SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly is entering his sixth season as the football coach at Notre Dame, which shows some staying power. Seriously.
This is a dog-years job, tending to grind up coaches in five years or fewer. Only four others in the program's 128-year history have lasted longer than five seasons, and all of them were national title-winning giants: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz. Kelly has no title and his .692 winning percentage doesn't compare to Rockne's (.881), Leahy's (.855), Parseghian's (.836) or Holtz's (.765).
But let's face it, it's a different job now than it was then.
Given Kelly's deceptively long tenure, he was asked Tuesday at Notre Dame media day if he's grown more comfortable on the job. His answer was interesting.
"I don't know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "Comfortable wouldn't be a word that I would use. I think what I would probably say is that the picture is a lot clearer in the sense that I really know where our strengths and weaknesses are as a program, what we need to continue to work on and develop, and know the direction that we need to continue to push the group in. So I think it's just a more clearer understanding of the program and what we need every single day more than a comfort level.
"Like I said, I don't think you ever feel comfortable here at Notre Dame. And I don't mean that in a negative way. I just think you've always got to be looking at how to get better every day."
I asked him a follow-up question: What are those strengths and weaknesses? That answer was interesting, too.
"Well, I think the strengths are we develop depth within the program, and I think that's probably something that has taken time and one that we've really committed ourselves to in terms of not straying what we believe are the right fits here at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "Those that recognize the value of a degree here at Notre Dame and are committed to what a Notre Dame education is about and playing for championships. So that's taken some time. That's the foundation of our strength.
"Our weaknesses, I think we have to continue to look at ways as we continue to move the bar academically here, we have to continue to support our student-athletes and continue to look for ways to make sure that our kids are solid, solidly supported academically, and I think we're making great progress there. Those would be a couple that come to mind right away."
So in terms of academic support, is Kelly asking for Notre Dame to modernize? Or compromise? Does it need to commit more resources, or lower its famously high standards?
Know this: Brian Kelly's Notre Dame is a harder place to successfully blend elite athletics and elite academics than was Knute Rockne's Notre Dame, or Frank Leahy's, or Ara Parseghian's. And for three straight offseasons, we have seen the struggle.
In 2013, starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for the season for academic fraud. In 2014, four players were suspended all season for academic fraud – some of them key contributors. This summer's academic casualty was No. 2 running back Greg Bryant, who is gone for the year.
Kelly didn't blame those specific academic losses on insufficient academic support from the school. But his comment could lead you to that assumption.
Kelly's message seemed to be this: If Notre Dame is going to sign national championship-caliber players who might be an academic reach, it needs to give them every chance to compete with all the gifted students on campus. That message seems to have resonated with the administration, which is proud of the football program's academic progress rate (a strong 978 score in NCAA tabulations last spring) but acknowledges that some modifications can bolster its athletes.
Notre Dame is a place where football team captains aren't named without clearing the candidates with the faculty athletic board. The challenges here are different than a lot of other schools that chase national titles.
Star cornerback KeiVarae Russell was one of the players sidelined for all of 2014. Kelly announced Tuesday that Russell officially has been cleared by the NCAA to play this season as a senior. I asked Russell whether he felt like the school failed to provide adequate academic support and whether that was a factor in his being ineligible.
"I definitely got enough support," Russell said. "It was a poor judgment on my part. It had nothing to do with not getting enough support. Whether we get more would be cool, I'm not going to complain if we got more. But I think there's definitely enough support to excel here."
Notre Dame might actually have discovered an academic master stroke that helps it in recruiting the best and brightest jocks: This summer it created a study-abroad program for athletes. Of the 16 athletes who went on a three-week trip to South Africa, seven were football players.
They came back raving about the experience.
"It just speaks dividends to what Notre Dame offers," said star linebacker Jaylon Smith, who made his first trip outside the United States. "It's definitely a global university. …You understand there's more out there. I was exposed to more. You come back humbled."
Studying abroad is a major 21st century selling point for American universities, but it's often seen as an impossibility for athletes who are chained to obsessive, year-round training schedules. Kelly acknowledged being nervous about cutting loose his players for three weeks – "we sent a trainer and we made sure there was a weight room," he said – but realized the potential benefit in recruiting.
"We wanted to be able to say that our student-athletes at Notre Dame get a chance to study abroad, not like many others do," Kelly said.
Studying abroad is a nice selling point. But being able to assure good-not-great students they will have the backing to succeed academically at Notre Dame is probably a more pressing point for Brian Kelly. As a grizzled veteran by the school's meat-grinder coaching standards, he's learned that the hard way.
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