Following the disaster that was the 2016 season, Brian Kelly has had to make a lot of bets. Beyond how awful that season was, even if the record was flipped to 8-4, things weren’t working out the way Kelly or the administration had envisioned. The program wasn’t moving forward, it had no real identity, they were just another middle of the pack program with nothing special about it beyond its rich history.
He had to overhaul everything: his coordinators, his strength program, even his own role. A lot of people who cover the program don’t want to give him credit for firing people close to him–he was forced into it they say–but, regardless, the hires he made from then on would either make or break his tenure. He brought in Chip Long on offense, and Mike Elko on defense. He brought in Matt Balis to run the strength program, and he became less CEO, more hands on with his team. These were the moves most people loved. He retained offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (who is revered), and defensive line coach Mike Elston (who moved from coaching linebackers, a retention a lot of people did not like. At all.)
But, when Kelly lost Elko after one season, Hiestand moved on to the NFL, and finally, Kelly fired Chip Long, the hires he made from there stretched from mildly controversial to downright hated. But, at this point, it has been shown that Kelly was right and the naysayers were wrong.
Clark Lea To Defensive Coordinator
This hire is looked at a lot more fondly now by people who were on the fence at the time, but this was a pretty big gamble. The best thing about Lea when he was hired is he had followed around the departed Elko for a bit, and would retain his defense from 2017, which everybody liked. But, he’d only been a position coach, had never called a defense, and hadn’t been around that long, only being 39. Lea was not a “big time” hire. Kelly promoted from within.
He was rewarded with a playoff appearance and undefeated regular season in 2018, another solid defensive season in 2019, and now in 2020 with an elite unit who never seems to miss a beat no matter who is in the game, rotates players as liberally as Notre Dame ever has, and in Lea has a coach known for masterful in-game adjustments. His defense currently ranked 8th in SP+ and he’s on the short list of a lot of head coaching openings right now.
Jeff Quinn To The Offensive Line
This was…not a popular hire. The conventional wisdom following the loss of Harry Hiestand was Notre Dame was an elite program from an offensive line standpoint and they ought to attract and hire an elite line coach. Quinn was decidedly not that. He was Brian Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and had been with him at previous stops as well, where he also coached the offensive line. It was during this time Kelly’s teams were much more spread, passing offenses, so naturally, Quinn’s lines were known for their pass blocking, not their run blocking. Not good news for the Irish faithful to say the least.
Admittedly, things were a little up and down for Quinn in 2018 and 2019 where–surprise!–his offensive lines were much better in the pass blocking game than run blocking game. 2020 really was a make or break year for Quinn given the experience he had back and the talent he was working with. Well, mark this down for a “make” on his part. The Irish are widely regarded as having among the best lines in the nation, the team has gravitated towards power running as an identity, and Quinn’s recruiting has been excellent. The offensive line is set to be stacked with talent for years to come.
This has been a huge win for Kelly on the hiring front. He was criticized for hiring another friend when that had apparently doomed him earlier, but he knew it could work and it has. And when I say criticized, I mean people said this would be his downfall. It was really unpopular. But, Kelly was right.
Tommy Rees To Offensive Coordinator
I’m not sure which “I told you so” hire is sweeter for Kelly, but I have a feeling it’s Tommy Rees to OC. Kelly has been taking it from the media and the fan base about Rees for years, first when he was a player then he was hired to coach the offense.
They didn’t want him to play QB, then they didn’t want him to coach the QB’s, they obviously didn’t want him to call the plays. But, Rees obviously had a vision for this team, and wouldn’t you know it’s the same vision every fan who loved the late 80’s and early 90’s team.
Rees has brought toughness and physicality. Notre Dame is the team that will beat you up, who keeps coming at you. And they are doing it with small running backs, recruited to play a different style. This was obviously a vision Kelly had as well, or at least bought into, or else Rees wouldn’t have been hired in the first place.
And that’s the undercurrent of the whole thing with Kelly and his hires and the way he has rebuilt this football team: he had a vision for this program and how he wanted it constructed. He wanted a tough team, he wanted a physical team. That was going to be his anchor. He found it first on defense, then on offense. Maybe there were better coordinators with better schemes and track records, but they couldn’t bring him what he wanted. Because whatever Notre Dame is now, it’s lasting.
They can play like this year after year. As good as Ian Book is–and he’s very good–other quarterbacks can do what he does. He isn’t a transcendent talent, he just embodies what this team is all about. He grinds, he fights, he makes plays, and he’s turned the corner, just as the program has.
(Oh and by the way, Brian Kelly was right to bet on Ian Book. You can add that to the list as well.)
Kelly was right about the way he wanted this program put together, and if you weren’t on board at the time then ok, that’s fine, we all like to be prognosticators. But if you aren’t board now then you are missing it, probably on purpose.