SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The funny part, the fascinating part, was how each of them reacted to the question. It didn’t seem a difficult one. But something about the question stumped them. First there was a pause, then, perhaps, a bit of nervous stalling. Then, when they had an answer, there was the difficulty of putting it into words that people would understand.
The question: What makes Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly so good at this?
Dan Fox nodded. That was the pause. “What makes Coach Kelly so good at this?” he asked back. That was the stall. Dan Fox is a linebacker who has played in every single game Kelly has coached at Notre Dame. He already has a degree in management consulting and is playing this year as a graduate student.
“What makes Coach Kelly so good at this?” he asked a second time. Then he smiled.
“Nothing,” he said, then, one beat later, “no, I’m just kidding.”
He paused again, like he was thinking, and looked out the press box window that overlooked the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Then, he smiled again. He had his answer.
“He understands us,” Fox said.
* * *
Notre Dame has been here several times over the last 20 or so years. Brian Kelly knows this better than anyone and thought about it more than anyone. He knew it when he walked into this job. Winning at Notre Dame isn’t the hard part. Winning AGAIN is the hard part.
Take 2000. Bob Davie was the Notre Dame coach then, and he led the Irish to a 9-2 record during the season. The Irish were invited to play in their first-ever BCS game (the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon State). The Notre Dame leadership was beyond thrilled. Davie was given a five-year contract extension. Everything looked exciting and promising.
Then … Notre Dame was destroyed by Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl, the team went 5-6 the next year, Davie was fired, George O’Leary was hired, O’Leary resigned when inconsistencies on his resume were revealed, and everything was a mess.
OK, but then Ty Willingham came in to coach. That was 2002. And good things happened. The team won its first eight games. The Irish were ranked No. 6 in the country. The Irish won 10 games in all. Willingham won Coach of the Year honors and was being celebrated everywhere. Notre Dame had its man. The football team had its direction. Everything looked exciting and promising.
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Then … Notre Dame was blown out by its rival USC. The next year, Notre Dame went 5-7. There was a quarterback controversy. They went 6-5. There were recruiting questions. Willingham was fired.
Well, fine, then Charlie Weis came. He was bold. He was the offensive genius from the New England Patriots. He talked about the “schematic advantage” Notre Dame would have with him as coach. Yes, Notre Dame had its swagger back. The Irish went 9-2, made it back to a BCS Bowl Game. It all seemed so right that just seven games into his career Weis signed a new 10-year contract. The next year, Notre Dame went 10-2 again and played in another BCS Bowl Game. This time, for sure, everything looked exciting and promising.
Then … Notre Dame went 3-9. The Irish lost to Navy for the first time in more than 40 years. The offense showed no schematic advantage and was shut out twice. The next year, Notre Dame went 6-6. Then 6-6, again. Then Charlie Weis was fired.
So, yes, Brian Kelly knows -- the Irish come off a 12-1 season when they played in the BCS title game. Notre Dame is back in the hot spotlight of college football. Everything looks promising and exciting at Notre Dame again.
This makes it a most dangerous time.
* * *
Zack Martin is one of the few players in Notre Dame history who will be a team captain twice; this is how much Kelly and the coaches and his teammates admire his leadership. Martin was a team captain and Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman last year, a year the Irish, despite constant doubts, reemerged as a national power. He is an All-American candidate and will be a team captain again this year when Notre Dame faces the tougher challenge of remaining one.
“What makes Brian Kelly so good at this?” I asked him.
The pause. The stall (“What makes him good?” he asked back as if looking for confirmation).
“He understands his players,” Martin finally determined. This was becoming a familiar answer. Martin explained that Kelly has a knack for knowing when the players need to be driven to work harder but also when they need to have practice cut short. He explained that while all coaches say they have an open door policy, Kelly really does encourage his players to talk to him about whatever they need.
“I think it comes down to this,” Martin said. “He trusts us. And we trust him.”
* * *
The first thing Brian Kelly told his players this offseason was this: If you work exactly as hard as you worked last year, do things exactly the way you did last year, maintain precisely the same attitude you had last year when the Irish reached the National Championship game -- Notre Dame will go 8-5 and everyone will see it as a hugely disappointing season.
