Brian Kelly agrees with critics: Solution for Notre Dame starts on sideline
David Haugh, Chicago Tribune
Based on scuttlebutt, I half-expected Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly to show up 10 minutes late to Tuesday's news conference because a campus bake sale benefiting the football program delayed him.
Kelly’s well-publicized excuse after his first losing season at Notre Dame in 2016 — the time committed to fund-raising “(expletive) up last year’s team,” Kelly told the Bleacher Report — only intensified scrutiny of a man who needs to win as badly as any major-college coach. But like so many other things observed covering Notre Dame football since the Rick Mirer era, perception blurred reality. It’s a Notre Dame football tradition, like singing the Victory March.
Somewhat lost in the rush to rip Kelly for whining about the demands of his job in an interview that took place last March was an acknowledgment that he needed to change personally before his team could. Kelly also called himself "the absent professor,'' and noted how he neglected little details that became big problems in a 4-8 season.
He accepted accountability, a theme repeated in a first-person piece for Yahoo — "I knew things needed to change from last year, and that started with me,'' Kelly wrote. He echoed those sentiments when asked at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex about any pressure unique to a season that starts in four days.
"At Notre Dame, it's God, country and Notre Dame,'' Kelly said. "That's a pretty high bar. You should live up to that bar. I didn't live up to that bar, so as the head coach at Notre Dame, every year is the same way. You have to live up to that high bar, and this year is no different.''
This year differs only in that Kelly now agrees with many Notre Dame fans that the problem — and the solution — starts on the sideline. A team that lost six of its eight games in 2016 by seven points or less needs its coach to make a bigger difference on Saturdays, and not necessarily by yelling louder.
Kelly might not have put it that way but his actions spelled it out clearer than any of his carefully chosen words. He hired three new coordinators: Chip Long (offense), who will call plays, Mike Elko (defense) and Brian Polian (special teams). Among Kelly's 19 new hires to the department was Matt Ballis, the director of performance behind a significant recommitment to the weight room. To hear Kelly talk, a team he considers as mentally ready as any he has coached excites him for the way players have transformed themselves physically under Ballis.
"I want to see our players really play with a sense of 'Welcome to my preparation, I have prepared myself for this opportunity, I'm here to dominate the day,''' Kelly said. "Not play apprehensive or with a weight on my shoulder, I'm at Notre Dame. Go play, have fun, be excited. You have prepared for this opportunity.''
No Notre Dame player looks more poised to seize it than quarterback Brandon Wimbush, a junior as polished as the Golden Dome making his first career start against Temple. In describing the 6-foot-1, 228-pound dual threat with a dynamic personality, Kelly referred to author Angela Duckworth's book "Grit.''
"He has a passion for the game and perseverance,'' Kelly said.
Of most importance, Wimbush also has All-American left tackle Mike McGlinchey anchoring a solid offensive line and Josh Adams leading a deep corps of running backs. He has wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, as tough to cover as his name is hard to spell. But, on the other side of the ball, Wimbush has an unproven Notre Dame defense that will have an edge, if not experience, and require the offense to score frequently enough to please NBC. That revamped defense likely will dictate how close Kelly comes to maintaining the control he seeks.
The first time Kelly loses his cool the image will be magnified more than any replay on Notre Dame's giant new video board, the NCAA's highest in resolution. The coach known to have an Irish temper on the sidelines instituted a coaches' edict last offseason: Demanding, not demeaning. Rest assured, Kelly's critics will hold him to that mantra — especially after Wimbush's first interception into double-coverage.
America's loud, lazy narrative frames this as a make-or-break Notre Dame season when Kelly, signed through 2021, needs to win a certain number of games to keep his job. The quieter truth, according to Notre Dame insiders and college football sources, involves athletic director Jack Swarbrick liking the state of recruiting and everything else enough to avoid establishing a victory threshold for Kelly to meet. If Notre Dame suffers a second straight losing season after so much metamorphosis, Kelly might start packing his office himself before Swarbrick knocks on the door with bad news.
But if the Irish return to relevance after Kelly revitalized the program and re-examined his priorities, whether they win eight games or 13, then the coach's biggest concern will be containing NFL rumors. Until further notice, pay attention to context more than conjecture when it comes to Kelly's future.
"We come into this year, our mission is to win the national championship,'' Kelly said.
Now that sounds like a Notre Dame coach should.