Brian Kelly Has Brought Confidence Back to Notre Dame

Brian Kelly - Restoring Confidence at Notre Dame
As Brian Kelly is set to begin his 4th season as the head coach of Notre Dame, he has restored confidence in a program that was in desperate need of a culture change. (Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today)

There are certain major college football programs that have conquered the pursuit of the elusive combination of excellence and longevity, and the Notre Dame program happens to be near the top of that list. If you grew up in the era of Notre Dame football with Lou Holtz at the helm, then you were lucky enough to see the Irish win a total of 100 games over the course of 11 seasons, for a .765 winning percentage. A Saturday victory wasn’t just appreciated, it was expected, and that mindset permeated most everything during the course of of Holtz’ tenure in South Bend.

Irish players and fans believed they could and would win every time they hit the field, but that would all come to a grinding halt in 1996 as Holtz decided to leave the Irish program. Whether he was let go, quit because of tougher academic standards that were being implemented, or because he truly did not want to surpass Irish coaching legend Knute Rockne’s win total, the fact is, when Holtz left the program, the winning attitude and tradition left with him.

Failed coaching searches resulted in years of mediocrity for Notre Dame Football

Charlie Weis - Notre Dame
Charlie Weis had his moments early in his career at Notre Dame, but things feel apart in year three and he was never able to put them back together during a five year tenure that saw Notre Dame drop farther into mediocrity. (Photo – Icon SMI)

Although the university tried to fill the void that was left from the departure of Holtz, Irish fans would soon become familiar with the term mediocrity, and how it painfully applied to their beloved football program. Names like Davie, Willingham, and Weis still bring excruciating pain to the soul of any true Notre Dame fan, and we won’t even begin to delve into the mess that was the George O’Leary debacle.

The rest of world was now mocking the Irish program for their antiquated ways and archaic way of thinking, and fans and media were lining up to take turns tossing proverbial dirt on the once storied program, and all Irish fans could do was point to past history as to why their program was still relevant. That was until coach Brian Kelly took the helm in 2010, and immediately reminded Irish fans that football in South Bend was still special.

Brain Kelly’s hiring in 2009 raised expectations for Notre Dame

Although the win totals may not have not reflected it right away, when Brian Kelly took over as head coach he brought a new level of expectation, and more importantly, started to instill a new level of confidence. Confidence in his players, in the university, and in the fan base. In the first year under Kelly the Irish won the first game of the year against Purdue 23-10, but then Irish fans would go on to see their team lose the next three games in a row to Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford, and the feeling of “here we go again” was prevalent throughout Irish Nation.

Even with a 1-3 start in his first year, coach Kelly kept preaching fundamentals and pushing his players further than they had ever been pushed before under the previous regime, and it started to payoff. The Irish would wind up winning seven out of their last nine games, which included a Sun Bowl victory against the hated Miami Hurricanes. Kelly and his staff had started raising the excitement level about Notre Dame football again, but there was still much to be done.

Brian Kelly - Stanford 2011
Progress was slow, but steady during his first two seasons even it was not always apparent to the untrained eye. (Photo: Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports)

Progress was tough to see at first for Notre Dame under Brian Kelly

Kelly’s second season would see the same amount of wins as the previous year,  eight, and after two years he would amass a total record of 16-10, which in comparison to former Irish coaches Bob Davie, and Tyrone Willingham, was right on par, and actually three less victories than Charlie Weis had accumulated over his first two years. So where were the improvements? They were there, but you had to be a true fan of the program to see them. The way the Irish were losing games in Kelly’s freshmen and sophomore years were not in the same fashion as what Irish fans had seen under previous regimes. The effort was there, the heart was there, but the talent and confidence level still sorely need to be improved.

Early in his time, Kelly expressed often the frustration he felt from the mindset that was left over from the Weis era at Notre Dame, and even chose the media to express said frustration. Claiming he needed to get the right type of player in his program to achieve the type of success that he himself, and fans wanted to see. While this was an extremely truthful statement, a press conference was probably not the best forum to make these claims, as the media ran wild with it, and it became a national story. It was obvious that Brian Kelly and his players were growing and learning together, and coach Kelly would be the first to admit that he has had to adjust his style in South Bend, just as he expected his players to do.

