Fri. Oct 22nd, 2021


NOTRE DAME, Ind. — There were some elements of Notre Dame history that Brian Kelly obviously recognized before he became the program’s 31st head football coach. The Four Horseman, the Gipper, Touchdown Jesus — it’s impossible for anyone involved in any American sport in any capacity to be unaware of these icons. There were some peculiarities regarding the Fighting Irish, though, items more germane to his own circumstance, of which Kelly was perilously unaware when he accepted the job.

Ara Parseghian won 84 percent of his games and two national championships and yet left the job after 11 seasons. Lou Holtz won 77 percent of his games and a national championship and resigned after 11 seasons. Dan Devine won 75 percent of his games and a national championship and barely made it half as long.

“I just didn’t know. Didn’t know,” Kelly told Sporting News. “I really didn’t know about that until a few years into it and then I thought: Huh, what a coincidence! I thought about the job even more and, OK, it makes sense to me.”

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At nearly every other major football program, the legends not only endure forever, they damn near coach forever: Darrell Royal worked 20 years at Texas, Bo Schembechler 21 at Michigan, Bear Bryant 25 at Alabama and Woody Hayes 28 at Ohio State. The pressure that has enveloped the Notre Dame program for roughly a century, though, is different.

“Ten years at Notre Dame is a long time,” Tony Barnhart, the SEC Network commentator known as Mr. CFB, told Sporting News. “Given that he is in his 12th year, that’s a tremendous accomplishment. Obviously, in 2016 it was not looking great. The fact he came back from that and did all the things he had to do to rebuild the program, rebuild his whole approach, is the key.”

Kelly does not appear, on this day, as though the burden of being Fighting Irish coach is weighing heavily on him. A month short of his 60th birthday, knocking out some television interviews in the middle of a week that will end with Notre Dame busing to Chicago for a rare game against Big Ten power Wisconsin, he is wearing a sharp, pastel blazer and pressed dress pants. He is freshly shaved and every reddish-brown hair atop his head is in its proper place. He smiles with ease, and though I’ve been promised a 15-minute conversation, he never presents the impression of being in a rush for that period to lapse so he can resume preparing for the Badgers.

A victory Saturday at Soldier Field will advance the Irish to 4-0 on the 2021 season, but there is more to it than this. If the Irish win, it will be Kelly’s 106th victory as Notre Dame head coach. The program has had a singular national TV contract with NBC for three decades, produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, 11 national champions, 52 College Football Hall of Famers and 104 consensus All-Americans, but it never has had a head coach reach that career win total. Knute Rockne has held the record at 105 victories for 90 years.

“It’s not something we talk about all the time. Coach Kelly just wants us to have tunnel-vision, one-game focus and just worry about what we can do preparing for the week,” defensive back Houston Griffith told SN. “Coach Kelly has had a lot of success here at Notre Dame, so it’ll be exciting for him to reach that accomplishment. To be part of a team that has the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, it’s going to mean a lot.”

No one is promising it will come this week against Wisconsin or even next week against No. 8 Cincinnati, but Kelly insists, “I will win another game. I can say that.” It is a seemingly modest record — 158 men in the sport’s history have earned more than 105 major-college football victories — but it is built on a foundation of tragedy.

Rockne was only 43 when the Transcontinental & Western Air flight on which he was a passenger crashed in a field in Kansas, killing all on board. He had completed his 13th season with a 10-0 record a few months earlier, advancing his career mark to 105-12-5. There is no way to tell what numbers he would have attained had his career reached a natural conclusion.

That it has stood for so long, though, is particular to Notre Dame, in part the product of its vast, passionate, national following and high standards both competitive and academic. Coaching Notre Dame football can be both a marathon and a sprint. Frank Leahy retired from coaching after an attack of pancreatitis in 1953 interrupted his fourth undefeated season in eight years, with reports citing health as a factor but Leahy later revealing he no longer felt wanted. Parseghian said he was “physically exhausted and emotionally drained” when he resigned in 1974, at age 51. Holtz famously said he left Notre Dame at 59 because he did not wish to pass Rockne, but it was public relations cover for what he later acknowledged: “I wasn’t tired of coaching; I was tired of maintaining.” The attempt to cling to the standard representing the baseline at ND drained him.