That message was at the heart of everything this offseason: Now comes the challenge. Now comes the test. You think you worked hard last year? That won’t be NEARLY good enough this year.
“We supplied motivation for the entire college football world,” Kelly said bluntly, “that if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.”
“We understand that we’re Notre Dame,” senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “We have the bullseye on our backs.”
Again and again, Kelly and the coaches have hammered this home to the players. Last season is over. Last season won’t help you. Last season will only make things harder. It has become something of an obsession in South Bend. Kelly adamantly refuses to talk about last year in any substantial way. His players, when asked about last year, shrug and say it was great and it’s out of their minds. Even the Sports Information Department reminds reporters that questions should focus on 2013.
Kelly’s insistence on this, I suspect, is twofold. One has already been mentioned: Notre Dame’s recent history of cresting for an all-too brief moment and then immediately crashing.
But, part of it might be Kelly’s personal history, too. He is truly a self-made coach. It has only been a decade since he was a Division II coach at Grand Valley State. There was no royalty in his coaching bloodlines. He had played and then coached at Assumption, a Catholic School in Worcester, Mass., about 50 miles from where he grew up in Chelsea.
In 1987, he went to be an assistant coach at Grand Valley State and he became head coach in 1991. He was there for 13 seasons, most of them hugely successful. The last two seasons, the Lakers won the Division II national championship with a spectacular offense. Kelly was named Division II coach of the year both years.
Truth is, though, that even remarkable success at the Division II level does not necessarily impress Division I schools. Most of the legends of Division II football -- Ken Sparks at Carson-Newman, Chuck Broyles at Pittsburg State, Mel Tjeerdsma at Northwest Missouri State, Willard Bailey at St. Paul’s -- are fantastic coaches but not exactly household names. For various reasons they never made a mark in Division I.
Kelly wanted to move into Division I, but he found that his overwhelming Division II prosperity only got him a job at Central Michigan, a struggling school in the Mid-American Conference that had five consecutive losing seasons coming in. He rolled up his sleeves, changed attitudes, and took some lumps. In his third year, he led the Chippewas to a 9-4 record and a MAC Championship. That opened up his next opportunity, at Cincinnati, a school with an ancient and checkered football history. The team was on the upswing.
At Cincinnati, he won right away. In his first year, he led Cincinnati to its first 10-win season in more than 50 years. In his second season, the Bearcats won 11 games. In his third season, the Bearcats won all 12 of their regular season games and earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl. And then Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame.
So, in his climb from Division II, Kelly has not stayed around for the season after -- he did not even coach the last bowl games at Central Michigan or Cincinnati. He has not been there for the challenge of starting again, for the difficult task of suppressing overconfidence, handling expectation, dealing with the hype that can infect the way a team prepares and plays.
“The thing I can tell you about Brian,” assistant coach Bob Elliott says, “is that he embraces challenges as well as anyone I’ve ever been around. He has a great ability to understand what it is that we’re facing and how to attack those challenges. And, maybe more than anything, he has a way of building a family so that everybody is attacking those challenges together.”
* * *
All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.
And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.
And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly -- Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.
“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge -- he sets the tone for everything.
“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen at building that environment.”
* * *
While Kelly stubbornly buries 2012 into Notre Dame’s thick history books, there are obvious lingering questions that will be answered. The Irish had a magnificent 2012 regular season with a spectacular defense that came up with crucial plays time and again as Notre Dame won five games by a touchdown or less (two of them in overtime). Then the Irish were manhandled by Alabama in the title game.
The team’s forceful emotional leader, linebacker Manti Te’o -- who finished second in the Heisman balloting and then became a national story because of a bizarre girlfriend hoax -- is gone. Last year’s starting quarterback, Everett Golson, was banned for a semester for academic misconduct, and while everyone seems confident he will return to Notre Dame at some point, it won’t be this season. Other starters are gone as well, a much-celebrated recruiting class seems ready to pitch in right away.
So, just a few questions: How good was Notre Dame REALLY last year? They won all those close games -- is that repeatable? Did the title game thrashing break the team’s confidence? How much will the young players contribute? Can the defense be good enough to carry them again?
“Well, certainly we’re going to have to play very good defense,” Kelly says. “I think we know that for certain. But we have to score more points. We did not score enough points. We were not effective enough in the red zone. … So a bigger piece falls on the offense this year than it does on the defense.”
