Notre Dame Football ’17: The Fall Or Rise Of The Brian Kelly Era

I think we’ve all heard at least one story regarding the transformation Brian Kelly has undergone this offseason. They have been both personal and professional in their existence. The yoga, the better diet, the introspection, the coaching changes, the weight room adjustments. As I like to say, it’s all happening. And it all sounds great, it really does. Their is genuine excitement around the new staff, the new quarterback Brandon Wimbush, and the stadium renovations.

The one somewhat glaring problem with all of this excitement is Brian Kelly is still steering this ship, and last season he steered it into a giant iceberg.

For the record, I predicted he would, and should, lose his job following the Week 7 loss at NC State last season. I was obviously incorrect as I’m now writing a story seven months later as to whether Kelly can revive his career in 2017. And while I advocated Notre Dame needed to move on, I understand why they didn’t. There weren’t really any obvious candidates, Kelly had already showed a commitment to making changes with the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick had just made a long term commitment to Kelly following 2015.

Notre Dame was really in no place to be conducting a coaching search, so bringing Kelly back with the promise of major changes made some sense. And those changes were made, all for the positive. Kelly has gotten out of his comfort zone and hired a number of coaches who he has little to no ties to, which goes against his hiring modus operandi.

But, now Brian Kelly is a very different version that got him hired at Notre Dame in the first place. We have less information for how this will turn out than we’ve ever had.

Brian Kelly In 2009

Brian Kelly was hired out of Cincinnati  because of his high powered offense–they were 11th in total offense in 2009, going at a clip of 6.98 yards/play, 2nd in the nation–and his reputation as a program builder. At Central Michigan, he took a team that was 10-25 in the three seasons before he was hired, went 19-16 in the next three, while winning the MAC championship. He moved on to Cincinnati where he was even more impressive.

They went 34-6 in his three seasons there, including a 12-0 record before leaving prior to the bowl game to accept the Notre Dame job.

I’ve said it before, but part of the calculus of athletic director Jack Swarbrick in deciding whether to retain Kelly for the 2017 season had to have been there was no candidate in the 2017 coaching pool who matched that of 2009 Brian Kelly. Kelly was a better and more impressive coach than all those who moved jobs. How could he have sold that to the fan base?

The fact is, Brian Kelly in 2009 was a very good hire.

Brian Kelly In 2016

The problem is, as good a hire as Kelly was, at least on paper, it appears that it was a miss. And the reason we know that is because not only was last season a poor season, it was so poor that it would disqualify him from getting hired at a school similar to Notre Dame had he been available. Or put another way, if Brian Kelly was coming off a season like the one he just had in 2009, he would not have been hired as the Notre Dame head coach. In a sense, Notre Dame’s current head coach is not someone they would hire again, at least in my opinion.

And it isn’t just that they were bad, but why they were bad. It was basically dysfunctional. There was a laissez faire attitude when it came to the weight room, a toxic quarterback competition, and a lack of fundamentals on defense.

It was a break down of everything Kelly stood for when he was hired in 2010. He talked about a tough football team that paid attention to detail. He talked about getting rid of the entitlement attitude he felt was pervasive within the program.

All of those flaws were on full display for Notre Dame in 2016. And all after a 10-3 season. Did they think they had reached the point where maintenance was all that was needed? After 10-3?

There is a line in the movie “Gladiator” where the General Maximus calls his troops “lean and hungry” prior to going into battle. Notre Dame in 2016 can only be described as “fat and bored.”

Notre Dame's Miles Boykin, Ian Book Get Titanic Theme Treatment

Brian Kelly In 2017

The question I have going into 2017 is, where does Brian Kelly fit into all the positive changes going on around the football team?

I love defensive coordinator Mike Elko. I love Chip Long running the offense. What they have brought to the team is fresh and exciting.

But, what is the thing that Brian Kelly is bringing to the team, and why do I think it will be successful? He’s an offensive mind who is now letting someone else run and call the offense. He’s a program builder who let his program become a complete mess of dysfunction.

What does he now bring to the table that separates him from other coaches around the country? What is his strength? It’s fascinating in a way because we have no idea what to expect, we haven’t seen Kelly at this stage of a program since 1999 with Grand Valley State and I don’t need to mention the cavernous difference between the two programs.

Who knows, maybe he’ll be excellent at the CEO version of himself, dipping his hand into all facets of the team instead of solely focusing on the offense. And maybe we are completely underestimating what this team is capable of because of the foundational failures of the 2016 Fighting Irish, that have since been rectified.

It’s also possible Kelly is completely out of his element without full control over one side of the ball, doesn’t know how to manage it and this season is also doomed before it starts. It’s hard to really get a grasp of what we’re going to witness in 2017 due to the newness of everything surrounding the program. It really does feel like there was a coaching change, except those changes were made by the man who previously failed, and is even trying to change himself.

