Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly Was Right, Everyone Else Was Wrong

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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Comments

  1. Brian Kelly danced and dodged a bullet by avoiding getting fired when he most certainly earned it. Swarbrick’s gutless laziness was a real storke of luck.
    And he has since banked a lot more money, instead of having to look for a lesser job which would have most certainly paid him less.
    But after his recent, monumental achievement of finally notching a signature win….against a Clemson team missing its MVP and star QB….this ridiculous article gets written.
    For crissakes. The bar for throwing a parade at ND has really gotten low.

    1. This article isn’t about the Clemson win alone. It is about 42-6 since 2016. You cannot deny that remarkable turnaround. Credit is due.

      1. “Remarkable turnarounds” can only occur following complete and abject failure.

        “Hey mister shopkeeper, remember me? I’m the really great kid who picked up all the cans I knocked over.”
        —-Dennis the Menace.

    2. No one’s throwing him a parade, but you don’t get to disregard what he’s accomplished since the 2016 season. If Swarbrick had fired Coach Kelly after 2016, NOT ONLY would Brian still get all that contract money you’re whining about, but we would absolutely not be in the position we’re in today. After 2017, we’ve been at least in the conversation for the playoffs in every single year, and the last hurdle standing in our way – beating a top-ranked team – was accomplished this year. IF we get crushed by Clemson on Dec. 19, then you can come back here and talk shit.

      I’m with Greg – Brian Kelly has redeemed himself. We’ll see what happens in a couple weeks in the rematch against Clemson, but he’s definitely earned all the praise he’s getting this year.

      1. “….we would absolutely not be in the position we’re in today.”
        Notwithstanding the impossibility of knowing alternative futures, I’ll bet you aren’t part of the team.
        You’re just another of the pathetic fools who recasts bad as good, and hopes for good to beat great.

      2. You can assume all you want, if you want to make an ass out of u and not so much me. I’m not going to get into who I am, other than a fan and alumnus/a of our Lady’s university. I’ll grant that we don’t KNOW what would have happened if we’d canned Coach Kelly after 2016, but considering the paths that his likely replacements have taken in the meantime, I’m happy with our choice of sticking with him. Regardless, OTHER than actually winning a national championship, what else has Coach Kelly not accomplished?

        SINCE we’re assuming, I’ll bet you’re not a real ND fan. You actually sound more like an SEC troll. So, david the SEC troll, who would you have hired in 2017 to replace Brian Kelly? You enjoy whining a lot about him, but you don’t offer any solutions, just a lot of annoying noise. Tell us who you would have replaced Coach Kelly with that would have taken us farther than 42-6 with one (and by this time next month two) national championship tournament slots?

      3. 1) “we would absolutely not be in the position we’re in today”…
        Again……notwithstanding the impossibility of knowing alternative futures, I’ll bet you aren’t part of the team.

        2) “the last hurdle standing in our way – beating a top-ranked team – was accomplished:
        National Champions 2020! Call up the foundry and order that statue!

        3) When ND gets pummelled, I won’t need to “come back here and talk shit”. The rest of you mindless bandwagon lemmings will be more than glad to do it then.

  2. I was least concerned about Clark Lea. Elko was moving the defense in the right direction, you could already see it during his brief tenure, and Lea was clearly an Elko apprentice. I was a bit surprised Elko didn’t try to take Lea with him (though maybe he did and Lea turned him down when offered the DC position at ND). Lea obviously is his own man, but he learned a lot from his time with Elko and that shows up on the field. I’m actually worried some other school may try to poach Lea away from ND. ND isn’t known for paying its assistants top dollar and we have lost some coaches to lateral moves for more money.

    I’ll admit, I was a Rees doubter. Not so much because I thought he’d be a bad OC. My concerns were more the lack of experience. Rees could have gone either way based on what little we knew about him since he was only a QB coach for a few brief years. ND’s offense wasn’t awful before Rees, but it wasn’t progressing. And we’ve had a real QB development issue (and some of that was while Rees was QB coach). It seemed our QB’s plateaued early and then regressed, over and over again. We had how many QB’s over the years come in with so much promise only to end up warming the bench. This is the first time in a long time I’ve seen a QB actually get better, and I have to give Rees and his assistants working with Book credit. Book is actually looking better and stronger this year. He’s always been a running threat, but his passes have improved and his decision making has gotten better.

    So when it comes to Rees, I have to say he’s done a pretty good job. And I’m glad to see Book is getting better. I was one of the ones railing against the lost of Jurkovec. I thought we saw the best of Book already. A tough kid, but not one that’s going to beat top level teams. But with the right coaching he’s moved in the right direction. Unlike Lea, I’m not yet worried about losing Rees to other teams. It’s still early and other schools won’t try to poach him away with higher pay…..yet. But if ND’s offense continues to improve under Rees other schools may come calling in another 2 or 3 years.

  3. Kelly told us what he wanted back in the day when Stanford was whipping our butts on the line. They were big and they were tough they used a big offensive line with jumbo tight ends and always a better than average QB. That’s what Kelly wanted. Expect K. Williams to be on the Heisman list for the next couple of years.

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