The situation Kelly entered was different, at least by enough that his success as a coach would be the principal determinant in the length (and comfort) of his tenure. The three coaches who preceded him — Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis — compiled a composite record of 91-68, an average season of 7-5 over the period of 13 seasons. 

“Quite frankly, it was figuring out where the air was coming out of the tire, in a sense of: Why weren’t we winning at a level we could win at?” Kelly told SN. “That’s the difference, and what I needed to do with this program in the first few years.”

‘A new fire’

When Kelly was hired away from Central Michigan to coach Cincinnati in 2006, the season-ticket holders primarily made that purchase as a condition of getting seats inside the Shoemaker Center to watch the Bearcats play basketball. When Kelly made his first trip that summer to the Big East’s media day, a charming event that included a clambake in Newport, R.I., not a single reporter from Cincy went along, no one from the two newspapers or the city’s four TV news stations.

Kelly used part of his time at the podium to harangue the Cincinnati media for their disinterest, and it seemed laughable at the time. It was inevitable that he would learn how apathetic the city was about Bearcats football.

“My first game, there was nobody from the 30 to the 30 because they were basketball season-ticket holders,” he said. “They weren’t showing up for football games.”

Except that’s not how it turned out. By the end of his second season, the program that reported crowds that would embarrass a Texas high school — and appeared to exaggerate those numbers in 1999, when I covered every home game and Nippert Stadium most often appeared to be about 75 percent short of capacity — had sold out three games. In his final two years, every Division I opponent drew more than 30,000 fans to the 35,000-seat stadium and the Bearcats won consecutive Big East championships. Kelly forced everyone to care.

He would need to exercise different muscles as Irish coach. Generating interest was not an issue. He ignited Cincinnati football in his four seasons, but at ND the fan base had burned white-hot for nearly a century.

“We had to reconnect with what was current. We were worshiping the ashes from when the fire was roaring. We really needed to begin a new fire,” Kelly said. “So that was the trick. How do you do that without not giving the right amount of respect to the tradition of Notre Dame football?”

The occasion of Kelly’s first home game as Irish coach, in September 2010 against longtime rival Purdue — actually, the day prior to that game — offered an introduction to every custom that had been baked into the program, for better or worse.

“The layers of the job, I would describe it as there were so many things that touched the program that were outside of football that made it difficult, at times, for the team to perform at its highest level,” Kelly said. “My first Friday, we had players at a Friday luncheon, which was followed by a pep rally, which was followed by a Saturday morning mass, all leading up to playing a game. Now, if you’ve ever been to a Catholic Mass prior to a game, they’re not up and singing like a Baptist wedding. So it’s not the best place to kind of get your team up.

“I had to kind of navigate what could be changed and what could be part of the tradition of Notre Dame football. So it was pretty complicated.”

(Getty Images)

A victory Saturday at Soldier Field will be Brian Kelly’s 106th victory as Notre Dame head coach. 

The Irish still attend a pre-game Mass now, but it’s on Friday afternoon in the football building. The pep rally is down to one a year, before the opening game, “primarily because we want to celebrate our students,” Kelly said. The luncheons are out. The adjustments, he explains, allow the Fridays to be mostly clear so the players can “focus on football.”

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Kelly’s ability as a strategist and motivator helped turn the Irish toward winning records in his first two years, both 8-5, both ending in bowl games, both superior to nearly two-thirds of the seasons produced subsequent to Holtz’s departure. In his third year, the Irish rose to 12-0 with victories over Michigan, Stanford and Oklahoma and were chosen for the BCS Championship game against Alabama. Wins in 2012 and 2013 were vacated after an NCAA examination of academic irregularities, but no one is pretending now that those games were not contested.