So I say good luck predicting what is going to take place in the revamped Notre Dame stadium come September 2nd, because as far as I can tell it’s just a guess whether we are seeing the ascension of descension of Brian Kelly’s career.

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  1. Jim LaSota 2 months ago

    Brian Kelly is the second worst coach in ND history behind Bob Davie. I’ve never seen a more stubborn, arrogant coach than Brian Kelly. He is seemingly as arrogant as Nick Saban but without any championships. ND administration must now know he can’t win the big game. He simply cannot adjust his game plan during big games. Miami was clearly shutting down Josh Adan’s last night, but Kelly just kept running him anyway. Not only did it lead to a massive rout in Miami, but it also killed Josh Adams’ NFL draft value. Good job, Kelly. I hope you get fired soon. The Lord knows you deserve it.

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  2. C-Dog 8 months ago

    Moderators may be on vacation. Previous comment has been held up for two days.

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  3. C-Dog 8 months ago

    For those who are 30 years old or younger. Realize this. Those of us over 45 have real recollections of a Notre Dame program that was a perennial powerhouse. One of if not THE best. It was amazing because of how they did it. The stadium wasn’t huge and was pretty basic. Tickets were not over priced. And they didn’t add gimmicks every time the team won most or all of its games.
    Now the up and coming ticket buyers pay an obscene premium. Sky boxes and unbelievable amenities abound in and around the stadium. Everything in and around South Bend is for sale. “See the dirt that Rockne’s Dog pee’d on for $45. “. It’s all very Disney esk. All for a team that is ho hum a little above average since 1994.
    You guys are getting ripped off. It’s a sales scam. They need to feel financial pain so they really come clean and get back to basics. Until then, whether it’s Kelly or the next guy or the one after that, you’ll get what you got. A team that has seasons between 10-3 and 4-8, while they charge prices based on hope. They are marketing vampires and it’s your blood.

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  4. bruce johnson 8 months ago

    Brian Kelly is a joke. The only reason he is still here is that Swarbrick is a
    bigger joke. He refuses to admit his mistake. He is in total denial.
    Arrogant. There is no more Irish
    football, just incompetents interested in job security. Father Jenkins? What can I say about a guy that invites a
    Vp that sells his country out to our enemy in exchange for power and
    money. They are all lost souls.

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  5. david 8 months ago

    Charlie Weis was a big, fat, BSer who can’t coach.
    Brian Kelly is a small, fat, BSer who can’t coach.

    Let’s see what he walks with.

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  6. Bruce Gregory Curme 8 months ago

    Greg is right about this being the rise or fall of Coach BK. I said earlier in a different post that BK is going to try to win a NC later in his career – which as “A68Domer” noted is not the usual 3rd year magic. But if Kelly can do it, he has 2012 as his bona fides, as I’ve also said before. If he fails this year, I think he will move on. I like the staff he has now – it’s the best he’s had since 2012, and maybe ever. The way the defense can put 4, 5 or even 6 guys on the line of scrimmage without changing personnel is awesome – perhaps the face of the future of defensive football in a hurry up, no huddle, no subs environment. And it looks like we are solid at running back, and with our quarterbacks. I worry about our “O” line all the time though. Dan Devine once said “the team with the biggest tackles wins.” Dan was often accused by people who did not know him as being a quiet reclusive mild mannered professor type guy. He actually could be quite brutal – he used Yonto and Kelly’s defense to keep the scores low while his “O” linemen and running backs pounded away to the breaking point of the other team. Not very flashy, but we won a lot of games. We could use a little bit of that approach from our tackles. The only answer I’ve ever found in my lifetime to failure is to 1. scrap it and start over, and 2. work harder and smarter. Coach Kelly has done part 1 by hiring a new OC – it’s up to the linemen themselves to do part 2. Coach Kelly can’t do it for them – neither can the fans.

    Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 8 months ago

      Just to clarify, when I said I think BK will move on after this year “if he fails” I did not mean “fails to win the NC” (which is what it might have sounded like). I meant if he fails to have a good season, keep us in the discussion into November, and win a decent bowl. In other words, turn it around.

      Bruce G. Curme
      La Crosse, Indiana

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    2. Damian 8 months ago

      Yeah, I agree. I think BK really has a make or break year. Another season like last and he’s gone. The question will be what do they do if he goes, say 8-4 then wins an upper tier bowl game? I know a lot of Irish fans will think that’s insufficient, and frankly I probably would be in that camp. The only thing that might give me a change of heart is if I see real turnaround in their play in all aspects of the game. If I can say at the end of the year, yeah, they’re on their way to a playoff the next year. I’m not really sure how you quantify that except to just see how they play next year. Do they look hungry at the end of the year? Did they blow out teams in games they won, did they play top teams on their schedule to the wire? And most importantly do they have sound fundamentals? Are they tackling well, are they making the right plays and does the play calling make sense, are the players executing well? Those will be the things I will be looking for as a fan.

