Ahead of the curve? Brian Kelly chases ideal with new perspective

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

On the golf course, the first seeds of a seemingly unlikely union took root and flourished, perhaps subtly from the outside looking in, certainly significantly behind the curtain when it comes to the trajectory of Brian Kelly’s career arc.

Bill Belichick was Charlie’s guy. That’s Charlie as in Weis, as in Kelly’s predecessor as head football coach at Notre Dame and a man Kelly warmed up to and came to appreciate over the past five years but never really shared much common ground with.

The offensive-minded Weis often filled his knowledge deficit on the defensive side of the ball, during his five-year slalom-like run at ND, with remedial puffs of wisdom from his old boss with the New England Patriots. And he was never shy about persistently acknowledging that pipeline publicly.

Seemingly just as perpetual was the eventual disconnect.

Perhaps that derived from pushing the override button on his own defensive coordinators. Perhaps it was that the pro game metrics didn’t mimic the college game’s, and that the specific schematic and personnel strengths and flaws at ND didn’t always synch up with the offered remedies.

Since the Belichick-Kelly chance meeting at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February of 2013, a month after Alabama’s 42-14 decapitation of Kelly’s 2012 Irish in the BCS National Championship Game, Kelly too has engaged in X’s and O’s skull sessions with Belichick.

But the most seismic revelations from the longtime Patriots head coach and an increasingly iconic figure when it comes to defensive football evolution at the game’s highest level were more about big picture and less about moving chess pieces.

From one ahead-of-the-curve guy to a man groping systematically to regain that kind of magic, the fledgling alliance was a key component in Kelly reinventing enough of himself that he feels reborn heading into season five at ND.

“I think he has a way of looking at the game of football where he can take away all of the scrutiny and he can look at it without all the pressure,” Kelly said of Belichick. “At Notre Dame, you have all these interest groups. Everybody has an opinion. Everybody’s got, ‘I like this guy. I like that guy.’

“He has a way of looking at it and of stripping away that, and focusing on what gets you to win and what prevents you from winning.”

Kelly’s .712 bottom line through 52 games at ND is much more Lou Holtz-esque (.765 from 1986-1996) than resembling the three failed coaching regimes that bridged those two eras (Bob Davie .583, Tyrone Willingham .583, Weis .564).

But in Kelly’s mind there could have been more wins, should have been more wins. And where the “what ifs” show up most often and most painfully are in the tethered areas of offense/scoring and quarterback play.

What made Kelly a fit when he first walked through the door in mid-December 2009, and continue to perpetuate that belief both largely among Notre Dame’s uber-scrutinizing old guard and the school’s power brokers, was that he had knowledge and prowess on both sides of the ball. But his ahead-of-the curve cred was with offensive pyrotechnics and efficiency.

Kelly inheriting awkward system-fits at quarterback didn’t help matters, but ND’s ordinariness on offense and the continued breach from Kelly’s pre-ND reputation went deeper than that. He tried diligently to recalibrate offensively and/or philosophically in some form or fashion almost every offseason that he’s been in South Bend.

Including this one, the thrust of which has been obscured by a more-publicized and seemingly more radical defensive reboot.

Make no mistake, this season there will be a new offensive coordinator — the old receivers coach, Mike Denbrock. There will be a new tempo to the offense — the old one that made Kelly an embraceable underdog at Cincinnati.

And there will be a style-and-substance makeover offensively — how much of one, Kelly prefers to let Rice defensive coordinator Chris Thurmond and the rest of the college football world find out on Aug. 30.

What’s different this time is Kelly’s not recreating in a vacuum.

This time it ties together to the defense and special teams. Just as importantly, this time it also ties into the school’s elaborate power structure, the multi-level demands and requests that sometimes have little or nothing to do with football.

This time, the pressure dynamic that even Hall-of-Famers Holtz and Ara Parsgehian admitted they were incapable of preparing for, but for a while made peace with, is part of the equation.

For Kelly, it’s not about adding one missing ingredient. It’s about making soup.

A soup where context is everything. Broad, big-picture context.

“It takes a while to understand Notre Dame and what you’ve gotten yourself into,” Kelly said. “I mean, how many times was I on this campus before I took the job? The distorted lens that we all look at this job at from the outside was all I knew.”

