A day in the life of Brian Kelly and his attempted Notre Dame football resurrection

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In an office that’s so modestly underzealous on award/trophy decor that a decorative surfboard hanging on the wall is the eye-bling that grabs and shakes you, an understated plaque a few feet down might be mistaken for a relic.

It ties the man to whom the office belongs, eighth-year Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, to Grand Valley State where the 55-year-old’s coaching career first gained its footing, emphatically shaped his coaching values and eventually launched him to test his skill set at the FBS level.

His detractors, who seemed to grow exponentially during last season’s 4-8 cratering, will argue that those accomplishments at the Division II football bully represent a ceiling Kelly is incapable of breaking through. Now, at Notre Dame. Ever, at Notre Dame.

Unequivocally, the GVS football program’s indoor facility, the impetus for the plaque, is named after Brian Kelly and wife Paqui.

It’s the school where Kelly’s oldest son, Patrick, will begin his college lacrosse career in the coming school year. And a school that passed the University of Michigan recently to become college football’s win-percentage leader at any level of NCAA competition.

It’s the place where, at the end of Kelly’s ninth season as head coach there after fashioning a 5-5 record, he trudged to the university president’s office with his heart in his throat.

“I thought I was getting fired,” Kelly recalled of a meeting that was not his idea. “And I remember vividly — before he said anything — saying to president (Arend D.) Lubbers, ‘I’d like to talk to my staff first.’

“And he said, ‘What are you talking about?’

“And I said, ‘Before you make any changes …’

Lubbers, for whom the football stadium was named two decades earlier, cut Kelly off in midsentence. “Well, I’m not firing you,” Lubbers told Kelly, and paused.

“But you better turn it around here quickly.”

It was the end of the year, 1999. Roughly 18 months later, Lubbers retired in the spring of 2001. A few months later, in the fall, Kelly coaxed GVS into the Division II national championship game. The Lakers had never so much as won a D-II playoff game before that, ever. The next year, Grand Valley won its first of two consecutive national titles under Kelly.

He was a collective 48-6 after his chat with Lubbers, and before leaving for Central Michigan University.

If nothing else, Kelly knows what turning the corner should look like. Seventeen offseasons later he’s trying to repeat history, but swimming in a whole different sea of circumstances and scrutiny.

Every work day for him now is teeming with nuances and details put in place to make a resurgence happen. Very little of it takes place in the aforementioned office.

ND Insider tagged along with Kelly for a day in the life of a man trying to cobble a football renaissance at Notre Dame. The following constitute the afternoon-hours swath of that day and a detailed peek into the process:

***

It’s June 19, the first day of official classes for all Notre Dame students partaking in summer school. Kelly’s returning players and five early-enrolled freshmen already have been on campus for two weeks in the 4-for-40, community-service curriculum.

The remaining 16 freshmen and three transfers have now arrived to join them.

It’s 1:41 in the afternoon, and Kelly wanders down from his second-floor office at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to the massive Notre Dame weight room on the main floor.

Outside, through the glass, you can hear the thump, thump, thump of Michael Anthony’s bass, followed by a musical shriek of sorts from David Lee Roth. Old school Van Halen.

Kelly bobs his head to the beat. He seems to be the only one in the room who recognizes the almost 40-year-old lyrics to Runnin’ With The Devil. As the playlist continues, it’s more metal, more hard rock, more poofy band hair, more raw, loud sound from a different era.

“It brings energy,” Kelly said explaining the choice of genre.

So does Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s first-year director of football performance. He’s barking at the same decibel level as the music, though if you’re not used to his cadence and his vocabulary, you may need subtitles.

A group of 13 Irish players are just finishing up their workouts. Similar-sized groups are staggered throughout the day. The true freshmen, whose physical exams await them in the early evening, are restricted on this day to just learning how to stretch properly.

There are nine, count ‘em, nine strength coaches — five full-timers and four interns — to preside over the manageable clusters. Sometimes, as Kelly describes what he feels is advantageous about the new strength-and-conditioning regime, you can get a clear glimpse of why the old one didn’t work.

Four strength coaches over two groups of 52 was the old way. Do the math and factor in some natural immaturity and human nature. If players wanted to hide, if they wanted to counterfeit their effort, if they wanted to pretend to self-motivate, there was ample opportunity.

