hit the ground running. I like it.

Second, let's focus in on our immediate future: recruiting. Kelly said that recruiting would be the first thing on his docket: calling our recruits, trying to keep the commits, going out there and fighting for the future of the Irish. I'm curious to see how this goes, and if any more of our recruits will end up falling through the cracks. Some players commit because of the coaches and then de-commit once they're gone; not all of them can be total badasses and commit after the head coach has been fired like Louis Nix.

In a related note, it will be interesting to see which Irish coaches are retained for the staff, too. Coach Ianello's already taken the head coaching job at Akron, and considering the state of our defense I think pretty much everyone expects us to have a new defensive coordinator...but I'm curious to see who of the remaining staff will stay, and what kind of impact that will have on recruiting.

Regarding the approach to recruiting and the kind of players Kelly is going after, the one big thing he mentioned was passion:

They have to love to play this game. So in the recruiting process, as we go from coast to coast in finding that right profile, I want to be around players that love to play this game. I love being around it. If you're not passionate about what you do and how you do it, you probably won't connect with me. So I'm looking for that passion, and it's got to resonate with me in the recruiting process. Yeah, we'll look at the profiles, but I've never gotten caught up in profiles as much as making sure that that passion is there.

After the effort the Irish team put forth this season, I think everyone's pretty much zipped their mouths shut Re: accusing the team of not playing with passion. So it's nice to see that the requirement for passion is there. (You would assume that anyone willing to kill themselves to play at the level of D-I football is passionate about the game but, you know, based on the clearly 100% accurate storytelling of the movie Rudy, not everyone who suits up on Saturdays always has their full heart in the game.) It might seem a little iffy to hear him talk about not getting "caught up" in the profiles of players, but for now I'm willing to ride with him on this one. In recent years, coaches at programs like Boise State, TCU, and (dare I say it?) Cincinnati have proved that you don't have to have a team full of top-rated, emu-faced recruits to win games. You've just got to make sure you can make the players you've got work as a team.

So...we'll see how it goes.

The last snippet I want to post has to do with our team--the current collection of next year's Fighting Irish. As I said, I think our team proved this season that they are hungry for victory--hungry for excellence. The letdown at the end of this season (UConn?? Really? UCONN????? Sorry, I still can't get over it.) will become a blip in Irish football history if Coach Kelly can turn this team's drive and potential into the one thing that matters most in the world of college football: wins.

As I've said all season, potential is frustrating. Potential is maddening. Potential, if unmet, eats you up from the inside.

And that, I think, is at the core of this whole idea of player development, of taking the potential of each player, and then moving them, as Kelly says, "to a level they can't get to by themselves. That's player development. That's at the core of what I mean, to get people to do things that they normally wouldn't do on their own."

So let's see how it goes. Let's see if we can get there. Let's see what Coach Kelly makes of the players we have here, and the players that we've yet to gain.

And of our team, the new head coach says this:

They want to win. They want to win. They're like any other football program that I've been around; they want to win football games, and they want to be led. They want to be developed. I could tell that immediately.

You do not come to the University of Notre Dame because you want to be average. You want to be the best of the best. And that's why I'm here. It inspires me to be around young men like I had in front of me today.

In the words of Rocket, kids: GO GET IT.


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