Notre Dame football: Perched near the peak, ND must find a way to stay there
SOUTH BEND -- New year. New challenge.
At least, this is a situation Brian Kelly hasn't faced since he has been coaching in the FBS.
Building on success at Grand Valley 20 years ago is one thing. Keeping Notre Dame among the elite is a whole different animal.
Since leaping from the Division-II cauldron into the fire of big-time football, Kelly's M.O. has been predictable: Fix a struggling program, then move on. Three years at Central Michigan, gone. Three years at Cincinnati, gone.
Now, in his fourth year at Notre Dame the first time he's been at a place for a fourth year since Grand Valley in 1994 Kelly has been given a significant mandate: Maintain the momentum of a 12-1 season, which came within a blowout of being something special.
There's only one way to improve: Have break after break (think Pitt, Stanford, etc.) fall in place again, but this time figure out a way to win the whole enchilada.
Encores aren't easy. Sequels rarely match the original.
Two days from the beginning of a journey that shouldn't end for another six months or so, it's daunting.
In Kelly's fourth year at Grand Valley, his program was still taking shape. The Lakers had qualified for the Division II playoffs in Kelly's first season, then retooled the next two seasons before qualifying that fourth year. They finished with an 8-4 record after losing in the first round.
It wasn't until 2001 that Grand Valley finally became a national power at that level. The Lakers were national runners-up that season, then went on to win the next two titles. That success was the springboard to Kelly's career.
Maintaining success at Notre Dame is a delicate balance. No room for complacency. Remember why last year's success happened, but don't take for granted it can happen again. The process is one area, chemistry's another.
"There's some work that still needs to be done internally, as it relates to the football team and the players," Kelly said Friday. "We still have some depth issues. We still have some work to do in recruiting. We're close there, so it's business as usual."
For just a few moments, Kelly was able to escape the minutia of the moment and scan the big picture.
"Other things now have to do with the longevity of the program," the coach said. "That has to do with great communication throughout the entire campus and community, making sure that we're doing all the things necessary to provide our student-athletes everything they need to be successful.
"What that means, obviously, is retention, graduation, making sure they have all the things necessary to be the best players.
"We're making small things that are really big. We've added some food service opportunities here. May not seem like much, but they're really big when it comes to the long season and keeping our players' weight up and things of that nature."
Forget artificial turf and a Jumbotron, an army and a football team runs (and occasionally passes) on its stomach.
"Little things that aren't necessarily seen as big things (are important)," Kelly said. "Everybody wants to talk about the stadium as the big ticket. There are many things that are bigger on a day-to-day basis, that are more important to me, than the stadium because they're helping us continue to build the program."
Actually, nobody but Kelly brought up the stadium Friday.
Since the mauling in Miami, the focus of the Irish players and coaches has been to maintain and improve.
The challenge isn't just for better play, but better coaching.
"The improvements I make have to do with how I direct the staff; how we direct the program; how we communicate," Kelly said. "(I'm) always looking to be better at what we do; being innovative; always looking for better ways to do it."
His summer sessions with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick are an example.
"That's part of being a great teacher," Kelly said. "You're always trying to learn."
Being better on the sidelines on Saturdays won't cut it.
"What I do on the sidelines is too late," he said. "I better be doing it during the week and in the offseason."
You're either getting better or getting worse. It's harder to breathe at the top of the mountain.