Early on in his time at Cincinnati, I remember reading a Sports Illustrated profile on former Bearcats and current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. The article came out a long time ago and most of the details have long since been lost on me, but there was one that still sticks out. It had to do with the way Kelly handled former Bearcats’ quarterback Tony Pike.
When Kelly arrived at Cincinnati prior to the 2007 season, Pike was buried on the depth chart, the kind of guy who was going through the motions, happy to be along for the ride, and collecting his scholarship money, even if he wasn’t really doing anything to earn it. Well at least Pike was, until one day when Brian Kelly bumped into him and in not so many words, basically told him: “Get the hell out.” That if Pike wasn’t going to start working harder and taking himself more seriously, than Kelly didn’t want him as part of the program anymore.
Well apparently whatever Kelly said worked. Pike eventually went from “buried on the depth chart” to All-Big East first team, and a sixth round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers. Granted, it wasn’t all because of Kelly. But his presence certainly did help.
And really, reading that profile was my “A HA!” moment with Brian Kelly.
As a fan of an opposing Big East school, I’d seen the impact Kelly could have on a program, the way he came to Cincinnati and changed everything we thought we’d known about Bearcats football in the blink of an eye. Prior to Kelly’s arrival, the Bearcats had been a nice program under Mark Dantonio; the type which consistently went to second-tier bowl games and always played the opponent tough. But under Kelly, Cincinnati turned into a juggernaut, the kind of club who blew into town, put up half-a-hundred on your overwhelmed defense, and blew out of town before you even really knew what’d hit you.
Well reading that profile, it put into words everything I’d seen with my own two eyes in Kelly’s short time at Cincinnati. It proved to me that Kelly was one of the chosen ones, the select few of five or six or 10 college football coaches in any given year that truly mattered. The type of guy who could step into a foreign football program, immediately put his fingerprints on everything and make a difference right away. The type of coach who didn’t need a five-year plan, his own recruits, or time to implement his scheme or impart his “culture.” Instead, all Brian Kelly needed was a whistle, a practice field, and 85 football players to yell at, and everybody would be just fine. It’s like I said a few weeks ago with Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M: When you have a truly great coach, you can tell the difference right away. And Brian Kelly was one of those great coaches.
That’s also why when Notre Dame hired Kelly in 2009, I told any Irish fan who’d listen that this was the guy they’d been waiting for. The guy who “got” what it took to be the head football coach at Notre Dame, the one who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the job, or the moment, or the media, or the million other things which come with being the head man in South Bend. No, I wasn’t promising Notre Dame fans repeated National Championships. What I was promising them though was respectability, something Notre Dame hadn’t had for a while before Kelly arrived.
Sure at the time Kelly might not have necessarily been the glamorous hire, the Bob Stoops or Jon Gruden (where have we heard that name before?) that the fan-base pinned for. But he was the smart one. Kelly wasn’t some hot-shot assistant, not a big name from the NFL, or even a flash in the pan head coach with one or two good seasons under his belt, but instead the ultimate grinder, someone who started at a school called Grand Valley State, stopped at Central Michigan and ended up at Cincinnati. Understand, those were three programs with absolutely nothing in common, except for a lot of wins after Kelly showed up. Kelly was a Midwest guy who knew the area, knew the challenges that came with the geography of the job, and knew how to build a program from the ground-up.
Brian Kelly was college football’s ultimate self-made man. If he couldn’t win at Notre Dame, I wasn’t sure anyone could.
Fast-forward to 2012 and it’s safe to say that even with my high expectations, Kelly has still taken everything I thought he was capable of and blown it out of the water. In three years, a mere 36 months on the job, Kelly has Notre Dame playing for a National Championship.
Think about that for a second.
Brian Kelly has Notre Dame... playing for a National Championship. And he’s done it without the usual trappings of fast-track success in college football. He’s got the Irish on their way to Miami without selling his soul for one or two elite recruits (cough…Cam Newton…cough), without breaking the bank for a highly compensated staff (a handful of Kelly’s assistants came with him from Cincinnati, including current defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), and he’s done it without compromising the school’s rigorous academic standards and national scheduling requirements. If anything, this year’s schedule was harder than it has been at any point in the last several years.
In a lot of ways, Brian Kelly has gotten Notre Dame to the National Championship by well, being Brian Kelly, the ultimate grinder. He’s done it by taking a group of 85 guys and refusing to accept anything but the best from them.
At the same time, Kelly has gotten the Irish on the brink of their first National Championship since 1988 by being very un-Brian Kelly like as well. As a matter of fact, as I reflect back on everything Notre Dame has accomplished this year, what has impressed me most about Kelly specifically isn’t that he’s won, because honestly the dude has won everywhere he’s gone. Instead, what’s impressed me the most is how he’s won. Because to get the Irish to this point, Brian Kelly has had to go against everything he’s ever done to make him a successful head football coach.
Just trust me on this one. Again, I watched Kelly at Cincinnati, and to call him a “different” coach from then to now would be an understatement. The difference between the two is night and day, black and white, Tommy Rees and Tommy Bahama. The guy who coached his third year at Cincinnati has absolutely nothing in common with the guy who is now in his third season at Notre Dame. Well, except that both teams were undefeated after 12 games.
Understand that I’m talking about Kelly’s attitude or approach, because if anything, Kelly is as fiery and stubborn as he’s ever been before (did anyone see him have to be separated from the refs Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum? It was awesome). Instead I’m talking about the fundamental approach that Kelly has taken to going about the process of winning football games.
