SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Now everyone wants to know if Notre Dame can do it again, get back to national contention. And not just down the road when quarterback Everett Golson is back from suspension and all these big recruiting classes stack up on one another. No, they want to know about this year. Again.
It wasn't a year ago, of course, that the conventional wisdom said the Irish could never, and would never, return to national prominence. They needed to join a conference. The schedule was too ambitious. Academic standards were too high. Recruits were overhyped. The fact players live in actual pedestrian dorms – with other actual students! – and not gold-plated "facilities" could no longer work.
That's how it is with Notre Dame. To its fans, it can do no wrong. To its critics, it can do no right. There are a lot of both out there, enough for NBC to keep broadcasting the games, even when the Irish kept losing. So came the idea that the program was just a propped-up media creation, some sepia-toned illusion cashing in on a stirring fight song and some old rah-rah movies.
"It wasn't true," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, now entering his fourth year here, and, of course, coming off a 12-1 season that ended with a loss in the BCS title game. He paused and then admitted something. "Now, when I took the job I didn't know, 100 percent, that it wasn't true."
Yes, even Brian Kelly had heard Notre Dame was a high-expectation sinkhole and wondered. Decades between title game appearances seemed like more than just a down swing. Coaches kept coming and then going. Still, Kelly didn't hesitate to make the jump from Cincinnati in 2009.
"It's Notre Dame," he reasoned.
Now as much as ever, apparently. Kelly is 51, a self-made coaching star. A decade ago he was in Division II. Now he counts Bill Belichick as a friend. Last January he spent three days interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles. "I was never offered the job," he notes. More NFL teams will come a-calling though. He can listen or stay here for what he calls "unfinished business."
"This is Year 4 for me," he joked, referencing that he left previous stops Central Michigan and Cincinnati by now. "I'm usually three and out."
Instead he's all in. Even with his starting QB suspended, he has a roster – and recruiting classes – built for the long haul. So maybe Notre Dame pulls the unexpected again and gets back to the BCS title game this year. Or maybe the playoffs in the years to come. Or maybe, as many detractors hope, last year was just one year.
Kelly is, by his nature, confident in his own abilities. He has reason. He's entering his 24th season as a head coach and enjoyed success for nearly every bit of it. Two national titles at D-II Grand Valley State [Mich.]. A MAC title at Central. A 12-0 regular season in Cincy. He just kept winning and climbing. What he does works, and more than any other coach here since Lou Holtz, he is apparently impossible to rattle.
Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis all had what appeared to be great momentum at one point of their tenure here. Then some duress hit the program and it all collapsed. [George O'Leary's was quickest of all, of course. His résumé did him in before he even coached a game.] Notre Dame was fragile.
Not under Kelly. There was the preventable death of a student manager. There was a scandal involving the alleged sexual assault and subsequent suicide of a young woman. There were less serious issues, such as bad losses, fading seasons, recruits bailing, a high number of unexpected transfers, fake girlfriends and even Kelly interviewing for the NFL and saying almost nothing to no one – players, recruits, media – for days.
Not for an instant has he stopped driving the train forward though. He remained not just fully confident that the program was pushing in the right direction, but he continued to sweep everyone else up in it also.
"I've made mistakes but I've gone more gut instinct most of my career and probably being a product growing up of just traditional values, Boston Catholic home, 'hey, use your frickin' common sense,' " Kelly said.
"I think it's my own faith in my ability to lead. This is 24 years for me as a head coach. I've been doing this a long time. If [things] hit me earlier in my career, four, five years into it, maybe I wouldn't have handled it the same way. I had a lot of experience when I took the [ND] job over. When I was at Grand Valley [State in Michigan], it was on-the-job training. I didn't have a pedigree. I wasn't [Bo Schembechler's] assistant for years and years.
"I was 27 being the head coach screwing it up and figuring it out as I went. I think maybe that common sense and knowing you've got to figure it out has helped me."
All that said, a little more than a year ago, coming off consecutive 8-5 seasons, with outside doubts about his future beginning to percolate, Kelly needed a sign that what he was selling was going to work, truly work, here.
"And then there was the day Jaylon Smith committed," Kelly said. That was June 2, 2012. Smith was a five-star recruit according to rivals.com, the No. 3 player in the country. He was a big-time linebacker from just over in Fort Wayne and the kind of athlete and recruit Kelly absolutely had to have. And Smith just got back from meeting with Urban Meyer in Columbus, Ohio.
"When Jaylon came back from Ohio State and said no to Ohio State, that was big," Kelly said. "Because you've got Urban there. The glitter is still on. It's Ohio State and it's Urban Meyer and he's the hottest thing out there and Jaylon said, 'no, I want to come to Notre Dame.'
"That might have been the time I looked out there and said, 'we're going to be all right.' "
That Smith was a high school senior last season – and thus not even on the team that swept through the regular season – should explain what Kelly's plan here entails. Last year was magical, at least until running into an Alabama streamroller. You don't go unbeaten in college football without a perfect combination of talent and character.
