SOUTH BEND — Chip Long doesn’t have to sneak into Brian Kelly’s practices anymore.
In Jan. 2003, North Alabama’s freshman tight end was a stranger in his own practice facility, watching Kelly work from the sideline.
On Monday, Notre Dame’s 33-year-old offensive coordinator stood to Kelly’s right in a gold jacket and tie, folded his hands at his waist and smirked ever-so-slightly for a string of photos.
A lot has changed in 14 years, and Long and Kelly’s paths have again collided.
“Even when he was at Grand Valley State and I was at North Alabama, when they were winning those national championships (in 2002 and 2003) they had to come to Florence to practice (because the Division II national championship game was held in Florence, Ala.), and I was able to sneak in and watch his offense work,” Long said on Monday. “I was always just really, really impressed with his rise in the profession, from Central Michigan to Cincinnati.”
Long has made a similar ascension, leap-frogging from Illinois to Arizona State to Memphis, and now to Notre Dame, in his 11 years as a collegiate coach.
But before he called plays for a Memphis offense that averaged 38.8 points per game last season, and before he answered questions for nearly an hour at a table inside the Loftus Center on Monday, Long caught a glimpse of his future in Florence, Ala.
“Just watching them, it was like a machine at practice,” Long said of Kelly’s Grand Valley State Lakers. “Seeing him interact with the players and coaching the quarterback was fascinating to me. To see a guy who has worked his way to the top — because I was a DII player — I have nothing but great respect for that guy.”
The feeling is mutual.
It must be, for Kelly to say what he said on Monday.
“On the offensive side of the ball, I was looking for, first and foremost, a play-caller,” Notre Dame’s eighth-year head coach said, standing at a podium in a blue suit and purple tie.
It’s startling enough that Kelly — a 27-year head coaching veteran and seasoned offensive play-caller — passed the playbook at all, especially following a 4-8 season that left him sizzling on one of the country’s hottest seats. But to delegate that role to a 33-year-old with just one year of experience calling plays?
That highlights Kelly’s priorities as much as it showcases his synchronicity with Long.
“One of the first things that I did (this offseason) is that I sat down and did exit interviews with 96 players, current players, as well as players that were leaving,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get their feedback on things that went on during the season, good and bad.
"One of the things that was pretty consistent across the board was that when I spent time on defense, our defensive personnel — and players, in particular — really enjoyed having me part of that day-to-day schedule. Most of the time I'm on the offensive side of the ball.
“So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides — offensive, defensive — and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody (else) calling plays.”
Not just somebody, though. The right somebody.
So, what makes Long the right somebody for Notre Dame?
“As I looked around the country, I was able to compile a very short list of guys that called plays through my eyes. In other words, the way I like our offense to look,” Kelly explained. “And the guy that kept coming to the top of the list was Chip Long.
“Not only did he call offenses in a similar fashion, but I loved the way he called the game. He was able to use the running game late in games. He didn't rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. He utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward, with the great depth that we have at that position.
"So as I was able to move through the process of identifying, Chip just kept coming up on the list. Then I spent some time with him, and it was pretty clear that I had found my guy as our next offensive coordinator.”
The suitor’s reasoning is easy enough to understand. But what about Long — an up-and-comer with a lot of options?
Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator saw South Bend as an opportunity, not a sinking ship.
“There was a bunch of guys (on staff) who had been with coach (Kelly) for a long time, and I didn’t know how they’d take a 33-year-old coach coming in and running the show,” Long said. “I left a great staff, and we had all our players coming back (at Memphis), so I wanted to make sure it was a perfect deal or I wasn’t going to be able to make the trip.
"Then when I visited with coach and he explained everything, and guys (from the previous staff) were able to get other jobs, it really was enticing. You don’t turn Notre Dame down. It’s been a dream of mine to coach at a level like this, but I wanted to make sure it was a fit with the staff.”
So, here’s how it all fits: Long will call plays and coach the tight ends — all six of them — while collaborating with Kelly on an offensive vision. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand and running backs coach Autry Denson both return, and DelVaughn Alexander — who Long coached with for four years at Arizona State — will oversee the wide receivers.
As for the system itself, Notre Dame will run Kelly’s offense, but with some of Long’s additions and twists.
It will be familiar, but far from identical.
It will also be very fast.
“We’re going to go extremely fast,” Long said. “It’s quarterback-driven, and it showcases playmakers and putting those guys in position to make one-on-one plays. As a coach, that’s my job, to get you into a one-on-one (situation).
“It’s a very player-driven offense. We don’t just call plays for the sake of calling plays. We try to get our guys in the best position to be successful. It’s going to be a run, play-action, very aggressive (offense), and we’re going to take a lot of shots downfield.”
When Long assesses the personnel that will soon express his scheme, he doesn’t see a lost cause. He hasn’t grabbed the reins of an offense high on youth but low on talent.
He sees pain, and potential. He sees the remnants of a 4-8 record, and a willingness to change.
“That’s what’s been so refreshing for me: you can see it in our kids’ eyes,” Long said. “Every day, they’ve got to walk on campus, and they didn’t go to a bowl game, so they had a month off at home and they were hearing all about it. So you see that look in their eyes — that hunger to go, to be pushed.
“There’s not a lot of sulking going around or bad body language. Guys are working, and they have a hunger in their eyes that they want to get this thing right.”
Long recognizes the look in his players’ eyes. It’s the same look he wore 14 years ago, as an anonymous bystander watching Kelly run practice in Florence, Ala.
“I knew (I wanted to coach) from when I was young,” Long said. “When you grow up in Alabama, you want to be around it as much as you can. There’s no doubt about it, and I always knew I wanted to be a college coach.”