Brian Kelly welcomes the pressure in process of building sustained success at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The first real billow of overwhelming pressure Brian Kelly felt as the head football coach at Notre Dame came during a recruiting trip a couple of years ago to visit wide receiver prospect Chase Claypool in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

And an engine blew at 35,000 feet over Portland, Ore., on the private jet taking Kelly to Canada.

Other than the frantic few minutes it took to make an emergency landing in Oregon, the eighth-year Irish mentor has largely embraced what ultimately chases some coaches from the profession.

“I like pressure,” Kelly told the Tribune before his current Irish team buried last year’s 4-8 divot with a 9-2 run into this season’s regular-season finale at AP No. 20 Stanford (8-3), Saturday night at Palo, Alto, Calif (8 EST; ABC-TV).

“It’s almost a privilege to have pressure, and we have it here.”

Indeed, even in a game in which the Irish sport a No. 9 AP ranking and a No. 8 endorsement from the College Football Playoff selection committee, the outcome of the singular matchup with the Cardinal seems to carry the power to redefine Kelly and this season, depending upon the outcome.

It certainly makes a difference in postseason destination. Win, and ND is somewhere in the New Year’s Six mix. Lose, and it’s one of the Orlando bowls (Citrus or Camping World).

“When you have a program like Notre Dame with such rich tradition, I can only imagine the pressure it is to be the CEO and the head coach of this football team,” Irish senior captain and rover Drue Tranquill said earlier this week. “There's pressure on him from each and every angle.

“We're having the incredible season, and we have a bad performance against Miami, and all of a sudden everyone is looking to fire Brian Kelly.

“I can't imagine the pressure he goes through on a day-to-day basis, and I admire him for what he's done, the people he's put in place for us to succeed and help us become the best men we can be.”

When Kelly recast the program template in the offseason, though, his design wasn’t to coax a renaissance season at Notre Dame but rather a sustainable model for success.

“Sustainability starts with what your mission is,” he said this week, “and that is to graduate all your players and play for a national championship.

“And then how are you going to get there? Build the traits on a day-to-day basis that will help get you there. That's the sustainable piece, building those traits amongst our players. So those two things work together.

“The rest is business as usual: Recruiting. Recruiting the right kind of players to Notre Dame. Having the right coaches in place. Strength and conditioning. Offensive coordinator. Defensive coordinator. Special teams. All those other things as well.”

The head coach himself evolving, included.

Kelly’s critics and supporters alike, though, have pondered during this transformational season why such seismic changes didn’t take place before the 2016 regression.

Part of it is college football’s evolutionary nature. It’s not about gleaning all the answers and standing pat. It’s about staying ahead of the curve, or at least in step with it.

The Brian VanGorder hiring in January of 2014, for instance, was done in that spirit. Kelly wasn’t satisfied with simply getting to the BCS Championship Game at the end of the 2012 season. He wanted to win a title.

And so when Alabama, in a 42-14 trouncing, so effortlessly exposed an Irish defense that to that point had been putting up historic numbers, Kelly became convinced the defensive model was on its way to obsolescence.

He later admitted even if then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco hadn’t taken the UConn head coaching job after the 2013 season, the Irish defensive scheme was going to change radically.

He then plucked VanGorder, a man with whom he had a history, and had an added long NFL background that intrigued Kelly.

It turned out to be the biggest miscalculation of Kelly’s career. Kelly even referenced the aborted 30-game VanGorder run earlier this week when calling ND’s failed strategy, in a 38-36 come-from-ahead loss to Stanford the last time the Irish were in Palo Alto (2015), a “prevent-to-win defense.”

Learning as a head coach in a glaring national spotlight can be humbling, but Kelly said if there’s one thing he’s been committed to since day one as a head coach is to always be open to learning, whether it’s behind the scenes or for all the college football world to see.

His players have taken that cue. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, a first year-starter who’s having a storybook season running the ball and a painful one in trying to build a pass-efficiency rating that’s good enough to balance the Irish offense in big games, continues to look for ways to improve.

That includes picking the brain of former high school teammate at St. Peter’s Prep, Minkah Fitzpatrick, a junior at Alabama and perhaps the nation’s premier college defensive back.

“He's played every position in the secondary, so he has that experience,” said Wimbush, who said the two of them talk two to three times a week. “He helps me out to understand what the DBs are looking for in a quarterback, what he's looking at in my eyes. We get into a little bit of the specifics but nothing too crazy.”

Actually the crazy part is trying to discern what is built to last about this season and what is special specifically about 2017. The Stanford game won’t give us the answer, but it might provide some strong clues.

If there’s a program that tests Notre Dame at its new core — its largely domineering offensive line and its emerging, promising defensive line — it’s Stanford. Especially when it comes to physicality and toughness.

“Obviously, we can talk about the weight room culture all day,” Tranquill offered. “And I think when you spend nearly 70 percent of your time with those coaches and with your physical and technical development, I think that's key to having a sustainable model in terms of a culture of a winning football team.

“I think if you look at teams who have been successful, that's kind of where they've started. This idea of a dominant culture, where guys enjoy coming in and playing football, and it's not necessarily feeling like a job.

“I think if you look at what coach Dabo Swinney has done at Clemson, all the juice those guys have in their workouts and everything, I think that's something we've been able to do here this year. And it's helped us be successful, and I think it'll continue to help us be successful.”

And how about the sustainability of the head coach?

Earlier this month, 11 days after Kelly celebrated his 56th birthday, Kelly passed Dan Devine to be the second-oldest Notre Dame head football coach ever.

Coaching icon Ara Parseghian was 51 when health concerns coaxed his retirement. Frank Leahy was 45. Lou Holtz is the only one who was older than Kelly when his run ended at ND. He was 59.

Among the college football programs to win a national title over the past 50 years, Florida and Colorado are the only others in which there hasn’t been at least one head coach at that school stalking the sidelines on his 60th birthday and beyond.

All of which says something about what sets the Notre Dame job apart from jobs at other elite programs.

“There's so many other things that go along with (the ND coaching job) that are so far past football that none of us will really ever understand,” Irish grad senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “Obviously, all of us had a bad year last year.

“And I don't think there's more of an example of how to fix a problem or how to truly kind of be a man about things and look in the mirror and change what was wrong with himself first, and then how to infiltrate that correction to his entire football team. And that's what he's done.

“There's so much scrutiny that comes along with playing and coaching at this place that it makes the job that much harder, but he's never let that affect him. He doesn't care. I mean, none of us care about what people are saying on Twitter, what people are saying all across the media in the United States.

“It's all about results and winning football games. And that's what we're going to continue to try to do —put our best foot forward for the guys that are in this program that truly mean the world to us, and that's all you can do.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly waves to fans as he leads his team during the player walk before the Notre Dame-USC game, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)