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.”
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.