That means there will be a lot of pressure on senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who has had a volatile career at Notre Dame. He was the starter in 2011 and threw for almost 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also turned the ball over enough that some called him “Turnover Tommy.” He has heard the boos from home fans, plenty of them. He has been suspended after a run-in with the law at a campus party. He has been benched and been asked to bring the team back when it was in trouble. Now, he’s the starter again as a senior.
“I think he’s had a great camp,” Kelly says. “I think he’s really developed his skill. … At the end of this season, I think we could have a really good story about Tommy Rees.”
This, more or less, is how Kelly talks about everyone. He is relentlessly optimistic. He says 2013 Notre Dame will be much deeper team than last year, and that will make them stronger throughout the season, especially at the end. He says that while the team obviously will miss Te’o, and there are parts of his game that are irreplaceable, he sees the Te’o absence as an opportunity for others to step up their game and maybe create some defensive havoc that was impossible when Te’o was at the center of everything. Kelly says that he has never had a team with this many good running backs.
More than anything, Kelly talks about how this team has a personality he likes, a workmanlike personality. He says last year, Te’o was such an overwhelming presence that, at times, the team just took on his personality. It worked pretty well. But he likes the way this team blends. “Every single day this is a group that comes to work -- every single day -- with a consistency. … I know what I’m going to get from them every single day because it’s a deeper group in the sense that there’s not just one personality.”
And so, when asked if this team is showing signs of wear and are just ready to get out there and play a game, Kelly shrugs. “They do exactly what I ask them to do,” he says.
* * *
Brian Kelly says he’s changed a lot since he became Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s a daunting thing to coach here. You go to the stadium and there are statues of Frank Leahy and Knute Rockne. You turn on the television, and there’s “Rudy” playing for the millionth time. There’s the Gipper. There’s Joe Montana. There’s Touchdown Jesus. The air is thick in South Bend with Notre Dame football. “Sure, the tradition is everywhere,” Dan Fox says. “I think about it every single day.”
Kelly admits that it’s tough NOT to think about it every day. Look at his life. He grew up a Catholic kid in Boston, he played at Assumption and after this long and fascinating road, he was coaching Notre Dame. It was overwhelming. The job was overwhelming. The requests. The demands. The expectations. And there are the pressures, all of them, the academic pressures, the fan pressures, the media pressures, the historic pressures.
All those pressures have crushed good coaches. Kelly says they will not crush him. He’s learned to delegate. He’s better at spending time with his family now. He’s better at letting things go, at ignoring the distractions, at avoiding the media advice that is always available. There have been some tough times already for him at Notre Dame -- a handful of scandals, rough losses, recruiting challenges, the famous Notre Dame demand to excel academically AND win -- and he says that dealing with all of them have helped him get stronger as a coach.
Kelly is an interesting case study. He doesn’t have one particular way he coaches. Kelly has coached teams that won largely because of great offense and, especially last year, teams that won largely because of great defense. He does not coach by intimidation but, at the same time, he’s not the classic joke-around, I’m-your-buddy players coach. He’s won everywhere, and yet he’s not really talked about as a tactical genius. His coaches talk about the trust he shows in them. His players talk about how he has a knack, when their legs are just about to give way, of shouting: “OK, let’s cut practice short today and get some rest.”
And most of all, everyone talks about his knack for getting inside them. Kelly knows that this will be the toughest season. This is the season Notre Dame proves it is truly back as a national power or the season Notre Dame falls back and leaves everyone to wonder if 2012 wasn’t just one of those occasional good seasons that give false hope to fans who believe the Irish can once again be the best football program in America. It’s an open question.
And Kelly insists that the way to deal with it -- the best way to handle it -- is to forget about all of it and remember what really matters.
“When you’re head coach at Notre Dame, it’s so important on a day-to-day that you keep in perspective why you’re doing this job,” Kelly says. “And that is, you want to be around 18-to-21-year old kids that are the best and brightest in the world. And THAT’S why you’re doing this job. You’re not doing it for any other reason.”
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports plus a contributor to CSNChicago.com and NBC Sports’ Regional Sports Networks. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski