Can Brian Kelly Turn Around Notre Dame Football?

Photo © Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Photo © Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Whether you are the type to take out an ad in the local newspaper calling for everyone to be fired or you think it makes sense for Notre Dame to retain Kelly for one more season, there is  pretty much a consensus amongst hardcore Notre Dame followers: it may not be this year, but Brian Kelly is toast.

I wrote about this in October in my weekly Stock Report column, when I had Kelly as a sell after the loss on the road to NC State. It’s not so much that I thought he deserved to be, it’s just that once the fan base has decided, then that’s pretty much the end of the road.

We’ve seen it over and over again since Lou Holtz resigned, and it’s been noted a couple of times on this site, from Davie to Willingham to Weis to Kelly, they all have that game where it’s known how this movie is going to end.

Luckily for Kelly prior to 2016 was 2015 and a legitimately good team, which is likely the reason he is still employed as the Irish head coach. But, now he is tasked with turning this thing around and it has to happen immediately and in a big way (I’m of the opinion that even 9-3 gets him sacked).

Kelly’s Staff Will Look Vastly Different in 2017

He will also have to get this done with a number of new faces on the coaching staff. On Tuesday, special teams and tight ends coach Scott Booker was relieved of his duties and co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford became the head coach at Western Kentucky. Those staff defections were offset by the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko out of Wake Forest and special teams coordinator Brian Polian, formerly the head coach at Nevada, who previously held the same special teams position under head coach Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009.

There are reasons to be excited about both of those hires and they are certainly a step in the right direction, but will they be enough to turn a 4 win team into a team that is competing for a playoff spot?

The prevailing sentiment around the logic for retaining Kelly hinges on the idea that this season could be passed off as an anomaly, just an unfortunate aberration that is unlikely to repeat itself. And it is true that going 4-8 is unlikely to happen again. The problem with that thinking though, is this season was only an aberration from a wins and losses perspective, but not so much in the way the team has played generally under Brian Kelly.

2016’s Problems Were Not New for Notre Dame

They weren’t poor on special teams just this year, they’ve been hit or miss his entire tenure. They weren’t fundamentally poor on defense just this year, in fact it’s been that way for the last three years. We’ve seen numerous seasons where the running game just stopped being a factor for them, where they didn’t show mental toughness, or they just showed a lack of fundamentals. Those qualities have been the staple of his football teams so far in his seven years at the helm: inattention to detail, sloppiness, and fundamentally unsound. So what if poor special teams meant an 8-4 team was now a 4-8 team? With the schedule Notre Dame faced in 2016 with a first round caliber quarterback, 8-4 is a bad year. 4-8 is an abomination.

The good news is Notre Dame has the talent to do it. Loads of talent. We’ve all seen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams run the ball. They don’t stink. Take a look at the offer lists of the guys who will be starting on the offensive line for Notre Dame next year. Everyone wanted those guys and they are all coming back in 2017 (I’m looking at you Quenton Nelson). We know the receivers can play, we know the linebackers can play, the secondary appears to be oozing talent out of its ears. 4 of the top 6 players in all-purpose yards is back next season as well as 4 of the top 6 tacklers on defense–with the top two of both units also being in that group.

Brian Kelly Knows How to Coach Football

The other good news is Brian Kelly is a really good coach! The guy went 34-6 at Cincinnati, which we can all pick apart if we want to, or we can just admit that if Mike Sanford, who just got his first head coaching job and many think (including me) would be a great head coach at Notre Dame, goes 34-6 in three years at Western Kentucky the masses will be begging Jack Swarbrick to hire him and save us from our three decades long championship drought.

Kelly also won multiple national titles at Grand Valley State. Now of course, winning at Grand Valley State and Cincinnati does not equal greatness at Notre Dame or any big time school. The point is, the guy knows how to put together really good football teams when the talent has been equal. You don’t go 34-6 because your team can’t tackle or doesn’t play with an edge and lack toughness. But that has been the criticism for a number of his teams at Notre Dame and it is perhaps not coincidental that the only team that had all three of those qualities ended up going 12-1. But, it is that which has been the aberration, not the other way around.

I remain skeptical that he can actually get this done and save his job at Notre Dame.  It just isn’t very often a coach enters a season with the majority of the alumni and fan base turned against him and it turns out positively for that coach and the school.

Can Brian Kelly Get His Groove Back?

Whatever Brian Kelly was when he was coming out of Cincinnati he appears to no longer be. For whatever reason, it seems he hasn’t been able to turn this program into his own, to take on his personality, to adapt a signature quality that most programs do when the coach has been around for as long as Kelly has.

And for all his bluster when he was hired about accountability and entitled players, if Kelly has passed on anything to this program it’s his own lack of accountability when it comes to all the off-field troubles that have plagued his program throughout his tenure. To be clear, I think those issues are over blown and shouldn’t be factors in his job evaluation, but when the head of the program absolves himself over any responsibility for what happens on the outskirts of said program, well, lets just say that sort of thing tends to send the wrong message when you’re trying to preach the opposite.

However unlikely it seems, if Brian Kelly wants to save his job for the Fighting Irish, he needs to recapture whatever it was that got him the job in the first place. The guy they hired is good enough to win in South Bend. Time will tell if he can live up to his own potential.

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  1. Let’s not get too carried away with all this “talent” talk. This is still a four win team including losses to Navy, Duke, Michigan State and Texas. Sure BK was a huge reason, but there was still plenty of blame to go around to many of the players. Josh Adams was ok but still a downgrade from last year’s version, and Dexter Williams has only shown a few flashes. That being said, this team still should have won 10 or 11 games considering the schedule. However when it comes to teams more like USC, the only quality team on the schedule, the result is complete annihilation.

  2. I believe that players in just about any team sport are motivated by passion and/or fear. Passion for the game, passion to be the very best. Fear of failure, fear of letting teammates down, fear of the coach, etc. We can all see these qualities in Alabama players and, most of the time, in Ohio State and Michigan players. (i also see it in Stanford players). Yes, i know, these 3 schools represent three of the very best coaches in the game today. I see a discipline and toughness in the players and assistant coaches from these 3 schools that reflect, respect and even fear of the head coaches … Saban, Meyer and Harbaugh. The players actually fear for their jobs and do not want to let their HC or their teammates down. Therefore, THEY DO THEIR JOBS with both precision and passion.

    Unfortunately, we don’t see these qualities consistently in ND players … probably because we don’t see these qualities in Brian Kelly. Has Kelly ever said anything or behaved in a way that inspired or motivated YOU? I’ve never been inspired by anything Kelly has said or done. He’s merely a politician who manages upward (hence pulling the wool over Swarbrick), and I’m confident he’s not motivating or inspiring the players. They fear nothing. Kelly is simply not the guy who will get ND consistent in the CFB Playoff conversation … even if they eventually expand to 8 teams.

    Another sign that he’s not THE GUY … what happens to ND when they lose a game early? It simply gets worse and we turn into the Titanic. What did we see from Stanford this year after two early losses? They resurrected their season! Kudos to David Shaw!

    1. Oh and one other thing … for those that think Kelly really knows how to coach football … think again. He’s shown several instances of NOT knowing what to do on game days … let’s not forget:
      — Game 1 vs Texas … not deciding beforehand what was obvious … Kizer was the best QB
      — Michigan State … didn’t go for it on 4th down when obviously we needed to in 4th qtr
      — Navy … ditto the above
      — NC State … way too many pass plays in a hurricane
      — Northwestern loss a couple years ago … take a 4th qtr knee for crissakes instead of risking fumble
      — Losses at Clemson and FSU … has he ever called a play that actually works at the end of the game??

      We could go on and on about game day. Let’s now turn it over to coaching to develop players. The damning evidence against Kelly: a) highly rated ND recruiting classes over his tenure (maybe an average of #8 nationally?)
      b) after ND … ND has maybe the 15th most alums on NFL rosters currently? Something like that.
      c) given a & b, shouldn’t ND being doing very well on Saturdays while these talented players are there? Shouldn’t ND be ranked #10 give or take, year in and year out? What the hell is going on during those 3-4 years players are at ND ???? Unfortunately, not much.

      Kizer may be drafted in the first round and he played like a 6th rounder the last half of the season. Undrafted Romeo Okwara is emerging as a D-line force for the NY Giants … does anyone even remember him on Saturdays for ND ??? I rest my case.

      1. I think Kelly was working on building that fear, but the purple faced Kelly was strongly rejected by the ND population.

        You don’t see anyone commenting or complaints on Saban chewing out a player or coach on the sideline.

  3. this it to michael and hurls: honestly answer the following.

    1) name ONE big game brian kelly has won..and if you say the division 2 championship, just go back to your mother’s basement!

    2) name ONE notre dame coach who has thrown the following under the bus on a consistent basis: players brought in by charlie weis, players brought in my brian kelly, assistant coaches, and/or administration.

    3) name ONE notre dame coach who would not have at least done some kind of disciplinary action against players driving with guns and weed in the car, or sexual assault allegations.


    4) name ONE notre dame coach who can’t figure out how to RUN THE DAMN BALL when you are inside the opponents 1 yard line and instead line up in a shotgun to run 6 yards to pick up 18 inches!

    if anyone wants to say brian kelly is a great coach who knows how to run a football program then your definition and my definitions are TOTALLY opposite!

    1. @Sebastian…Contrary to popular belief, I contend that Brian Kelly turned the Offense over to Kizer, not Denbrock or Sanford especially inside the 5. Why the shotgun? My take…because DsK needed about 4 yds to get his fat a*s in motion before he would attempt a run. He optioned for himself when he saw that the line opened a big enough hole to get his rump through. I’m soooo glad he’s gone.

      Will be happiest tho, when Kelly disappears into NE’s corrupt air…likely at the end of one more disappointed season. Let’s see, who was to blame…DC, Asst OC, Strength guy, ST guy , oh yeah….the Russians, that’s who.

      1. All you guys need “spiritual intervention”! Don’t you get it: this is a kid’s game, played by children, nothing to get so worked up about.

        I will find my Rosary and pray for all you “Debbie Downers,” who just can’t see that BK is from Boston and is therefore both infallible and awesome!

      2. Kids – don’t forget: ND lost most of their games by 8-or-less points. I will admit that’s on the coach/staff. But we are really not was bad as our record. BK is buds with Coach Belichik – 4X NFL CHAMPION coach Belichik. BK has had success in the past. BK HAS BUILT ND BACK TO A NATIONAL POWER, rather than the laughing-stock it had become under the 4-coaches-since-Lou. Don’t take the publicity serious. A lot happens that we don’t know about. SteelfanRob hit the jackpot with his last clause.

        “BK is from Boston and is therefore both infallible and awesome!” Amen.

      3. It’s better to remain silent and have people suspect you’re a fool, than it is to speak up an confirm you’re a fool.

        Words to live by, “HURLS.”

      4. “HURLS,”

        Are you illiterate? I mean, really, you can’t read for yourself that George and I aren’t the only ones on here who disagree with your blind loyalty to BK?

        Thanks for the blessing, we all need God’s blessings.

        But, really, you need to realize you need God’s help to see things for what they are. Stop being so blind!

      5. @Rob-Ron-George, guys, BK’s a Bostonian. I’m a Bostonian. See the new movie about the Boston Marathon bombing. We Bostonians got each other’s backs. PLUS, I ask you not to forget BK’s success as NotAdame coach. (shrug) I’m just sayin…

      6. “HURLS,”

        Are you a parody?!

        Please, if you Bostonians like BK so much, ask Belicheat to give him a job. Perhaps he can deflate balls, spy on practices, steal playbooks, etc.

  4. Kelly overthinks the game. When we are on the 1 yard line with one of the best offensive lines in America, why do we go into a no-back shotgun formation? Why do we throw the ball to a wide receiver on 4th and 1?
    Give your line the opportunity to play with an edge – get mean and drive the ball forward. Show some confidence in your power. Ditch the cute stuff.
    Do the same on defense, simple and mean.
    That is when the leaders will shine – they can’t when they think too much!
    I am not sure that Kelly can do this.

  5. 9-3 won’t get him fired as the opinion of the author. He would have a bowl game to get to ten wins. If ND fires you for ten wins we are in bigger trouble than we are right now. Besides that, ND doesnt care any more about titles (I’m not talking about the fans) the administration would be perfectly happy with 9-3, as long as the team is good enough for the money to keep coming in. That is the main problem, ND doesnt want Bama success at all. Glory days are gone, we may have a fantastic season here or there, but longevity of greatness is finished. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Just remember Brian Kelly is the same coach that left his players before the biggest game of their college career these were pleased he recruited he turned his back on them and just walked away and later said that if they were playing for National Championship he would have stayed in coach them that tells me he cares about nobody but himself

  7. I’m not optimistic about BK’s prospects going forward. I do agree with Greg’s questions about what happened to BK. He was a very successful coach coming to ND. I can’t just ignore his career up to that point. Cincinnati went to a BCS bowl under BK and was undefeated. That does not happen in a vacuum to a school that was basically a nobody previously. Esp. considering he had a fraction of the talent he has now at ND. Where did it all go wrong? That is a question ND needs to evaluate going forward. It does not and should not absolve BK’s responsibilities for where ND is today. But ND better do some self evaluation too. If there are outside issues affecting the teams performance, they need to fix that or we just may be in the same situation again with the next coach.

    I’m sure there will be detractors, but I do think Elko is a good hire. Wake Forest had a good defense under him and he appears to be in the Diaco school of thought for defense. I also like that Elko is not someone in the BK “family.” They need some outside voices on the coaching staff. Ditto for Polian, someone with ties to ND but outside the family. He will need to work with the special teams on basic fundamentals, but he seems to have a good rapport with players.

    While I have little belief that BK will turn things around, I hope he does. The alternative is to hope they suck next year and I can’t go down that road. I hope that I am wrong and BK does something none of us can fathom right now. I guess we can take some solace that he is currently hiring assistants outside his comfort zone, something he has not done much of before now.

    1. You have to remember this is a man that left Cincinnati right before those kids biggest game all he cares about is him self

  8. Your dream may actually come true bj!
    Remember this next year as you complain about him, you wanted him.

    December 10, 2013 at 10:19 am
    Al Borges (Michigan)

    Borges is a man who has spent a lot of time as an offensive coordinator in college football. He began his career in 1986 at Portland State. Since then, he has made several stops and been successful at every one. He helped lead UCLA in the late 90’s to an average of 31.9 points per game, and he called the plays that lead Auburn to a perfect season in 2004.

    After resigning from Auburn in 2007, Borges joined Brady Hoke at San Diego State and followed him to Michigan. Since then, he helped create an offense that allowed Denard Robinson to dominate and seemed to give Devin Gardner the same opportunities to succeed.

    1. Burgundy’s stalker files. H never posted an original thought yet…too busy creepily cataloguing everyone else’s thoughts.

      What a man. A real life super-zero.
      Head trolling librarian.

    2. I just want something better than the two jokers swarbrick and Kelly
      All the rest of it is arranging deck chairs on the titanic
      Go get Miles John harbaugh or Meyer

  9. Kelly is over his head as a Div. 1 Coach. There is plenty of talent @ Notre Dame and there is no excuse for a 4-8 record.

  10. Sure an begorra, St. Paddy drove the snakes outta Ireland. Brian Kelly has driven the non-producing coaches out of South Bend!

  11. “For whatever reason, it seems he (Kelly) hasn’t been able to turn this program into his own, to take on his personality, to adapt a signature quality that most programs do when the coach has been around for as long as Kelly has.”
    The problem might just be his teams have “taken on his personality”, which shows in his big game losses ever since he’s arrived. There is a tentative uncertainty displayed late in games, or too often at the start of them, and not just last year, overcome when one of his elites (a Fuller, a Te’o, an Eifert, a Rudolph, a Jaylon Smith) saved the day, but seldom does a strategy or a scheme seem to be the difference in ND winning. High expectation goes with being a ND HC and this year’s make-or-break pressure might well be more than BK and his players can handle. You can’t expect to win many big games when winning the big games is not what you usually do.

  12. Woah, Jack. (or Greg – author – close enough) “For all his bluster about accountability…his own lack of accountability…” STOP IT! Without a mature presence like Téo as captain, the ND football players – NOT THE COACH – are acting like irresponsible brats! do not expect BK to cover for his players who underperform and when they DO get lucky, dance-around making that damn camera-motion. THERE IS NO PLACE FOR IMMATURITY WEARING A NOTRE DAME UNIFORM. Accountability is a huge part of maturity; and s long as the kids are partying like it’s 1999 (sorry – Prince reference) any time the DO – THEIR – JOB successfully, accountability will not be seen. And maturity will remain absent. And no coach can be held responsible for that.

    1. Certainly BK cannot be held responsible for all his player’s actions, but your defense of him appears to be blind and unconditional.

    2. Hey Hurls, I remember when that kind of stuff DIDN’T happen under Holtz’s watch. Hmmm? Wonder why? Oh yeah, because his teams were disciplined and had character.

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