Brian Kelly Proved Doubters, Including Me, Very Wrong

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly celebrates a Notre Dame TD vs. Northwestern.

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.”

I was ready for Notre Dame to move on.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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32 comments

  1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 weeks ago

    “Any JACKASS can kick down a barn, but it takes a skilled carpenter to build one.” Sam Rayburn

    BGC ’77 ’82

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  2. Dick Matyie 3 weeks ago

    Didn’t see anything about Swarbrick who direcyed this turnaround

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  3. david 3 weeks ago

    Brian Kelly wanders the sidelines like a lost retiree. He occasionally awakes to argue a blown call, but otherwise he’s checked out, and quite possibly medicated.
    On TV, he looks like Joe Paterno circa 2006.

    If you think that Mr. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years” is now a new and improved product of frank and humble self-awareness, fine. I highly doubt it.

    Kelly chose Wimbush as the season’s starting QB. He did that.

    Defense has, once again, been NDs most important weapon, in a season defined by road games. Defense travels.
    Kelly has never had any interest on that side of the ball.

    Dexter Williams…unreal. Makes Kelly look like a genius. Chip Kelly.

    Great season for ND. Because Kelly has had much less to do with it than ever before.

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    1. david 3 weeks ago

      Ooops…Chip Long. Freudian.

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      1. Greg Kelly 3 weeks ago

        Pitching your own private reruns, yeah, you are in your own private twilight zone.

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    2. Rick 3 weeks ago

      No way Brian Kelly I is responsible for his coaching staff or player development. You could totally do it better. You should apply to be his replacement. Sheesh.

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    3. ndcrazymike 3 weeks ago

      Thank you dopey davey for still proving no matter how stupid and pathetically inept you are you always find a way to show that you truly are a horses ass!!! Willie Taggert really made an impact at FLA. ST as you predicted, setting the team back 43 years by not making a bowl game and finishing below 6 wins!! OLE FROSTY’S time is coming, unfortunately the same can’t be said for your other pick of the year coach who went to NEBRASKA and set that team back 60 years!! We all thought we wouldn’t hear from you again this year ( only a jackass would come back after being wrong about every single post this year ) but I have to hand it to you, you are the dumbest S.O.B. I’ve ever read in my life!! Don’t forget to not watch the game again this week stupid!!!! OBTW looks like KELLY win or lose from here out will be back next year, hopefully you won’t!!

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    4. Bob Rodes 3 weeks ago

      “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.”

      Case in point. Looks like Frank called that one right.

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  4. Rick 3 weeks ago

    Thank you for this… this article is incredibly refreshing. Wondering if Coach D is capable of such reflection…

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  5. bob 3 weeks ago

    When did the Irish play in the Cottan Bowl? Never heard of that bowl.

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    1. ndcrazymike 2 weeks ago

      I meant COTTON BOWL BOOB!!

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  6. ndcrazymike 3 weeks ago

    STILL one Game to go guys SATURDAY NITE in what has been in the past the HOUSE OF HORRORS for the IRISH!! For me the memory of the ” 74 game ” when we led 24-6 at halftime and were headed to the ORANGE BOWL and a rematch for the NAT. TITLE with BAMA , blew up in the second half being outscored 49-0!! There were rumors of a big brawl in ND’S locker at halftime articles out west reported it and ARA told FATHER TED he would b resigning at the end of the year!! #1 defense in the country gave up 49 pts in one half! WHAT HAPPENED? Or in ” 70 ” when THIESMAN and the IRISH went out for the final game and a rematch in the COTTAN BOWL against #! TEXAS, for the NAT TITLE Only to be upset by a mediocre SC team!! THIS IS OUR BIGGEST RIVALRY and our most HATED opponent lets win this game and get out of LA 12-0!! HAPPY THANKSGIVING GUYS!!!! GO IRISH!!!

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    1. Greg Kelly 3 weeks ago

      NDCM, glad you said what needed to be said. My brother has framed in his garage the phantom td, where the ball popped loose at the one. I was at that game in end zone and saw zebras signal td. Very disappointing loss. And then the Paul McDonald fumble that was ruled incomplete pass that also would have given Irish the Victory. “ one small step for the Irish, one giant STOMP for the FIGHTIN IRISH”

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    2. bob 3 weeks ago

      When did the Irish play in the Cottan Bowl? Never heard of that bowl.

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  7. Fitz 3 weeks ago

    Excellent article and recap of the necessary changes Kelly made to right what looked like a sinking
    ship in 2016. The one key factor not mentioned is the outstanding recruiting that has resulted in the deepest and broadest talent ND has had in over 20 years. I never thought I’d utter the phase, “ there are
    no holes” but this team fits that platitude. I too, think we can beat Clemson; but it will take a near
    perfect game to beat Alabama, assuming they take out UM. But, first a win in LA is needed.

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  8. David Kaminski 3 weeks ago

    Coach of the Year….

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  9. Joe D’Angelo 3 weeks ago

    I was one of the few willing to give BK another chance, and here’s why. I’m a NY Giants fan. After the disappointing 2006 season and a lot of turmoil talk coming out of the locker room, Tom Coughlin was on the hot seat but was given another chance. He reinvented himself, stopped being such a dictator in the locker room and became more of a players coach. Would end practices early and take the team bowling, let them have some fun, it worked and the next year the giants were SB champs. So I was
    Hopeful for BK and gladly he proved me right.

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    1. Damian 2 weeks ago

      Yeah. I’m a Giants fan myself and remember that year. And I was one of those calling for his head. I can tell you 2 Superbowls later I was happy to be wrong.