Yet it wasn't the culmination of Kelly's building. That wasn't the end game. If high quality people believed in the program when there wasn't a big shiny record attached to it, then long-term success was inevitable.
"I believe this freshman class is a dynamite class, the best I've ever [recruited]," Kelly said. "Fourteen of them were committed before we played a game last year, when we were 0-0. People asked, 'are you going to get a big bump going 12-0?' Well, they were already all committed. I knew then, going in to that season, after back to back 8-5 seasons, and 'Kelly on the hot seat' talk, that when we had 14 committed kids who were dynamite players, I knew we had turned the corner in terms of that perception."
And the class he's putting together for signing day 2014 – 17 already committed – might be better according to the recruiting sites.
Brian Kelly is talking about transparency. It's his No. 1 challenge, he said. Not just getting better players to eventually beat Alabama. It's continuing his ability to pull everyone into his world, to trust him. And in this case, it's the most difficult crowd to flip yet, the Notre Dame administration that values a profound separation of academics/student life and football.
"Breaking down myths that football coaches protect the players and cover up academic problems or shield them from problems in the dorms," Kelly said. "That old myth of the bad football coach. Building a program that is transparent to all parties.
"I think there was a mythology that existed [at Notre Dame] that the football coach just cares about football games. I care about players and the university and how they all interact together. And building this program, the only way you can do it is if we're partners in this together."
Kelly is talking from a palatial, yet classically designed, Guglielmino Athletics Complex [or the Gug]. The facilities are top of the line. The stadium is legendary. The school obviously values football. He has a beautiful office, complete with balcony overlooking campus. Or, well, at least one side of campus, the athletics side. The other side – the one that sits under the glimmering golden dome and fans out from the famed quad – believes in both a physical and practical distance from sports.
In essence, players are real students, with real classes, living in real dorms, with real expectations to meet the academic and social standards of other real students. The theory is there is no hiding anyone at Notre Dame. This is the core pride of the school.
The challenge is when a player runs afoul with the strict rules. Past coaches have sworn that the separation is real and shook their head at the school's disciplinary system, "Residence Life." One deemed it "a black hole." Not only do they have no control and no say in the outcome, they have no info at all about what is going on. Forget covering up anything. There's no calling anyone. There's no way to plead anyone's case. There's no way to know what's coming or when.
In the control freak world of high major college football, this is an anomaly. Say an underage player gets caught with beer in the dorms, he deals with Residence Life like anyone else. He isn't passed on to a coach who will run him at 5 a.m.
Kelly understands and says he values all of that. That's what makes this place special. He's just looking for what he called, "transparency university wide as it relates to growing the program on a day-to-day basis."
"We can't do it the way Alabama does it," Kelly said. "We can't have our own department. And this isn't to knock how they do it at Alabama. They have an incredible program. We have to be mainstream. Our kids have to live in the dorms with the other students or it wouldn't work here.
"The provost has to believe that I believe in that. The dean of students has to believe that. The dean of admissions. Because they have to be able to trust that when I bring a kid here and I tell you that he's the right kid for Notre Dame that he is not here just because he is just a football player.
"[Being a great player is] a big part of it, don't get me wrong," Kelly continued. "I don't want to get fired. Remember, the last three coaches that came here won the graduation rate award. They got fired too. It is what it is."
Gaining "transparency" may make running the ball on the Crimson Tide seem easy.
"I think that's where you build a program," Kelly said. "And that's where I've shown the model. I believe I am showing them the model of what it (requires) to be successful here at Notre Dame. And we're getting there. We've got some work to do but we're breaking down some walls that had been built."
"[When I got here] there was a bit of, 'you mind your own business, we'll take care of Student Life. You take care of what you do and we'll take care of academics.'
"And that's fine. But I want to be in the loop. I want to be part of the discussion. I don't have to make the decision on a code violation. I don't have to make the decision on parietals [male-female dorm curfews]. I'm not asking for that. I just want to be part of the discussion. And we're getting there."
In the short-term, Kelly is focused on winning football games. There is some sentiment out there that last year's success came a year early and this crew is better across the board. Others wonder about an offense that struggled at times and now has lost its promising quarterback for failing to meet the standards of that academic side of campus.
Kelly just leans back on his experience. Find a way to maximize the talent.
"Each and every year [at Grand Valley] it was, 'who is your quarterback this year?' And your offense needed to adapt to that," Kelly said. "That was across the board.
"That experience was invaluable. You look at it right now. KeiVarae Russell, our starting corner, Bennett Jackson, our starting corner, and [safety] Matthias Farley were all recruited here to Notre Dame as offensive players. That's unheard of. But that is a little bit of my Division II background; I'm not afraid to move a guy or project a guy and think he can play here."
Preseason camp is under way. Kelly took them down to Marion for a stretch and is now back up here. Last season ended a long-held belief that Notre Dame could never produce a shake-down-the-thunder-season again.
Now Brian Kelly looks to prove it wasn't a blip on the radar. That this is an elite program, not just a team. That's the forever challenge of coaching the Irish.
And on this moment, on this sunny day with that glistening Dome and all it represents off in the distance, Kelly doesn't appear to fear the task in the least.
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