“It’s totally different,” Kelly says. “They (the strength staff) are stressed at a higher level. They’re working all day.”

Balis gets kudos from former players at Connecticut and Mississippi State for his intensity and relentlessness, but without the science behind it, very little of that translates into actual football improvement and mental toughness.

Kelly understands this so well he asks Balis’ permission to move a team barbecue back a week, mindful of the rhythm and flow of the summer workouts that Balis and his staff have so meticulously mapped out.

And the members of the strength staff bring different strengths and specialties. David Ballou, for instance, who came to ND from high school football paradigm IMG Academy in Florida, is the velocity guy. Jacob Flint, a holdover from Paul Longo’s regime, brings expertise in Olympic-style lifts.

They all funnel whatever they’re teaching into Kelly’s overriding directive, that it fosters competition.

“Everything we do is competitive and builds a competitive edge,” Kelly says as he walks toward a series of scoreboards of sorts lining the south wall of the workout area.

The first one lists the 13-man SWAT teams, from best to worst that particular week — with “SWAT” standing for Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Teams.

Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan’s group is perched atop the standings, which started over after spring practice concluded last April. Punter Tyler Newsome’s group brings up the rear, which is actually a twisted tip of the cap to his leadership.

In the January-through-April cycle, Newsome’s SWAT team was the consistent winner.

“So I reshuffled the teams for spring/summer,” Kelly says, “and gave Newsome some of the most challenging guys.”

The categories that make up the team’s total score are: Strength, Speed, Agility, Discipline, Academics and Mat Drills/Conditioning. Kelly’s assessment of who the “challenging guys” are rings true. Morgan’s group has amassed 108 points in the discipline category, Newsome’s minus-33.

Individual progress is charted on an adjacent board, so a weak link on a strong team can’t escape accountability.

There are three categories on this particular board, from left to right: “Satisfied,” “Hungry” and “Starving.” And within each group, players are rated by the strength staff from best to worst.

Starving is the category that reflects the elite achievers. Satisfied is the category in which you don’t want to land. By default, the newly arriving freshmen land in the satisfied listing, alphabetically, for now.

In the January-April cycle, 19 players advanced to starving status. So far in the fairly fresh spring/summer competition, no one has moved past hungry.

Among the 34 players who reside in the hungry category, Kelly seems pleasantly surprised that early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Robert Hainsey leads the entire hierarchy in this snapshot, with classmate and tight end Brock Wright also landing in the top 5.

On the bottom rung, just ahead of the ungraded freshmen, is a senior defensive lineman. Kelly purses his lips.

This particular SWAT session ends and suddenly Balis is surrounded by the group of 13 players chopping their steps like their hair is on fire, waving their arms and outshrilling David Lee Roth by a landslide. This is how every summer workout starts and ends.

In that mob is another senior defensive lineman, Jay Hayes, who is an ascending player largely because of the strength/conditioning regime change.

“Dave Ballou is incredible when it comes to stuff concerning corrections and dysfunctions,” Kelly says. “There’s more of an understanding of how to diagnose that and how to correct that.

“Jay Hayes, that’s the guy who’s been changed the most by this. He’s so much more powerful now. His physical transformation is as impressive as anyone we’ve ever had.”

The 6-foot-4, 281-pound Hayes, a former four-star prospect from Brooklyn with an Alabama-Clemson-Florida State-Michigan-USC kind of elite national offer sheet, was supposed to turn out like this. But a combination of former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s obstinance and previously undetected/untreated physical problems kept him in a perpetual cycle of surging and retreating.

“Jay Hayes was a big kid with an imperfect stride,” Kelly explains. “He needed orthotics. We needed to correct his dysfunctions. Because he was a big kid, no one really ever looked into it. And while he got bigger and bigger, those dysfunctions got layered on top of each other.

“And, so this big, strong guy couldn’t stay on his feet. How can he not stay on his feet? Well, he can now. He’s a different player. A powerful player.”

The same DARI motion-capture diagnostic tool that Ballou used to help revamp Hayes, Kelly says, can be used to prevent injuries.