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  10. positive pete 3 weeks ago

    I am super thankful that you wrote this article!!!!!! Kelly has done an amazing job and yes he reinvented his style leading to a fantastic year!!!! Super duper happy 😀😀😀with all the improvements.
    You betcha I am!!!! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!! I plan to eat a lot of turkey and 😴 😴 😴 Go Irish!!!!☘️ ☘️ ☘️

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    1. Greg Kelly 3 weeks ago

      PP, welcome back. We were in business and my Dad would say over and over, stressing POSITIVE ONLY. Hope you have a good tail gate party at Notre Dame upcoming playoff appearance. I know you won’t have crow on the menu.

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  11. MikeME74 3 weeks ago

    I think too many fans forget the MASSIVE academic and injury woes ND endured during that time period. BK’s assistant coach selections sure didn’t help either.

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  12. Jim McManus 3 weeks ago

    Winning cures all ills.

    No coach is loved when the team is down.

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  13. Bc 3 weeks ago

    A win on Saturday and it’s the second undefeated regular season. 10 wins in three of the last four seasons. Recruiting and development both trending up.

    I believe ND will beat Clemson and get a rematch with Alabama. ND is back but we will find out if they are all the way back or more work needs to be done. This team seems much more like a contender than the 2012 team. Can’t wait to watch it unfold

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    1. Damian 3 weeks ago

      I do believe ND should have a better showing this year than they did in 2012. They have a solid defense (though the 2012 may arguably have been a bit better) and a good offense (which they didn’t have in 2012). ST’s is the biggest problem right now.

      My concern with Alabama is their offense has been more explosive I think then 2012 and while their defense was a bit of a question mark to start the season, that’s improved quite a bit since the beginning of the season. I’m not sure ND has the tools in place to beat them this year—but I’m not sure many teams are.

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      1. Doc Savage 3 weeks ago

        If Citadel can score 14 on Alabama and be tied with them going into the half, why can’t the Irish score 28 on them going into the end of the game with them?

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      2. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 weeks ago

        Doc, it looks like it will take a team with an excellent “D” like ND, Clemson, or Michigan around 32 points to beat BAMA (assuming NO special teams screw ups, of course). A team with an average “D” will need around twice that number…60 to 70 points.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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  14. Damian 3 weeks ago

    I tend to agree, though I’m still not 100% sold yet. But I agree that in a sense ND almost did get a new HC. I’ll give BK credit for losing the stubborn streak and remaking his coaching style and his staff. That’s not easy to do. He’s reconnected with his players and they seem to like and respect their coach. That’s important because if they don’t like or respect him, they’re not going to put themselves on the line out on the field as much. Also he doesn’t seem to get purple faced with raged at his players like he used to. That’s not to say he doesn’t get upset and yell at his players when they screw up but there’s a crucial difference. He’s not throwing tantrums at them. It’s more the “I know you can do better” kind of yelling and not the “You just ruined the game for me” type of rant. And of course he gets angry at bad calls but that’s normal.

    I’m glad to see the team continues to play at a high level this year. Last year’s Miami game was a huge let down in so many ways (which actually started at the 2nd half of WF to be honest). They seemed gassed and shell-shocked. I’m not seeing that this year. And another significant moment was when BW had to start against FSU. He played hard and as well as he could. He made mistakes but he made sure to lead the offense to a win. Whatever the coaching staff has done, they have made sure BW was not dejected. He played his heart out and hopefully he’ll see the field again in a ND uniform this year (and not because of injury but because he has something to contribute).

    But as to my skepticism. Well it has served me well thus far. Perhaps I don’t want to jinx it. Once I buy in they’ll fall apart, that sort of thing. I like what I see but I want to see more. First beat USC, in fact, I’d like to see another rout. While I hate to see anyone unemployed, we should see Helton have the same fate as Willingham due to a rout, only the other way around this time.

    And as much as I want to believe, I have a hard time seeing them beat a team like Alabama. But then, that probably goes for most teams so I’m not sure you could hold that against ND. But I’ll still root for the upset.

    As disappointed and even upset I was about BK in 2016, I’d still love to see the team hoist a NC Trophy in 2019. I’d gladly eat crow myself. I started following ND closely in 2002. All my pro-teams have won their respective NC’s since then. ND is the lone holdout. I’d love to see what it is like for ND to have a NC under it’s belt as a fan (instead of historically)

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    1. Patrick 3 weeks ago

      I’ve been holding out for a NC since 1993. I was too young to remember the ‘88 team.

      As for facing Bama, 9 out of 10 times Bama wins, probably by double digits. But there is always that one day. Giants vs 18-0 Patriots in 2008, 2011, Cavs beating the Warriors in 7 games, Cubs coming back from 3-1 to win the World Series, Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees in 2004, even ND women hoops last year winning the title.

      It’s speculation at this point, until ND beats SC. But, this is the best ND team I’ve seen since 1993 by far. Is it good enough for a title? We are going to find out.

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  15. Greg Kelly 3 weeks ago

    Wonder if the “ mythical “ Davey can admit He was totally wrong. For His punishment He can write it on the chalkboard 12 times. Mea culpa.

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    1. Damian 3 weeks ago

      BJ was another one. Haven’t seen him around for a long time.

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  16. Norman Dillrod 3 weeks ago

    Just so it’s clear — it was Kelly’s game plan to throw in a hurricane, not Kizer’s.

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    1. Frank Vitovitch 3 weeks ago

      I don’t believe the article even suggests that it was Kizer’s game plan.

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