As Notre Dame prepares for their regular season finale against arch rival USC with a trip to the playoffs on the line for the undefeated Fighting Irish, it is impossible to ignore just how vastly different the circumstances surrounding the latest trip to Troy is for Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly. Two years ago Kelly led a 4-7 squad into slaughter to finish off one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame football history. Two years later Kelly has the Irish on the verge of a perfect regular season and has proven his doubters, myself included, very wrong.
Around this time two years ago I had seen enough from the 2016 Irish, Brian Kelly’s seventh in charge of the Fighting Irish, to be sure that the Kelly experiment had failed. Four years removed from the trip to the BCS Championship, Kelly had Notre Dame further away from a championship in 2016 than at any point in his tenure and the program needed to be rebuilt. Tweaks weren’t needed, a jackhammer needed to be taken to what Kelly had built.
Here’s what I wrote heading into that USC game.
We’ve gotten used to losing games to teams Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to and games the Irish shouldn’t lose. Saturday wasn’t any exception. How many Notre Dame fans felt uneasy even up 17-0 and then 24-7? I know I sure didn’t feel comfortable. A good friend of mine – a Virginia Tech alum – texted me after the 17-0 start with some colorful language regarding his alma mater. My response, was simply “don’t worry, this game is far from over.”
So as the losses mount and the off the field distractions and black eyes continue to pile up, one can’t help but ask when Notre Dame fans can finally stop getting used to it? That time ought to be sooner rather than later, but that would require an about face from Jack Swarbrick who gave Kelly a public vote of confidence last month.
Will Swarbrick learn his lesson from bringing Charlie Weis back in 2009 when it was clear to everyone that Weis was not going to get Notre Dame back to the top? Or will we all be stuck getting used to losses and excuses for another year?
Two years later, I can honestly say I was dead wrong and Brian Kelly proved me and everyone else – and there were many – who doubted him two years ago wrong. There were almost no rationale observers who witnessed the 2016 season at Notre Dame and gave Brian Kelly much of a chance to rebuild the Irish program. Too much work had to be redone. Head coaches with as much experience as Kelly simply don’t change enough to do what was necessary. Brian Kelly did.
After the 2016 season, Notre Dame needed a lot of changes. Many, myself argued, that head coach was one of those necessary changes. And, in a way, Notre Dame did get a new head coach that off-season. The Brian Kelly who has amassed an impressive 21-3 record since the final seconds ticked off the LA Coliseum scoreboard in that 45-27 beating two Thanksgivings ago, is not the same head who leads his squad into the same stadium with a playoff bid on the line.
At this point we all know the changes that Kelly made. He got rid of longtime friends on his staff and within the program. He hired almost essentially an entirely new coaching staff that off-season only retaining a handful of assistants. He hired Matt Balis to rebuild a strength and conditioning program that had failed at building teams that lasted until November. Maybe most importantly though, he changed how he interacted with the team and the media.
In that 2016 season ending article, I mentioned how much Kelly used the word “I” instead of “we” and how often he would reference his “25 years in the business” in his pressers. You might not have noticed, but those references are few and far between now. Brian Kelly was playing the role of CEO before 2016 and forgot how to connect with his players. He’s relearned how to do that which is honestly pretty incredible for a coach who has been doing this for so long to do. Old coaches tend to not change much.
Even looking at this season, we saw Brian Kelly do something we probably would have never seen him do in the past. He benched his starting quarterback who had a 3-0 record at the time and made a bold decision to change course. This is the same head coach who watched Deshone Kizer helplessly throw pass after pass into a hurricane in 2016 against NC State and then defended the position after the game. Two years later he was able to objectively look at his quarterback situation and decide to bench a struggling quarterback who hadn’t lost yet. The Brian Kelly that coached at Notre Dame prior to 2017 would not have made that decision.
Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out for Notre Dame, the turnaround that Brian Kelly has made is remarkable. It’s one that I honestly never thought was possible as I watched the 2016 season unfold. The same coach that in 2010 stubbornly had Tommy Rees throw into the endzone against Tulsa stubbornly had Kizer throw into a hurricane. He wasn’t going to change. But he did.
Contrast what Kelly did to what Charlie Weis attempted to do between 2008 and 2009. Weis made some changes to the coaching staff in hopes that would make a difference, but he doubled down on how he managed the team. He focused almost solely on the offensive and let Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown manage the defense. The result was an offense that could score on anyone and a defense that five years into his tenure still couldn’t stop anyone. Weis didn’t survive the 2009 season. Kelly has the Irish playing for regular season perfection.
I remember a tweet of mine from two years ago where a reader asked if I would eat crow if I turned out to be wrong. Well @IrishKG07, consider this a Pre-Thanksgiving super sized plate of crow.
If BK turns things around next season…I wonder if all you guys will man up and eat crow…
— Kyle Gibson (@IrishKG07) November 30, 2016
There is still a faction of fans within the Notre Dame fan base who will never give Kelly credit for anything short of winning the National Championship. And even then there are some will find a way to discredit it or simply refuse to ever admit they were wrong. I for one am very happy today to be writing about just how wrong I was. Not only has Kelly completely changed course from where the program was at just two years ago, but he has the program trending in the right direction and set up to be successful for years to come.
This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the fact that two years ago I was wrong and that Brian Kelly proved me wrong and has the Irish on the brink of their first playoff berth in program history.