Who is Brian Kelly? A behind-the-scenes look at how the answer fueled Notre Dame's playoff run

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly was all set to plop himself into the comfy chair behind the desk, spin himself around to look out the window at the campus view and marvel at the new office where he’d be unfurling his longtime dream.

The hitch? It wasn’t his office.

It was where his Notre Dame football head coaching predecessor, Charlie Weis, had stationed his secretary, along with being a holding station for any visitors that got to venture that deep into the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, just outside the head coach’s roomier, plusher actual office.

“It was beautiful,” Kelly said at the time, in his first week on the job in 2009. “And they said, ‘No, Coach, it’s in here to the left.’ ”

Seven Decembers later, in 2016, Kelly was on the other side of the door that connects the two offices, where he had gotten used to the massive square footage over time but wanted desperately for the job that came with it to feel like a dream again.

On the other side of the door sat the Nelson family — future All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson, who had just completed his junior season on the second-losingest Irish team ever (4-8), and his parents, Craig and Maryellen.

Craig knew he was about to get a spiel from Kelly about why Quenton should defer the NFL Draft process another year. What he really wanted to know was this:

Who is Brian Kelly?

“To be honest, I had been kind of lukewarm on the guy, and I hadn’t said boo to him since he came for a home visit during recruiting,” Craig said. “And I figured I had nothing to lose by speaking my mind, because I knew he wanted Quenton back.

“By the time we got done talking, I really admired the guy. I wanted my son to come back and play for him, because I wanted him to see how a man deals with adversity — that being coach Brian Kelly — and dealing with adversity the right way.

“He promised he would leave no stone unturned, and he delivered in every way possible. I wouldn’t have wanted (Quenton) to miss that.

“And there was no doubt in my mind that this is where it was all going. I just didn’t know how fast it could all happen, you know jell, but I believed it was going to happen. When I walked out of his office that day, absolutely, I believed it.”

“It” being arriving on college football’s biggest stage.

That’s where No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) finds itself Saturday at 4 p.m., playing underneath the 1.2 million-pound JumboTron that spans nearly 60 yards in AT&T Stadium against College Football Playoff regular, No. 2 Clemson (13-0).

No. 1 Alabama (13-0) and fourth-ranked Oklahoma (12-1) meet in the 8 p.m. CFP semifinal in the Orange Bowl in the same facility — Hard Rock Stadium — where ND’s unlikely 2012 championship run crashed in the title game, and its 2017 playoff push decidedly derailed.

Semifinal survivors advance to the Jan. 7 CFP National Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

ND’s semifinal game is technically the Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame’s eighth appearance ever and first in 25 seasons — offering a chance to shift a negative perception of a program with a limited ceiling.

Because of the absence of a top 10 victory in January in 25 seasons, there’s a segment of the college football world that treats Notre Dame’s first-ever playoff appearance this weekend as kind of being airbrushed into it rather than playing its way in.

“I’m really proud of our football team,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I’m really proud of our staff and what they’ve put in, the work to get to this point. I think we deserve to be here. I know we deserve to be here, and we expect to be back here again.”

The very next question Kelly was asked? What is the meaning of life? Seriously.

And he answered it.

“For me, it’s just health, happiness, being around people that are positive on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I want to be surrounded with people that are passionate and really bring happiness and life to what you’re doing every day.”

Who is Brian Kelly?

In 2009, the answer was easy, brought home by a story he told in his introductory press conference nine years ago.

“You come home as a parent and you’re going to tell your kids that they’re moving,” Kelly said after three seasons at the University of Cincinnati. “And they love the friends and they love the community. And as we started to tell them, tears began to well up in their eyes.

“And (daughter) Gracie came up to me, grabbed me, hugged me and said, ‘Dad, I’m so happy for you. I know this has been your dream. And I’m sad for me just for a little bit. Is that OK?’

“And I kissed her, and I said, ‘You know what, that’s what is so magical about this, is that my kids know that this was a dream for me.’ ”

Grace Kelly nine years later is a student at Notre Dame.

Who Brian Kelly is now, nine years later, was strongly influenced by the dozens of player exit interviews Kelly conducted in the days between ND’s season-ending 45-27 throttling at arch-rival USC on Nov. 26, 2016 and the meeting with the Nelsons the day after the Echoes awards program in early December.

Al McKellar has known Kelly for almost 30 years, first getting to know him right after Kelly got his first head coaching job, at Grand Valley State, when McKellar was a high school coach in nearby Grand Rapids, Mich.

Their paths have been crossing and re-crossing ever since, and a strong friendship formed along the way.

