Notre Dame has a new quarterback this season. Probably you’ve heard about Ian Book replacing Brandon Wimbush. Other notable changes from last season’s 10-win team: Two new offensive linemen, after Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey were among the top 10 picks of the 2018 NFL draft. And a new offensive line coach. Plus a new defensive coordinator. Let’s see, what else: New running back, new No. 1 receiver, new safeties coach …
Remarkable, really, what Notre Dame has achieved this season after all that upper-level upheaval: 12 victories, no losses, with only Clemson on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl between the Irish and a spot in the College Football Playoff national championship.
Look at all those new faces, and understand something: The biggest change Notre Dame has made in the past year, the most shocking change, is at head coach. And Brian Kelly didn’t go anywhere.
Deuces to the old Brian Kelly
When the Irish visited AT&T Stadium in Dallas earlier this week for their first workout, they took the field to the sound of music. No, not the musical. And not the normal stuff the Irish hear warming up. This was Tuesday — this was Christmas — and their coach had a surprise for them.
All I Want for Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey.
He’s silly like that, Brian Kelly. Well, he’s silly now. OK, maybe this is closer to the target: He’s more willing this season to show his players his silly side. On Oct. 26, Kelly set social media afire by hopping into a photo with several players who were giving the camera two fingers — as in “deuces,” or see ya later — before a flight to San Diego for the Navy game. The picture shows Kelly, his leather work portfolio perched in one hand, two fingers stiffly pointing from the other.
Oh, there’s more where that silliness came from. Lots more. There was that time at training camp when players were treated to a magician. And there was that time — well, those 12 times during this 12-0 season — when the team was celebrating in the locker room after a victory, dancing to whatever music is blaring, and there he is. There’s Brian Kelly, dancing as well.
“If you could call it dancing,” senior center Sam Mustipher was saying earlier this season.
See there? See what Sam Mustipher just did? He poked his coach, that grouchy ol’ bear, right in the nose. Didn’t used to be that way around Notre Dame, where Kelly presided magisterially over his team, and his team responded by giving His Majesty his distance. Not anymore. This is a closer group now. Less boundaries. More winning.
Used to be, for Brian Kelly, being a genius was enough. And he sure seemed to have a genius for coaching, winning two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State and rebuilding Central Michigan into a MAC monster and then going to Cincinnati and doing something even more unthinkable, leading that historically mediocre football program to 33 wins and a Sugar Bowl in three years, including a 12-0 regular season in 2009. He left for Notre Dame and kept winning, needing just three years to convert the punch line that was the Charlie Weis era into something serious: a 12-0 regular season and spot in the 2012 BCS national championship game.
And then being a genius wasn’t enough anymore. The Irish fell to 12 losses over the next three seasons, then fell off a cliff in 2016 at 4-8. Last season was a 10-3 rally, but even so, Kelly wasn’t completely comfortable with where his program was heading. Change was coming, he knew that: most of his best players to the NFL, two of his most accomplished assistants to other staffs, the looming issue at quarterback.
Plus, there was the head coach. Brian Kelly wasn’t so sure about him.
‘You’re going to be exposed’
He says: “When you’re in a job like Notre Dame, you’re required to sharpen your skills every year. And if you don’t, you’re going to be exposed.”
And Brian Kelly says: “I don’t think you get to this position and go, ‘Hey, I think I’ve figured it all out.’ I haven’t.”
“How do you deal with Gen Z’s over Millennials?”
Kelly decided he didn’t have that answer. Where exactly he went for it, he hasn’t said, which is fine. Give the man his secrets. But he used this past offseason to survey the landscape of college football, coaches getting younger — and, fine, Kelly getting older now at 57 — and to speak with several of those coaches. And what he learned was this:
SCOUTING REPORT: What to expect from Notre Dame at the Cotton Bowl
TRANSFORMATION: How Notre Dame went from 4-8 to College Football Playoff
Those are his words. Also, these:
“Don’t bury your head in the sand,” he says. “Be in the training room. Be in the locker room. You know, be present. Be present in your environment in which your players are readily available to be in conversation with … because that’s your group.”
This stuff matters now, perhaps moreso at a place like Notre Dame, where players are so thoughtful and intelligent. Fearing the coach is old-school football, and back in the day that worked. Liking your coach, wanting to play for him, to give him your very best? With a handful of exceptions — definitely New England, perhaps Alabama — that’s where football is today. You can bemoan that if you like, but you can’t say it isn’t true.
Kelly learned. He meets with his captains once a week, taking the temperature of the roster, listening to concerns. He gave his players leadership training, allowing them to take ownership of the team — it’s theirs, not the head coach’s — and he cites one specific aspect of that leadership training as crucial to the development of the 2018 Fighting Irish:
It was during that training where fifth-year senior linebacker Drue Tranquill — the married, academically achieving, community service-providing, surgery-overcoming poster boy for Notre Dame football — learned how to better connect with teammates. It was in that training, Kelly says, where the relentlessly driven Tranquill learned that “he wasn’t believable in a sense almost … Guys couldn’t identify with him because he was this guy that they just couldn’t live up to.
“But this year he just became so much more of a mentor to our other players. Somebody asked (me) the question, ‘When did you know that you were going to have a special team?’ I knew we were going to have a special team when Drue Tranquill was able to reach everybody in our locker room.”
Kelly reaches them, too, in much the same way as Tranquill: He had to loosen up, relate to players on their terms. And so it was in August, when the sun was scorching and training camp was dragging, that Kelly canceled practice to let his team play the “Call of Duty” video game.
Senior running back Dexter Williams told IndyStar earlier this season, “I definitely see a difference (in Kelly),” while Mustipher said, “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. You have to be able to be one of the guys, and I think he’s understanding that.”
Seems to be working. Earlier this month he was named Home Depot Coach of the Year. It was the third time in a decade that someone named Brian Kelly has won that award, following those 12-0 regular seasons at Cincinnati in 2009 and Notre Dame in 2012. But it was the first time for this new guy in charge of the Fighting Irish.
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