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Mike Denbrock knew Kelly when Kelly knew Ramen Noodles and was still getting occasional “care” packages from home.

His now-fully faded Boston accent from his years growing up in Chelsea, Mass., hadn’t yet flattened out, but his first post-graduate ambition had. Kelly pushed away what he deemed as more predictable success in politics for a low-paying dream.

The economic reality of fermenting with that coaching dream pushed Kelly and Denbrock together as roommates back in the late 1980s at Grand Valley State University, back when it was a strong but not yet domineering Division II football program.

“I just finished playing at Grand Valley,” Denbrock recalled. “I was a student/graduate assistant at Grand Valley, and this young guy shows up in the office from Boston, Mass., and I hadn’t met him before or known him. But when he walked in, I was immediately kind of drawn to him, just from a friendship standpoint.”

The draw evolved into football philosophy and a shared vision. Once Kelly elevated to GVSU’s head coach in 1991, Denbrock ended up serving stints as, first, Kelly’s offensive coordinator and then his defensive coordinator.

In 2014, they’re still on the same page — just in a different book.

One constant from their early days is the depth to which Kelly plans to immerse himself on offense this season — becoming the offensive play-caller after two seasons away from it, sitting in every quarterback meeting, and getting as far away from a CEO as he’s been while at Notre Dame.

Kelly has been moving in this direction since 2010, but never with both feet.

“I think we all feel like our fingerprints are on this,” Denbrock said of he and the rest of the Irish offensive staff. “I personally feel that way, and I don’t feel excluded or being run over by a Mack truck or anything like that.

“I just want to do what I can to help this program be successful. And the role that I’m in, I’m comfortable with, and I feel like I have a chance to help this football team that way. I think it’s great for the players. Now that he’s the guy that’s calling the plays, he’s going to be a lot more focused on the little details.

“I think (the players) welcome that. It’s his offense, and he understands it as well as anybody. Every little detail that he sees that needs to be corrected and changed, we need to make sure we get that done, because it’s going to help us.”

Denbrock calls their new brand an attacking-style offense.

Kelly calls it battle-tested.

Here’s why: Instead of making his top priority in the spring helping once-exiled quarterback Everett Golson make a smooth reintegration back onto the team and somewhat artificially build the confidence of challenger Malik Zaire (who, for the record, didn’t seem to need a confidence boost), Kelly shook them both up. And their surrounding cast.

New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder wasn’t just charged with installing his new scheme in the 15 spring sessions, he was asked to make the offensive template better, largely through duress.

VanGorder’s most recent experience — a season with the master of defensive exotics and unpredictable pressures, in Jets head coach Rex Ryan — proved to be just the right touch.

“I told him throw everything you’ve got at it,” Kelly said. “If you really want to know if something’s going to be effective before you get into your season, then you can’t set yourself up for success. You’ve got to be willing to take some lumps in spring ball.

“So we told our guys, ‘Here’s how it’s going to go. ‘There are going to be some tough days.’ I guess it’s like anything else. People have focus groups. You have product demonstrations, so you get a glimpse of it. Spring ball was an opportunity for us — don’t set it up and make it easy. And I think in the spring we saw things that we’re very encouraged about.”

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Lou Holtz wrestled with the question recently, perhaps because applying the answer was so second nature to him when he coached:

How did you know when it was the right time to change up schemes and how did you stay ahead of the curve schematically?

How Holtz didn’t do it was wait until life and football became uncomfortable around him, by convincing himself that whatever schematic secret sauce he may have stumbled upon came without an expiration date.

Kelly has largely operated the same way.

College basketball coaching great Rick Pitino, whose most recent national title conquest came in 2013 with Louisville, may have said it best in his 1998 book, Success is a Choice: “If it ain’t broke, break it — and then make it better.”

Kelly’s most profound fix when nothing was broken came before the 2001 season, his 11th as head coach at Grand Valley State. GVSU had a string of 14 straight non-losing seasons, with Kelly as either the head coach or an assistant, when he installed spread offense version 1.0.

The ensuing season resulted in a Division II national runner-up trophy, followed immediately by back-to-back championships.

But college football is an endless loop of adjustments and counter-adjustments. And just when you think one side of the ball is about to shift the balance of power for good, a new cycle on the other side of the ball emerges, and sprawls through extensive copy-catting.