“It’s not the first time Brian has talked to players, gotten their feedback at the end of the season,” McKellar said. “He’s not afraid to pull things from anywhere, anyone, any place — including players — if it’s going to help the program win.

“If there’s technology or an attribute that can help change his program and help them move forward, he’s all ears. He’s always been about innovation.”

But this was different. The questions were more pointed. The answers were unfiltered, passionate and often biting.

One of the prevailing themes was a strength and conditioning program that had gone rancid. Another was some assistant coaches that were short on teaching skills and long on demeaning to get what they wanted.

“We talked to Quenton on the phone when the exit interviews were finishing up, and it sounded like Brian Kelly was getting more than he bargained for,” Craig Nelson said. “But it was the truth, the naked truth, and he needed to hear that. And I think the players he ended picking as captains were the ones who were most vocal.

“You can’t have a guy like (former defensive coordinator) Brian VanGorder degrading players. They’re kids still. I have no problem with in-your-face coaches. In fact, Quenton prefers that. But if you’re going to get in his face, put your arm around him the next day and give the kid the reassurance that we’re all on the same side working for the same thing.

“And that was not happening at Notre Dame.”

Who is Brian Kelly?

For all the other grievances, the one that tied them all together was that seemingly not one player could answer that question decisively and thoroughly in 2016.

In one of the December conversations, a player flat out told Kelly, “You don’t even know my (expletive) name in practice, and I’m a senior.”

In another Kelly was warned he’d never win if he didn’t let the players see who he really was. He had become a figurehead, perhaps a victim of circumstance, but a figurehead nonetheless.

“When you’re in, especially a job like Notre Dame, you’re required to sharpen your skills every year,” Kelly said this month, “and if you don’t, you’re going to be exposed.”

The antidote was part reinvention and part Brian Kelly rediscovering who Brian Kelly was and putting out there front and center.

“I gave up a $35,000 a year job at age 21,” Kelly had related back in 2009. “It was like a plum job in politics. (Four years later), I drove my (Ford) Escort out to Allendale, Mich. And I went through like five hours of cornfields to get there.

“I said, ‘What am I doing?’ And then I got to the first practice and just knew. They didn’t have to pay me for this. Just being around the players, the game itself, the strategies, the tactics — it just consumed me to the point where I’ll find a way to make it.”

And now he’s found a way again.

“Don’t bury your head in the sand,” he said this month. “Be in the training room. Be in the locker room. You know, be present. Be present in your environment in which your players are readily available to be in conversation with, because that’s your group. And I think that that’s probably the most important group to be around.”

Quenton Nelson knows as well as anyone, even though he’s a Pro Bowl rookie with the Indianapolis Colts playing Sunday for a spot in the NFL playoffs.

But when he could be in South Bend this season, he was. He drove up early Friday morning after a Thursday night game in New England in October to be with his former teammates. He also spent his bye week back on campus and was at practice every day that week as the Irish were embarking on their November stretch run.

“He misses those guys. He misses Notre Dame,” Craig Nelson said. “Who would want to leave Notre Dame, really? It was time for him to go to the NFL after four years, but he did have a fifth year, and people don’t know this, but he was torn. He really was torn.

“There’s a part of him that wanted to stay and finish this business. And there’s a part of him that knows the business is going to get finished without him, because of who Brian Kelly is.”

So who is Brian Kelly on the other side of the College Football Playoff?

“The athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, is a real cerebral and smart guy,” Craig Nelson said. “When everyone was calling for Kelly’s head, Jack said, ‘Replace him with who? Let’s put better guys around him.’

“You never know how much of those changes were Jack’s and how much were Brian’s and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because they were the right ones. I think Notre Dame is going to give Clemson a run for their money. And if they don’t, they’ll be back knocking on the door again.

“I’ve never felt the playing field was level between Notre Dame and the other schools they compete against. But Brian Kelly knows that, and he’s figured out how to deal with it. If there’s another coach who could do that like Brian, I haven’t seen him or met him. I don’t think Urban Meyer could do it. Not at Notre Dame.

“Let’s face it, your hands are tied on some areas, and that’s never going to change. And Brian Kelly can deal with it, because that’s who he now is.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly laughs during the Cotton Bowl coaches press conference Friday in the Omni Hotel in Dallas.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shake hands during the Cotton Bowl coaches press conference Friday in the Omni Hotel in Dallas.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Irish coach Brian Kelly celebrate after ND’s 24-17 win over USC, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles.
All-American Quenton Nelson (56) was a key figure in ND’s turnaround and remains connected to the program to this day.