Three years later, Kelly has built  a wining culture at Notre Dame

Not only was he learning how to handle the pressures of being the head coach at Notre Dame, but he was also teaching his players what it means to be student-athlete and the expectations that come with that title. This message had been lost for the last two decades, but was finally starting to reemerge in the form of better talent, better recruits, and better play, and better coaching on the field.  Kelly has made South Bend a “sexy” destination again for recruits, and has top players from around the nation wanting to be part of his program.

So while some may not see Brian Kelly as the answer in South Bend, they would be hard pressed to present examples of how this program has not improved under his guidance. Kelly’s record at Notre Dame now sits at 28-11, but his presence runs much deeper than that. His way of thinking has not only been infused into his players, but has also penetrated the fan-base. He has started to raise the level of expectation again in South Bend, as Irish fans are already talking about realistically reaching double digit victories during the 2013 season. If Kelly wins ten games or more again this year, it will be the first time the Irish have accomplished this feat since the 1992 and 1993 seasons under Lou Holtz.


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  1. Good article. 46 and from circa-Boston, myself, it’s easy to see Kelly’s similarities with coach Bill Belichik. 3-time Superbowl-winning coach Bill Belichik, with whom Kelly consorted recently on a trip back to Bean-town. (hitting the links together, if I’m not mistaken – a legendary place to talk business) I’m sure the “2-tight end” situation arose for discussion. But what I think must be pointed-out is the ATTITUDE Belichik and Kelly have instilled into their respective programs. Confidence is good; but being willing and eager to work to justify that confidence is an attitude of Champions. (kinda makes me want to forego our Adidas-affiliation and re-associate with Champion brand of uniform) GO IRISH!

    1. And as much as I harte to give up’s to a (sc)UM-alumn, TD-Tommy Brady epitomizes the champions attitude. Fernandes isn’t even an afterthought. Wait – who?

  2. And what did he accomplish last year? Being #2 is not good enough. Like I said let him win a BCS game and a BCS title and then we’ll talk. Are they headed in the right direction? It seems that way but the bottom line is winning championships. I agree on this year will tell us a lot about Kelly. I see a 9-3 year.

  3. Before you proclaim Kelly another Holtz etc. let’s remember one thing. Kelly still has not won a BCS title or a BCS game. Let that happen then we’ll talk about where the program is.

    1. That’s true. But getting them to an NC game last year was a huge accomplishment. I wouldn’t diminish that feat (esp. considering they weren’t expected to do much better than 8-4). I think the article’s point is that ND is heading in the right direction under Kelly. Time will tell if he is the next “Great” ND coach. I just get cracked up by people who say the opposite, that he is a bad coach or something after all they accomplished last year.

      This year will tell us alot about Kelly and his staff, with handling the loss of EG.

      1. I agree but I want results instead of false promises of the past since Lou. BK has recruited much better than I thought. But ND needs to be a consistent top 15 team and win a BCS game then title to say its back. That’s the standard IMO.

    2. clubgitmo? club “git ada here”! I agree BK is a far way from having earned the stripes of Holtz. etc. Buit re:winning a BCS game? It’ll happen. I won’t guarantee a NatChamp. But I will guarantee a BCS victory.

      1. Good but I don’t see one yet. And BCS titles are why we play and watch the games. Nobody cares who’s #2

  4. I’m always amused by some of the critiques of Brian Kelly. I’m a pretty simple guy. At the end of the day, I look at the W and L columns. ND had 12 wins and 1 loss last year. Yes, the loss was bad, but it was the NC game against an Alabama team with NFL ready guys who have played multiple NC games already. ND is not there yet, and BK freely acknowledges that fact. But getting to the NC game last year was a huge success in and of itself (esp, since most of the realists here were predicting maybe a 9-4 year and maybe a decent bowl birth). ND is in the conversation again.

    People, ND is moving in the right direction. BK is the captain of the ship. Just as a coach is ultimately responsible for any failings, they also should get credit for their successes. We are not NC winners yet. But he is building a program to last and he is recruiting the guys they need to win the big games. He sees what types of athletes the SEC recruits and is going after those same guys.

  5. But for Bob Diaco, BK would be another Charlie Weis. He is an alleged offensive guru, but the fact is he has yet to mold a powerhouse offense or a scoring machine like he did at Cinn. We have excellent tools for a power running game, but BK has been reluctant to go that route. I hope Martin builds around that, essentially putting Rees in the position where all he has to do is not hurt the team.