And no one was pretending then, after Alabama wrecked the Irish in the 2012 BCS title game, that the reconstruction had been completed.

“I was down on the field before the game and came back up to the press box and someone said: What do you think? And I said: This ain’t going to be close, guys,” Barnhart said. “I’m looking at Alabama’s athletes and … Notre Dame was good. They had athletes. But they didn’t have Alabama athletes.

“What I’m looking at now from Notre Dame, I’m seeing much more athleticism on the field. They’re bigger and stronger, much more athletic than 10 years ago.”

‘Never flinched under the pressure’

Chuck Martin considers himself “a lifelong Notre Dame fan.” His favorite team now is the Miami RedHawks, the program he has served as head coach since 2014, but he was an Irish Catholic in Park Forest, Ill., whose family loved the Fighting Irish and thus was unable to escape their allure.

Martin worked under Kelly as an assistant coach at Grand Valley State in Michigan for three seasons starting in 2000, helping the Lakers to win consecutive NCAA Division II championships in 2002 and 2003.

After taking over the Lakers when Kelly left for Central Michigan, Martin added two more Division II titles and a championship game appearance in 2009. But when Kelly offered a position on the Notre Dame staff, it was impossible to resist — even though the risks and obstacles were obvious. He believed Kelly could conquer them.

“He’s the one guy that has never flinched under the pressure of Notre Dame,” Martin told SN. “Like, no one can beat the pressure of Notre Dame. Even all the great coaches, you always hear about how they got burned out. It was overwhelming to be in charge of that program. I’m not saying that’s the only reason he’s had success there, but that’s the one piece. … I know what the expectation is, what the fan base is.

“You’ve got a fan base that nothing is ever good enough. … You’re always going to be compared to Knute or Ara or Lou. There’s other programs, but there’s not many that have the long run Notre Dame has. Notre Dame has been forever. Now, you couple that with 70 percent of the world hates you; 70 percent of the world doesn’t hate Alabama, they don’t hate Clemson. Michigan hates Ohio State, UCLA hates USC, Texas hates Oklahoma, Auburn hates Alabama. But that’s it. If you’re the head coach of Notre Dame … you walk around every day and your job is that most of America can’t stand you and would do anything to see you lose, and the part that’s in your corner, it’s never going to be good enough for them.”

What Martin sees in Kelly that allows him to rise above this is an unyielding sense of confidence along with an uncommon degree of flexibility, and those qualities probably are intertwined. When Grand Valley won the 2002 D-II title, the Lakers set a record for total offense and topped 50 points seven times. With most of that attack completing its career in a championship victory over Valdosta State, Kelly oriented the team toward ball control and defense and won with eight opponents registering 10 points or fewer (mostly fewer).

(Getty Images)

The Irish have have reached the College Football Playoff semifinals in two of the past three seasons.

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With his work at three other schools included, Kelly has 245 victories and is 12th on the major-college list. Among those with that degree of accomplishment, Kelly and North Carolina’s Mack Brown are unusual in having worked at a series of distinct levels. Nick Saban only has been a head coach at Power 5 programs. Tom Osborne, LaVell Edwards and Joe Paterno each coached a single school. Kelly went from D-II to the Mid-American Conference at Central Michigan to the Big East at Cincinnati and then to one of the nation’s most prestigious programs. To succeed along that path, there had to be more to him than simply conceiving or mastering a specific system and deploying it until too many opponents caught on.

That adaptability became essential when Notre Dame’s consistent rise under Kelly was interrupted with a dismal 4-8 season in 2016 that included seven losses by a touchdown or less. It would not have been a surprise for the school to make a coaching change after that implosion, but athletic director Jack Swarbrick and the school’s administration chose to keep Kelly in place, warning against an “overreaction” to a year that nonetheless failed to meet the program’s standards.

The Irish have won double-digit games in every season since and have reached the College Football Playoff semifinals in two of the past three.