“For example,” he says, “we have a split-leg squat where we can now tell if you’re predisposed to a hamstring injury. We’re going to have fewer soft-tissue injuries, because we can detect them and stop them before they happen.”

Kelly sidesteps the Balis-inspired bouncing horde to pop into the office shared by Ballou and Flint, each of whom carries the title of co-director of strength and conditioning. High on the wall is a video screen with every Notre Dame football player’s picture contained within a small box and a series a numbers listed under each photo.

The very same type of monitor, with the photos and data, also show up in the Gug team locker room and in Kelly’s office. He can also access it all on his smart phone, as can the players on theirs. They have until 2 p.m. each day to make sure their info is filled out. Otherwise, it’s a deduction of 25 discipline points for them and their SWAT team.

“The discipline carries over on the field,” Kelly said. “Why did we jump offsides so much last season? They’re all things I didn’t do a good enough job coaching. Now it gets worked on every day.”

The figures under the photos indicate the soreness level of each player after their most recent workout, the productiveness of the workout, their current weight, the number of hours of sleep they got the previous night, and a numerical value assigned to stress level/academic demand.

Senior nose guard Daniel Cage has two numbers that would normally be red flags, a high stress value and 4.5 hours of sleep. Cage battled insomnia and sleep apnea early in his Irish career.

But on June 15 Cage underwent knee surgery for torn cartilage, a procedure he was expected to fully recover from by the time the Irish start training camp Tuesday, Aug. 1 in Culver, Ind. So his 4-day-old recovery helped explain the skewed figures. (The status on Cage has since changed, and he may miss the 2017 season.)

But junior defensive lineman Brandon Tiassum’s soreness score of 2, one short of the max, is a legit red flag. And Kelly will be involved in getting to the bottom of why that’s happening a little later in his day.

Meanwhile, Cage enters the workout area, fist-bumps Kelly and heads for a corner cubicle called the “fuel station.” At the station, there is a nutritional shake waiting in the fridge formulated for his precise circumstances — recovery.

“It takes out the inflammation, post-surgery,” Kelly says.

There are shakes for weight gain. Shakes for maintaining weight. There’s Gatorade. There’s chocolate milk.

“Nutrition is a field that’s so important and we were so far ahead on,” Kelly says. “And in a very short period of time, four of our people were hired away by other schools to head their departments. That’s how they equalized our advantage, hiring our people and offering them a lot more money.”

Kari Oliver now heads that field for the football team and all the other sports.

“She does an incredible job,” Kelly says as he leaves the workout area and heads toward the Gug locker room.

***

The discipline theme continues in this realm. Kelly explains how his captains are responsible for cleaning the locker room.

“There’s no outside cleaning staff,” he says. “We even bought them new vacuum cleaners.”

The same cleaning responsibility falls on the shoulder of the captains when it comes to the players’ lounge across the hall. There’s a pool table, ping pong, a couple of Pop-A-Shot arcade basketball games among the diversions there.

The overriding purpose of the lounge, though, is to provide players a place where they can get a healthy snack during the day. Almonds, energy bars, cereal and hot and cold sandwiches are among the options.

Back over in the locker room is a giant poster with a locker organizational chart on it. Kelly had a much less-polished version when he moonlighted as a women’s softball coach at his alma mater, Assumption College, three decades ago.

“Not all this stuff is new,” Kelly says of the tsunami of offseason changes. “Some of these were good ideas left unattended for a while that we needed to get back to and make part of the process.”

The locker room floor plan also provides Kelly with a framework to develop a continuity of leadership. In each of the room’s sectors, he’s designated a block captain, a younger player who is being groomed for a role.

“So if all your alpha males leave at once,” Kelly says, “you’re not caught without the next wave of leadership.”

Kelly spends the next hour or so making phone calls, getting a pulse on the recruiting visitors who will parade into South Bend before a summer dead period commences at the end of the week, and getting an idea of the weather about to greet his team at their upcoming OTA (offseason training activity).

He sees dark clouds in the distance from the balcony off his office that faces ND’s outdoor practice facility, the Labar Complex.

The players plunge ahead anyway, every one of them wearing a blue T-shirt with the words “TRUST THE PROCESS” emblazoned on the back. In the weeks ahead, the players who achieve “starving” status for their summer work will wear green T-shirts instead.