At Cincinnati, Kelly was a guy who seemed to be allergic to defense, and someone who relied on his fast-paced offense to an almost unhealthy degree. At Cincinnati Kelly’s team scored a lot of points, and scored them in bunches, and if anything treated the football like a hot potato. For the Bearcats, the only goal was seemingly to score as quickly as they could, so they could get the ball back and do it again. In Kelly’s final year at Cincinnati, the Bearcats ranked fourth in college football in scoring at 38.6 points per contest, and won games by final scores like 47-45 (against my UConn Huskies), 49-36, and in his final game at the school, 45-44.
That was Brian Kelly then. It’s certainly not the same Brian Kelly we see now.
Nope, at Notre Dame Brian Kelly isn’t trying to win with a fancy offense since, well, he can’t. At least not right now. Right now Kelly has a young group, held together by duct tape, rubber cement and bubble gum. In 2012 Brian Kelly isn’t trying to outscore his opponents, but instead trying to score just enough points so his defense doesn’t have to sweat.
For Kelly, there is no true offensive blueprint, no scheme to live-and-die by, but instead a ball-control offense which relies on doing whatever it takes to get out of the building with a win. If that means playing two quarterbacks, so be it; the Irish have used both Everett Golson and Tommy Rees to seal victories this season. If that means turning your quarterback into a fullback, who cares; how many big first downs has Golson picked up with his feet in 2012? If that means limiting the passing game all together and relying instead on Cierre Wood, George Atkinson and TJ Jones to run the ball, that’s what he does. If that means opening up the passing game when the defense least expects it, he does that too. Notre Dame’s 2012 offense isn’t always pretty, but it is effective. The scores aren’t quite the 45-44 shootouts they once were at Cincinnati, but Kelly’s record remains unblemished.
Of course if the offense really is “ugly” (as I’ve seen it described by any number of people), than the defense is a thing of beauty. What was once a glaring weakness for Kelly is now strength, and more importantly, the backbone of an undefeated team and title contender.
Obviously you watched the games and don’t need me to spit stats back at you, but with this defense, they really are worth repeating. So here goes: On the season the Irish are ranked in the Top 6 nationally in both total defense (No. 6 overall, allowing just 286 yards per game) and scoring defense (No. 2 nationally, allowing just 10.3 points per game), and in total, have given up two rushing touchdowns all year. Two!! Not too shabby, huh?
Beyond that, it’s not just that the Irish have put up great stats, but who they’ve done it against. Notre Dame held an Oklahoma offense which is currently averaging just under 42 points a game this season to just 13 (on the road, none the less), held a USC offense which had scored 41 points in their previous four games to 13 as well, and recorded only the school’s second shutout in a decade when they blanked Wake Forest 38-0 a week ago. In the process, Manti Te’o has turned into a Heisman front-runner and Stephon Tuitt a shoe-in All-American candidate, proving that apparently all the good linebackers and defensive linemen don’t play in the SEC. Who knew?
And really, nothing was more symbolic of the change in philosophy with Kelly and Notre Dame than the epic goal-line stand the Irish had to close out the USC win Saturday. Here was a coach known for his offensive prowess, and a team which up recently was known for having good skill-position talent and little else, looking one of college football’s best offenses in the eye and not blinking. The Irish stuffed the QB sneak on first down. They did the same on second down, and on third down stopped Curtis McNeal as well. By the time Max Wittek’s pass hit the ground on fourth down, the Irish had a goal-line stand for the ages, and a trip to the National Championship unofficially booked.
And to me, all of this, the manifestation of 12 games of perfection, all falls back on Kelly and what I said before: No coach in college football has more fundamentally changed who he is and what he’s about than Kelly has this year at Notre Dame.
Understand, I’m not totally sure when it happened or what prompted the change, but at some point Kelly looked himself in the mirror, looked at the 85 guys on his roster and realized that the way he’d been doing things just wasn’t going to work. Not this year. Not with this group. Still, instead of being stubborn and sticking with what he was most comfortable with, Kelly overhauled everything that had ever made him successful to help his team become successful. If that isn’t the definition of great “coaching” right there, I don’t know what it is.
It also led to me to one simple conclusion in terms of modern college football and where Notre Dame fits into that hierarchy.
In college football, we always hear about how important all the ancillary things are, how you can’t win without facilities, without a rabid, borderline maniacal fan-base, or access to fertile recruiting grounds in the Southeast, Texas or Southern California.
If anything though, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame prove that the single most important commodity in college football remains an elite head football coach. If you’ve got one, hold on to him for dear life. If you don’t have one, go find one immediately.
It really is that simple.
After all, look at Alabama. A decade ago, people said the Crimson Tide would never win “like they did in the old days.” Then they went out and hired Nick Saban, and now they’re gunning for their third title in four years. At Ohio State, Urban Meyer needed all of one year to completely overrun the Big Ten. At Texas A&M, Sumlin’s presence was felt immediately.
And it’s the same at Notre Dame.
People said that it was an impossible job, a place that nobody could ever win at in college football’s current climate. They said that the academics were too tough, the schedule too daunting and that kids no longer cared about their tradition, just the fast-track to the NFL.
Apparently though, everyone was wrong. Notre Dame can win in today’s college football. They just needed the right coach.
They found him in Brian Kelly.
And now the Irish are playing for a National Championship because of it.
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