  6. A couple of things to note here. First Holtz did not leave of his own accord. If he had, then he would have groomed a successor. There were other issues. That did not provide Notre Dame with a good plan to maintain continuity in a decade that really saw the ghetto hoodie culture supplant the culture of honor in sports. By the mid 1990s, sports reflected our sad hollow shell of the country’s former greatness and the last time our country could boast being on top.

    Secondly, Notre Dame has faced the reality that college sports have become a truly corrupt money extorting system. It is very hard to compete when cheating is secretly condoned and desired because the controversy draws ratings. This at a time when our country may truly have lost most of our values and moral compass in favor of relativist situation ethics.

    So Notre Dame faces struggles to maintain a moral high ground until the NCAA finally collapses under the corruption currently gutting the system.

  7. ND and kelly punking out and going to the ACC to get some wins. Disgraceful…..he cant get the the Lions soon enough for me!

    1. Farty,
      You shouls consider putting the crack pipe away for good. Punking out? Going into the ACC will increase our strength of schedule. Other than Ohio State (and they are overrated a little)there isn’t or has been a good team in the Big Ten for ever.

      1. Noder Dan – (phonetically spelt)
        I share your apparent disgust for the Biggie-TenLevenElves. And arty carr can go-f-himself. But watch-out for (sc)UM. Brady Joke is a g/d little boy but that excites the Maizetards. So we should beware, unfortunately.

  8. Brian –
    I think luck comes into play when a team is in so many close games – as ND was in ’12. Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, and Pitt come to mind as games that could have gone either way.
    ND found a way to win each of them – that is the sign of a tough team. However, luck also comes into play when there are close games. It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment, but I think there is always luck involved.

  9. D-Train…..Huge amount of luck?? I would say the Pitt missed FG was the only thing that was lucky. I think everything else was earned. Nobody gave them anything this past year? Goal line stands. Driving the field for a game winning TD or FG. I would actually say that last year was one of the best team efforts I’ve seen in an ND team since the Holtz era. I would never classify luck as hard nosed, never give up attitude kind of football. I’d say thats completely instilled into the players from a great coaching staff.

    1. Plus, in 2011 the IRISH had disastrous luck. They could have won 11 games in 2011 with just average luck.

      1. Excellent point. I actually thought that immediately following the 2011 season. Not sure about your “11 games” assertion, but hell – I’ll go with it… (;

  10. Looking at the “evolution” of the Irish program under Kelly would be a good blueprint for ALL coaches going to a new school as a head coach. First you need to change attitudes/culture of the players (who YOU did not recruit to play your style of football) never an easy task. You also have to change the thinking of the fan base to PATIENCE (eg We will have to crawl before we can walk, much less run) never an easy task at schools that are used to being in the Top 10 EVERY year. Next you need to win enough to attract 4-5 star athletes to a place that can COMPETE for a NC each year. This past year will I believe turn out in Kelly’s career at ND to be a cornerstone for the future successes of the Irish program. With a HUGE amount of luck they were able to go undefeated and play in the NC game. The outcome may have been a letdown (not so much the losing as the way they were pushed off the field in the first half) but nevertheless it put the program back on recruits agendas and that will pay dividends starting THIS September. He has had to “adjust” to the demands of being the coach at ND in terms of the scrutiny of a nation not just the media in South Bend and the Midwest in general. His coaching staff have had to adjust to the culture at the school. Instituting the training table regimen, bringing in Longo to handle the off season wt training programs, going into states to recruit where the school had little exposure previously eg the South, Texas, New York etc and “re-establishing” contacts in the Chicago area (game at Soldier Field vs Miami) and now entry into the ACC to again stimulate recruiting in the hotbed of high school football all have been part of the program changes needed to regain lost traction as a football power. There is still work to do but even putting Martin in charge of the play-calling freeing up BK to move around during games to talk to coaches and players about decisions shows he is realising he has to trust in people other then himself to make decisions on game day. I still don’t see Kelly as a Parseghian but he is making “headway” to suggest he will finish more like the Ara and Lou H. type of coaches at ND then the Weis/Davie types. Stay tuned for 2013 which can either be another brick in the wall of success or maybe a “sidestep” on the path to success. Would hate to see him panic and take back the play-calling duties if we lost an early game this year. Losing Golson was a huge blow to chances of competing again for a possible BCS bowl opportunity. If Rees plays entire year at QB I would think the chances are much greater to be a 4-5 loss season then a 1-2 loss season. Time will tell.

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