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      1. southside 8 months ago

        Damian — If Kelly goes 8-4 , He should be gone ! Your “change of heart”–is exactly what Swarbick would do. I and many Irish fans are sick and tired of 8 win seasons on average under Coach Kelly. The “Bar” for Notre Dame football success is 10 wins. An 8-4 2017 campaign is not acceptable — despite any improvements you happen to deem a good probable cause to keep Kelly for 2018. Bottom line is 10/11 wins a season to keep in the hunt for playoffs. I give a rat’s ass who are coach is –whether famous or an upstart. If 2017 Irish win 10/11 — Kelly is good for me coming back — anything less — get rid of him.

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      2. Bruce Gregory Curme 8 months ago

        Well Damian, I think you’ve hit the nightmare scenario. 8-4 with a win like LSU was in the 2014 bowl. Deja vu all over again. He needs a 2015 season with a New Year’s bowl win to keep his job in my eyes. But the ND Administration doesn’t look at things through my eyes. Good to hear from you again Damian!

        Bruce G. Curme
        La Crosse, Indiana

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      3. Damian 8 months ago

        I tend to agree. 8-4 on the surface would likely not be good enough for me on the face of it. A certain unique set of circumstances would have to play out for me to change my mind about that, as I noted. But Southside is right, it wouldn’t really matter what any of us think. 8-4 would likely satisfy the real powers at ND and convince them that’s progress. Everyone outside of ND fandom will probably think that’s improvement, the seat would cool off and media pundits will then go on to say ND is moving in the right direction.

        In a way 8-4 is probably the worse thing that could happen. It wouldn’t be the progress fans think are needed at this point, but it’s not bad enough to get him fired. Really from my perspective one of two scenarios would be ideal. They have a losing season and BK would likely be fired at that point. I do think Swarbick probably put the pressure on there–BK went outside his comfort zone for more that just pride, he was probably told another losing season and he’s outside looking in—OR—ND has a complete turnaround, is in contention for a playoff spot and at the very minimum wins a NY Day 6 bowl.

        Personally I’d prefer option 2. I’d rather win now. Option 1 means BK is fired and we literally are back to square one. And with any coaching change that not only means lost assistants–some of whom are worth keeping–and more importantly lost recruits. Inevitably any coaching change leads to lost recruiting. Then we’re looking at 2 to 3 years of rebuilding under a new coach. It’s a lot easier if they can just get the job done now.

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  7. Damian 8 months ago

    I’ve said numerous times that at this point, the proof will be in the pudding. I thought BK should have been fired, the Duke game was my eye opening game. Everything that came after was just more evidence of that. I’d like to think, and I hope, that these changes result in a complete turnaround of the record. It’s just at this point BK has exhausted his 2nd chances and now it’s time for ND to succeed, no excuses.

    The biggest parallel I can think of is the NY Giants under Tom Coughlin in the 2007 season leading to the 2008 Superbowl win. Prior to the 2007, I and a lot of Giants fans thought Coughlin was through (after 3 seasons in that case). The Giants weren’t improving and Coughlin is certainly a purple faced, scream at you type coach. But they kept him on for a 4th year. In the offseason, however, Coughlin did a complete self re-evaluations, adjusted his coaching style and became more engaged with his players. The result was a Superbowl win.

    BK has made a similar about face in his coaching style, and by all reports the players have responded, which is important. The players, more than anyone else, have to buy into BK’s style and they have to believe in him to succeed. Now it seems like it’s them against the world. No one out there believes in their ability to win a NC, and in a way that might be a good thing. No one’s really paying attention to ND right now. There’s no preseason top 10 ranking for them, no hype. Everyone’s talking about Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, USC, etc. ND isn’t even mentioned in those conversations. In a way, it allows them to start with a clean slate. Now all they have to worry about is playing the game. There will be no distractions going into this year, there are new coaches on both sides of the ball that will be staring at ND 0-0, and no QB controversy. Basically, outside ND fandom, all is quiet for the Irish.

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  8. Ian Ross 8 months ago

    I have yet to see the Brian Kelly offence that terrorized the MAC and the Big East. Could blame NBC and the TV time-outs for slowing down things but I don’t want to watch a ground-based Big Ten offence and I don’t like seeing the quarterback look to the bench on every play with the play clock running. He better find his true identity this season. Made no sense to fire Kelly last year. It’s not as if Notre Dame is a dream coaching job.

