The Associated Press named Brian Kelly its 2012 Coach of the Year Wednesday, completing a trifecta of major honors for the third-year Notre Dame coach. Kelly had already won the Home Depot Coach of the Year (ESPNABC) and Eddie Robinson Award (FWAA), earning recognition for Notre Dame's 12-0 season.
"When you're talking about the coach of the year, there's so many things that go into it," Kelly said Wednesday. "I know it's an individual award and it goes to one guy, but the feelings that I get from it is you're building the right staff, that you've got the right players and to me that is a validation of the program, that you put together the right business plan."
That business plan involved successfully growing with a quarterback who played a grand total of zero snaps at the collegiate level before he led Notre Dame on to the field in Dublin for the team's season opener. It involved Kelly, whose rise through the ranks was built on offense, fostering one of the nation's best defenses along with right-hand man Bob Diaco.
More importantly, it involved Kelly cultivating a trust with his players that didn't necessarily exist in his first two years.
"The first couple years I had to set a bar and a standard and an operation of the way we wanted things done on a daytoday basis. Sometimes that means that you got to be hard on some guys," Kelly said last month. "This third year was a year where you knew our guys knew exactly what was expected, and it allowed me to spend more time with my players and build those relationships that are so important to having great morale."
Gone are Kelly's purple-faced outbursts directed at players and foot-in-the-mouth comments that were sprinkled across a disappointing 2011 season. Those rubbed some players the wrong way -- Manti Te'o admitted that his relationship with Kelly was a little rough in the beginning.
"It was bumpy at first, but now it's great," Te'o said after Notre Dame beat USC in November. "I'm happy to have him as my coach. He's the best coach in college football."
Kelly navigated a minefield in September, coming out of the benching, insertion, benching, insertion and benching of a popular veteran with a 4-0 record and the support of his team. Those personal relationships and trust Kelly built likely paid off during the Tommy ReesEverett Golson saga that was the season's first month.
"I think the job tends to distract you," Kelly explained Monday. "There are a lot of things that pull you away from the primary reason why you want to be head coach of Notre Dame, and that is graduate your players and play for a national championship.
"Now, to do that you have to have the pulse of your football team and you've got to have relationships with your players. If you're already going around the country doing other things other than working with your football team, it's hard to have the pulse of your team."
Kelly made an effort to do more himself instead of delegating certain messages for assistants to direct to players. He loosened up a bit, too, allowing music to blare over the loudspeakers during portions of preseason practice.
Notre Dame doesn't achieve its success without players buying what Kelly was selling. That wasn't always the case -- look no further than the Pittsburgh game, after which T.J. Jones admitted some figured they could play their 'B' game and still win -- but in a 12-0 season, any other examples are the product of picking nits.
Big picture, few coaches are able to successfully implement a system as soon as they set foot on campus. Nick Saban went 6-6 in his first year at Alabama, while Lou Holtz went 5-6 and 8-4 in his first two years in South Bend. Getting over that hump isn't easy, but Kelly did that in 2012 -- and it's resulted in a BCS Championship berth.
"My development as the head coach at Notre Dame this year has been about getting back to why you would want to coach college players," Kelly said. "You want to learn about them, you want to know their strengths and weaknesses, you want to help them with leadership skills,. you want to help them when they're not feeling confident in their ability.
"For me, that is why it's been the most enjoyable year as the head coach at Notre Dame, is that I got a chance to spend more time with my team."