“Under normal circumstances, you go 4-8 at Notre Dame, you don’t get a chance to build it back,” Barnhart said. “And he got a chance because of Jack Swarbrick.

“I had a chance to spend some time with him and talk about everything that went into rebuilding the program. He had to be willing to examine every facet of the program, all the way from strength and conditioning to nutrition, to his direct staff — he had to be willing to lay everything on the table. And he had to be willing to change. A lot of coaches say they will change, and then when it comes time to changing, they’ll sort of pay lip service to it, tweak something around the edges. My impression from talking to him is he was willing to change everything, and pretty much did.”

More than anything, Kelly believed he had become too disconnected from the Irish players as he tried to involve himself in staff meetings and game-planning and other aspects of the job.

“I wasn’t reaching everybody, clearly,” Kelly said. “I had to get much more hands-on with our players.

“I was doing things that kept me away from the players that, quite frankly, I could do at other places, but I needed to be more in tune with our players here.”

‘The most important thing’

It has been nearly half a century since Gerry DiNardo played guard for Notre Dame’s 1973 national championship team, clinched with a harrowing 24-23 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It is obvious, though, that his reverence for Parseghian only has grown with time.

“All of us that played for a different coach at Notre Dame wishes their coach held the record,” DiNardo told SN. “That’s only natural. I adored Ara, and I think he was the ultimate coach of all time. I’m sure if you talked to Lou’s guys, if you talked to Brian’s guys, I’m sure if you could talk to some of the other guys, that’s how they would feel.”

Now an analyst at the Big Ten Network, once the head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana, DiNardo has seen how Notre Dame has stabilized during Kelly’s tenure. Even as the Irish have remained an independent in football, the sport has changed dramatically around them: conference realignment shifting programs away from traditional rivalries, the introduction of the CFP serving to concentrate power at just a handful of schools.

“I think Brian has done a great job at getting Notre Dame in the playoffs,” DiNardo said. “When you look at how few teams have made the playoffs — and Brian has done it twice — I don’t think there can be any denying that he has brought Notre Dame back to national prominence. The fact remains, one of the definitions of success at Notre Dame is a national championship.”

BENDER: College Football Playoff regulars far from perfect through three weeks

Kelly will tell you that one of the greatest benefits of reaching the CFP has been in recruiting. The 2021 class ranked No. 9 nationally by 247 Sports. The group gathered to date for 2022, with 21 players already committed, ranks second. And that’s with Notre Dame still maintaining higher academic standards for prospects than many competitors and an insistence — beyond the boundaries of the pandemic — that players are enrolled in classes that meet in person.

“Clearly, the way we’re doing it is the most difficult way,” Kelly said. “And that’s OK, as long as we all understand it requires us to provide our student-athletes with all the resources necessary.”

That does not limit the expectations. Notre Dame Stadium is surrounded by statues of coaches who’ve won the national title. Devine was not the most popular or accomplished coach in Irish history — his depiction in the popular movie “Rudy” did not help — and yet his statue and a gate named for him stand adjacent to Rockne’s.

In basketball, coaches who get their programs to the NCAA Tournament Final Four see banners erected inside their arenas. Well, Kelly has done that twice. Doesn’t that help to satisfy the thirst for a title?

“No,” Kelly said, a hint of acquiescence in his tone. “But you know what? I’ve gotten over that. Because I know how they’re driven. I’d rather have that than the opposite, right, where they don’t really care. Because there’s plenty of programs that have that. As long as we’re all looking at it from the same view, and that is how this program has grown and how it has been consistently one of the top programs in the country. That, to me, is the most important thing.

“I just think in our world today, consistency of approach and knowing what you’re going to get from somebody is pretty good. And then when they write all the stories when I’m gone from here, they’ll be able to say: That was a consistent model of winning. Now, I’m going to be judged on championships, because that’s how you get a statue here. But that’s OK, too.”





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