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  9. ChrisJ 8 months ago

    I was certainly questioning Kelly’s leadership last year and wondered if was truly the right fit for ND. I still like the guy and I think he made ALL of the right moves this offseason by taking all of the feedback by players, coaches, AD, etc. and applying it to begin this 2017 season. I know we have a “younger” team this season but sometimes that can be pretty exciting and refreshing with new faces everywhere. I’m very excited for the season. I’m excited to see what the new coaches and players bring to the table. I think this year’s team is going to be “hungry” and we will all see the difference. I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan too and the feel is similar with their team considering how many new young players they have. Expectations aren’t exactly the highest but the team is playing hungry with a chip on their shoulder that they won’t do much this season. They are starting to prove some people wrong and I’m hoping this 2017 ND team does the same!

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  10. Jordan sarracino 8 months ago

    Kellys was playing with ” Boys” hopefully they have grown up and know their positions. It’s up to Kelly’s new staff, and the maturity and will of these young men to make the season successful. It’s not in Kelly’s hands it’s the coaches and the recruites. They are the key to any coaches success or failure. Put the blame on them!

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  11. A68Domer 8 months ago

    BK apparently found a comfort zone with all the balls he juggles as the Head Football Coach at ND. He just forgot to focus sufficiently on the Team. Exit interviews with the players hilited this too. He did keep BVG around way too long. If this is truly a new beginning, do we now look to 2019 for the legendary “third year magic?” We all hope it comes sooner, but a NC in ’19 wouldn’t be too shabby!

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  12. q2333 8 months ago

    Good article, despite ruffling the feathers of delusional supporters of mediocrity

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  13. Bruce Gregory Curme 8 months ago

    There better be more at work than we can process, especially with the offensive line, or we will be out of the national championship discussion by the end of September again, for the fourth time in eight years. It’s not just about 2016, sir.

    Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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    1. HURLS 8 months ago

      Bruce – Forgive me. I’ve just been analyzing the negative analyses and have heard too much. Too much “piling-on.” Maybe I keep perspective a little too much – and then lose it when making my argument. But hey – at least we make these boards entertaining eh?

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      1. Bruce Gregory Curme 8 months ago

        I hope the “piling on” ends before the season starts. Someone out there in the Catholic Disneyland has heard us – all the new coaches are evidence of that. The new coaches deserve a clean shot, and I think they’ll get it from most of us.
        Bruce G. Curme
        La Crosse, Indiana

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  14. p 8 months ago

    I said starting Kelly’s year 3 he would not win big until he brought in big time coordinators and a great strength and conditioning program. My gut is Long, Elko, Polian and Bails strength and conditioning coach makes a huge difference. The key to the season imho are the first 2 games. Win them both will give them the confidence for a big turn around.

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  15. Hodood 8 months ago


    Only way to see “good” Irish football this fall will be if you are watching replays of seasons past.

    Authors only mistake is giving BK another chance. Shame on anyone who hasn’t seen enough of this regime.

    Enjoy Wimbush while you can. Like all QBs at ND under BK…his first day will be his best day.

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  16. HURLS 8 months ago

    Greg Flammang? (author) To sound like my late Great-Aunt, “Thank you for coming. You may leave.” In other words, youare just remarking the obvious (to the Debbie-downers) and we don’t need it. Be quiet. There is more at work than you are obviously able to process in your judgment. But hey – you do work for a big-time web-site; and I suppose it’s always good to present columns that are easily-understood. So good riddance – I plan on watching some kick-ass (good) Irish football this year.

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    1. Irish 8 months ago

      I agree with Hurls. Continuing to write negative articles about Kelly is stupid. Write them after the season is over, then once they decided to move forward with Kelly then move on and start being positive about 2017. You know that these 2018 recruits read this garbage. If everyone is saying Kelly is gone after 2017, why would they commit to the Irish? It’s time to be a grown-up and move on! #GoIrish

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    2. knuterockne13 8 months ago

      Hurls, the article is called the Rise OR Fall of BK. The essence of the writing is that is difficult to predict what type of squad we are going to see this year. I am not so sure what you are complaining about?

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    3. Greg Flammang 8 months ago

      First, thanks for reading. Second, I know people like to emphasize the positive, especially in the spring. But, I looked back at a lot of my coverage last season, and I gave a lot of benefit of the doubt when there were some obvious red flags. I think it’s important to acknowledge there are questions, and we just don’t know how this will go. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone I I just blew sunshine, especially when I didn’t feel that way. Opposing views are always welcome.

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    4. Ryan 8 months ago

      Something to read is better than nothing Hurls. This site has been dead for the past couple of weeks.

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      1. kevhurls 8 months ago

        Good point, Ryan. Makes it worthwhile to visit this site!

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