The June-arriving freshmen had to scramble to get to the 4 p.m. OTA on time, with their classes not letting out until 3:30. Though they take only six credits, the freshmen have schedules that are much less flexible and less forgiving than those of their older teammates.

They’re also more remedial in nature, lots of papers to write, for instance, to get them ready for what a full class load — with football slathered on top — will feel like in the fall.

Again, because they have yet to take their physicals, they will be observers at this particular workout. They line up on the sideline facing the field, eyes straight ahead and not making small talk at all.

Kelly jokes to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, “Let’s see if I can get everybody’s name right. I didn’t put tape on the back of their heads.”

One by one, he shakes their hands and chats them up. He asks kiddingly to Texan Avery Davis, on a cool day by June standards, if he needs a jacket. Then he tells an off-color rubber-glove joke about the upcoming physical that some freshmen get right away and others had to kind of work through a bubble of nervousness to manage a chuckle.

Darnell Ewell, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive lineman from Norfolk, Va., is one of several new arrivals who absolutely look the part.

“He isn’t afraid,” Kelly says, “of anything.”

In his mind, Kelly knows the soft spots on the depth chart, where opportunity will present itself, with the least resistance, to the freshmen. He also has an idea from film who likely can move up in spite of that. Ewell seems to fit both categories.

Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff will get their first glimpse of reality in Thursday’s OTA, three days in the future, in the first and only one for the freshmen, the last one of six for the veterans. The rest of the field work up until training camp excludes coaches and are run by the captains.

“You can tell a lot about potential and upside before they get here,” Kelly says of the freshmen. “The unknown comes at the stage when you put them out there and they’re neutralized physically for the first time in their lives, for a lot of them. They’re no longer bigger, faster, stronger than everybody else.

“You have to see how they fight through that. And when they’re neutralized, are they able to find that next level? Some of them do, and then you know you have a great one.”

Meanwhile, the veterans and early-enrolled freshmen run continuous wind sprints across the width of the field, roughly 50 meters, pausing only when another group is running. The players are divided into three groups — skill-position players, big skill players, and linemen.

Defensive coordinator Mike Elko runs the first set of sprints with the skill guys. Finishes last, which is a good thing.

***

Just as the players are finishing that segment of OTAs, trainer Rob Hunt informs Kelly lightning has been spotted less than 10 miles away and they’ll have to finish the workout inside the Loftus Center part of the Gug. Once practice starts, Hunt tops the decision-making hierarchy as to if/when to truncate practice due to weather, injury or any other reason.

As the players head inside, Kelly lingers on the practice field of the three at LaBar that the team uses the most often and is the closest to the Joyce Center.

He says that less than two years from now, that field will be part of a new indoor football-only facility. He points to some construction work outside the LaBar gates, crews already digging to lay power cables for the new facility.

On the eastern edge of the new indoor field will be a bank of exit doors, so the team can easily transition out to the two remaining outdoor fields. There will actually be a large videoboard in the indoor facility.

“Everything to recreate a game-day atmosphere,” Kelly says.

Kelly points out that the new facility will have a peak of 76 feet, so kickoffs and punting can be performed without taking out chunks of the ceiling. The Loftus, meanwhile, has a peak of 52 feet.

The bigger problem with the Loftus, from a football standpoint, is having to share it with other ND sports teams. Sometimes it wasn’t available for team runs, for example, so Balis worked around that by starting the lifting rotations as early as 5 a.m. It wasn’t ideal but it was manageable.

“And now the NCAA has legislated that we can’t start before 6,” Kelly says. “So we have to have our own building or else just play William & Mary more often, or we’ll be in trouble.”

The timeline for completion of the new indoor facility projects for the Irish to be able to start using it in the 2018 season.

Meanwhile, Kelly outlines some of the imminent changes to the Gug. The southern edge of it would expand all the way to the street that now runs between it and LaBar. The street itself will close to traffic and become a pedestrian walkway. A walkway bridge tentatively will connect the Gug and the indoor field.

On the second floor in the new addition to the Gug would be kitchen facilities and a dining area for training table. Currently, all the food is wheeled in from across campus. There will also be academic suites, where players can study and get tutoring.

