SOUTH BEND – If it seems Brian Kelly’s face hasn’t been reaching its customary shade of purple on the Notre Dame sideline this season, there’s a good reason for that.
It goes beyond the 8-0 start for the third-ranked Irish and the maturity of the group, or maybe it’s all connected.
Whatever the case, Kelly, now in his ninth season in his dream job, has made a conscious decision to tone down his public demeanor, especially in the wake of mistakes by those 18- to 21-year-olds wearing the gold helmets.
“I just think our team responds better if I’m able to interact with them — be there, lead ‘em,” Kelly says. “If I’m confident and I’m in a good position for them, they feed off that. Just maturing at being a better football coach.”
His players have noticed.
“Any good leader – or great leader, as he is – understands there is a time and place where you have to be serious and there’s a time and place where you have to lighten the mood up,” senior center Sam Mustipher says. “You have to be able to be one of the guys, and I think he’s understanding that, which is good.”
As one of the team’s four captains, Mustipher meets with Kelly each Monday to offer feedback on the mood of the team and serve as a sounding board for potential audibles along the way. It’s in these private meetings and beyond where Mustipher and his fellow captains truly can sense the change in Kelly.
“He’s very receptive of what’s going on individually and he keeps a good line of communication,” Mustipher says. “It’s his interactions with the guys, being around more and making sure he’s joking around with us sometimes. Football is obviously a serious game, especially when you’re at a place like Notre Dame, but I do think I’ve seen a change (in Kelly).”
Camera never blinks
That’s not to say Kelly never yells anymore. He had a few lively sideline conversations with quarterback Ian Book during Saturday’s 44-22 win over Navy in San Diego, and at one point Kelly raced all the way down to the 13-yard line to get an official’s attention when he wanted to call a timeout.
It’s more of a self-applied governor on his reactions.
“Notre Dame is unique,” Kelly says. “I think my realizations are more in line where you’re always on TV more so than my emotions. You can still be an emotional coach. You can still have a fiery side to you. It’s just that at Notre Dame, it’s a lot more difficult to do it because there’s a camera on you the whole time.”
Kelly, who turned 57 two days before the Navy game, seems intent on being a lifelong learner.
“I had to make a conscious decision,” he said. “If I was at a different place, I could still have that (emotion) and still lead, but you can’t do it here because it’s not good.”
His assistant coaches have taken their cue from Kelly this year as well, whether it’s new defensive coordinator Clark Lea calmly offering in-game suggestions from his perch in the press box or the sideline crew working harder to emphasize the positive whenever possible.
“Oh, yes, I definitely see a difference with (Kelly) and just the whole coaching staff as well,” senior running back Dexter Williams says. “They’re a lot more confident in us. They allow us to make plays and they allow us to go out there and have fun.”
This isn’t Pop Warner, of course, so there are still high-volume teaching moments.
“It’s not bad when they get on us,” Williams says. “There’s certain plays they know we can make and that we should make. When we make mistakes, we don’t need pats on the back. We also need somebody who can rough us up and just tell us that we need to make these plays and just motivate us to just go out there and play harder.”
As the wins have piled up, however, and the Irish have skated off with four decisions decided by one possession each, the air of confidence has climbed for both the players and the coaches.
“Having them be able to trust us and not cause so much commotion on the sideline has really helped us a lot,” Williams says. “When we’re in games, there’s a lot of things you need to focus on. We try to just minimize any distractions.”
Born to run
Along the way Kelly has allowed himself more opportunities to flash his dry sense of New England humor, both with his players and around the media.
Just in the past few weeks, he has riffed on skipping the Garth Brooks concert at Notre Dame Stadium (“Very expensive. I can’t get into that kind of price range for a concert ticket.”), called himself a “moron” for staying up to watch all 18 innings of his beloved Boston Red Sox in the World Series on the eve of the Navy game and joked about defying his analytics department with a decision to punt in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh.
“Our analytics tells us to go for it,” Kelly said, “so I’ll get a note from our analytics people on Monday telling me that I was incorrect and that I should have gone for it. I went against our mathematicians in that situation.”
Kelly, who is the son of a Boston-area alderman and whose first job was volunteering for ill-fated presidential candidate Gary Hart, also revealed his single-minded devotion to Bruce Springsteen, which dates to his own playing days at Division II Assumption in Worcester, Mass.
“It’s the same music that’s on my iPhone today,” he says. “That tells you a lot about me. A lot of Bruce Springsteen – ‘Born to Run.’ I think I’m on 15,000 times now, so that makes me a pretty exciting guy, if you want to hang out.”
There’s something about the constancy of The Boss that is reassuring to Kelly.
“I know all the words, but it doesn’t get boring,” he says. “I guess that’s why coaching doesn’t get boring to me.”
Kelly is wise enough, however, not to try to force his musical tastes on his players.
“I think he understands the culture around this team is not Bruce Springsteen,” Mustipher says with a chuckle. “We play it a little bit at practice. That’s for him.”
And like any savvy modern-day college coach, Kelly has shown a willingness to let himself look silly, whether it’s getting down on one knee to flash “deuces” with a few players on the tarmac last week or bouncing around in the victorious postgame celebrations.
“You’ve seen the videos of him dancing in the locker room – if you could call it dancing,” Mustipher says. “It’s good. It’s all good.”
If teams indeed take on the personality of their coach, then perhaps it’s no surprise this Notre Dame edition has been so cool under pressure while letting its talent flow.
“Just staying calm in the moment, not being too high or too low, is always good,” junior defensive end Khalid Kareem says. “When coach Kelly speaks, everyone definitely listens, so it’s always good to make a joke or make light of a tough situation. That’s something I try to do myself.”
What’s the use in reaching your boiling point if it only causes you to fail?
“You don’t need to always be uptight,” says Kareem, second on the team with 4.5 sacks. “Loosen up a little bit.”
Kelly set the tone back in early August when he canceled a practice session at training camp and let his team play the brand-new Call of Duty video game instead. He also brought in a magician to entertain the troops.
“I don’t care what any football player says,” Mustipher says. “Knowing you get a day off at camp and not only that but you get to play a new video game? I’ve been dreaming about that since I arrived here for freshman camp. That was awesome.”
Says Kelly: “As long as they do their job, I have no problem with having to listen to music that I’m not very familiar with and routines that are a little bit different. I can adapt and manage to that. It’s certainly a group that when it’s time to lock in and focus, they do a very good job.”
Perhaps that’s also due to the continued influence of Amber Selking, the former Notre Dame soccer player now in her second season as a sports psychologist/mental performance consultant for the Irish football program.
“I wouldn’t say we’re relaxed, but we know when to turn it on and off,” Kareem says. “You know there’s a time to mess around, but then you know how to be serious. You don’t have to really be in your zone until you’re on that field. That’s something Dr. Selking has been preaching to us too.”
Irish players quickly rattle off the three levels of focus that Selking has taught them to manage.
“Level One is, like, just chilling,” Kareem says. “On the sidelines, being coached up, that’s like Level Two. You’re locked in, but you don’t have to be at your highest level. You’re starting to build toward Level Three.”
“When you step on that field,” Kareem says, “that’s when you turn it on.”
Follow IndyStar and USA TODAY Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.
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