“I think what’s important every offseason is watch the landscape of college football,” Kelly said. “You have to look at yourself, but also you’re trying to look at where the game is.”

This offseason’s most significant offensive idea swap was with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and his staff.

“We weren’t going to be playing them for a little bit,” Kelly said. “But it’s like in any business, there are proprietary things that you think that maybe you have a competitive advantage with, that are your own, that you’re probably not going to share.”

The competitive advantage that Belichick gave Kelly refracted his vision. Now Kelly believes strategic info sharing will likely be muted if he doesn’t bring as much attention to getting ahead of the curve off the field as on it.

“The first thing is I know Notre Dame so much better,” Kelly said, “so what that allows you to do is measure your involvement. And that means ultimately when you say ‘yes’ and when you say ‘no,’ outside of football.

“So for me, I couldn’t measure it. I didn’t know what to say ‘yes; to. I generally said ‘yes’ to everything and very rarely said ‘no,’ But that’s not the reason I really wanted to be at Notre Dame, which is to be around the players, and it showed. There were times when I was distracted.”

And now there’s times when he does the distracting.

The toughest balancing act for Kelly is knowing when to sing the company chorus and when to go solo and fight for change.

FieldTurf, JumboTrons, Jock Jams, altering the Walk, changing Mass times.

“I’m very comfortable at Notre Dame in knowing who we are, what our distinctions are,” Kelly said. “But yet at the same time, I’m a ‘Why can’t we do this?’ kind of guy, instead of a ‘We’re Notre Dame, we can’t do that.’

“In that sense, I’m still the same person that I was when I came here. And I think that serves me well, even though there are some times when it creates some — let’s call it healthy debate. But that’s OK, because they know that I’m just trying to continue to help Notre Dame and build our program and stay ahead of the curve.”

Even in Knute Rockne’s days, now celebrated as visionary, there was a fine line between what those in power interpreted as innovation and what they read as insolence.

“I know the challenges of being here now, and I know how they work into everything,” Kelly said. “I also accept those challenges. Look, even Alabama has them. They’re just different problems. And so we have our own that are unique, and I recognize that.

“I’m not going to move away from who we are at the core. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be out front and creative. And if sometimes I have to be the one who paints the picture, knowing that there might be some people who aren’t happy with it, I’m OK with that.”

Bits of advice gleaned from Bill Belichick have helped Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly feel reborn as he heads into his fifth season at the school. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

The best thing about being head football coach at Notre Dame: There are so many things. I would say the absolute best thing for me is the chance to coach incredible student-athletes.

The biggest challenge I’ve overcome while coaching at Notre Dame: Balancing all the demands on your time.

My favorite meal: Halibut.

The one food I can’t stand: Beets.

The best thing about recruiting: When a parent entrusts their son with you for the next four years.

The worst thing about recruiting: Salesmanship. Like negative recruiting. All the same thing. Like when you have a kid that’s being sold something instead of really being told the actual truth.

The last year I could do my own grocery shopping without causing a stir: 2008, my second-to-last year in Cincinnati. My last year in Cincinnati, I couldn’t. It’s impossible now — not even for a gallon of milk.

Number of hours of sleep I get a night during the season: Five.

On a bye week Saturday, I... Hang out with my family.

Coaching superstitions: None, really.

The most significant thing Lou Holtz ever told me: Get a house in Florida, because the winters are really long. (But I don’t have one.)

The player at Notre Dame who surprised me the most: The guy who just absolutely floored me was in my first year, the big running back, Robert Hughes. He went from a non-entity — I mean he really didn’t exist — and then the way he finished his senior year, he was like the heart and soul of the football team. It was just unbelievable. I’ve never seen a transformation like that. He bought in.

If I could redo one coaching decision at ND, it would be: I probably would have kicked the field goal against Tulsa.

My hidden talent: I think I can be a pretty good writer.

My biggest fear: Not being prepared.

The turning point in my life was: Meeting my wife.

The song in my iPhone/iPod that I’m embarrassed to tell people I like: This is an easy one — any Bee Gees music.

During the disco era, I was: Into disco.

The number of days per year I can realistically be completely off the grid: Zero.

When I think of life after football, it looks like: I’ll still be involved with the game in some fashion.