“The first thing that has to go up is the indoor facility,” Kelly says, “so we can train properly, but the nutrition and academic areas are very important too.”

The expanded first floor will house a new locker room and weight room. The expansion will have its own entrance, for football. The current main entrance will remain and be used for the Olympic Sports teams. They’ll take over the old football weight room and have the Loftus to themselves.

Kelly now rejoins the players inside the Loftus, where they’re into the next stage of OTAs. They’re doing drill work, but without a ball, as NCAA rules stipulate.

And the drills themselves can be technique-driven — footwork drills for example — but they must include some sort of conditioning element. For instance, a short sprint at the end.

Kelly looks over at defensive line coach Mike Elston putting his position group through its paces. From the outside looking in, this is the area that carries the most uncertainty into the 2017 season.

From the inside looking out?

“This group has undergone such a transformation,” Kelly says. “Look at how they all stand up straight now. Look at their eyes. Mike’s done such a great job of attention to detail. Much sharper group.”

Among those roaming the sidelines and taking in the OTAs on this day is Amber Selking, PhD. The former Notre Dame women’s soccer player — known then as Amber Lattner — has been working with the Notre Dame football team since January as a sports psychologist/mental performance consultant.

“She’s been outstanding,” Kelly says. “She has unit sessions, position sessions, individual sessions. And when we’re out here, she watches breathing, body language, focus and concentration.”

Selking also watches how the coaches coach, including Kelly, and sends them emails when she wants to reinforce positive coaching techniques that she observed or when she wants to let them know how they could have used those techniques better.

“She gives us a language we can all speak and understand when it comes to building mental toughness,” Kelly says. “This all feeds into how we played in the fourth quarter last year and how we correct that.”

Selking offers that visualization — in essence, mental rehearsal — is also an important part of the process.

***

Kelly himself at the moment is doing a bit different kind of visualization, trying to project how his two grad-transfer wide receivers — Freddy Canteen from Michigan and Cameron Smith from Arizona State — will fit in.

In the final phase of the OTAs, the skill players are playing kind of a glorified version of 1-on-1 tag. The offensive players line up 20 yards away from the defenders. One by one, they try to run past, juke or both to get past the defensive player untouched.

“They are physically mature and emotionally mature,” Kelly said of the grad transfers. “They give us the maturity in those areas that we were looking for, with a fairly inexperienced and young group of receivers.

“My desire, if we could, was to find an accomplished inside-out receiver — Freddy Canteen — and a guy who could flat out run in Cam Smith. And I believe Cam will prove to be that guy that can run past everybody.”

The OTAs end, and Balis is barking something that seems to bring smiles to the faces of the players. Kelly follows with a warning for his players not to use anyone’s bicycle without asking first. Not exactly the Gipper speech, but it’s June.

As Kelly ambles off the field, he’s met by Beth Rex, Notre Dame’s director of football administration. She controls and coordinates Kelly’s schedule, but her responsibilities and talents are layered much deeper than that.

Among them, she’s a certified medical trainer and has served as an adjunct professor.

She lets Kelly know she’s calling it a day, just ahead of the freshman physicals at 5:30. Kelly lets her know he’s not close to being finished. That’s goes for the long term, too.

Never once on this day did the Kelly caricature show up, a divide of which Kelly is well aware and realizes is part of the price of a 4-8 season. He seems to have made peace with fake news, with the distortion, as well as the very real problems that existed in 2016, at least for now.

“Each university, each job has its own challenges that you kind of morph with,” reflects Kelly, who spent three years each at Central Michigan and Cincinnati between his long runs at Grand Valley and Notre Dame.

“I think Grand Valley was a place where I saw myself grow and have to make adjustments and changes there along the way, similar to the changes I had to make this year.

“Now these changes are magnified by 100 times, here at Notre Dame. It’s like I’ve shed the skin and come back in a different form. But I think anytime you’re in this business as long as I have, there has to be some shifting and moving and changing the way that you need.

“The thing I remind myself, though, is there are parts that you don’t change, parts that you need to hold onto, parts that — with the changes — will help you be successful, parts that I’m proud of. And I think all of that’s still there.”

***

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks on during the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, April 22, 2017. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

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