Hansen: The people, games, moments that defined a decade of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

On an unseasonably blustery mid-April Saturday in 2010, Brian Kelly decided to fully open up practice No. 11 of his first spring as Notre Dame’s head football coach to the media.

It was not only our first extended look at Kelly’s process, after 10 peeks through limited viewing windows, he had been talked into being miked up for the entirety of practice by and for the university’s in-house Fighting Irish media group.

Kelly wore shorts, of his own volition, on a day in which long underwear would have meant dressing for success. And he pretended as if the school didn’t have an indoor practice facility, because he wanted to make a point about his expectation level of toughness from his players.

Which is probably why there was no audio suitable for mass distribution from that practice.

A few minutes into the session, Kelly noticed that his quarterbacks were using hand warmers. The adjective he used to describe the hand warmers, when demanding they be disposed of, wasn’t up to broadcast standards.

By the 20 minute-mark of practice, Kelly had ripped off the microphone and flung it, likely in the direction of the hand warmers. It’s just as well. He didn’t need a mike, and the colorful language never stopped flowing.

Afterward Kelly briefly convened with a group of reporters, still in shorts and now visibly shivering.

“Are you cold, coach?” I asked Kelly amidst the football queries.

“Well, yeah, maybe a little,” he said.

“Would you like a hand warmer?” I deadpanned.

Jaws dropped. I think I heard a gasp from one media member. Kelly and I didn’t know each other well then. Almost every one-on-one interview he’d done to that point was with national media, not the locals.

The closest we had come to having one was when he pulled me aside after an earlier spring practice to point out something in one of my articles he thought was unfair.

But now he was smiling, then chuckling, then roaring with laughter. And six months later, he got me back.

At his normal Tuesday press conference, he asked everyone in attendance to wish me a happy 60th birthday. I was turning 50 that day.

As Kelly forges into his 11th season at Notre Dame this offseason, that sense of humor is one of the reasons he’s been so resilient during his first decade on the job. It’s also, he has disclosed, how he and wife Paqui helped cope with her two battles with breast cancer.

Laughter might not have been the absolute best medicine in her recoveries, but it was an effective one.

There are other facets of how Kelly conducted himself and business around the football program in his early years at ND that are now unrecognizable to me. And that can be a good thing.

Football evolves. Recruiting evolves. Players evolve. Shouldn’t the head coach do that as well?

For the record, the shot of laughter as the anti-stress response for Kelly has morphed into a de-stressing cocktail of laughter, a short daily nap and yoga, although presumably not performed simultaneously.

I’m not clairvoyant enough to determine if this review of extreme moments of the Kelly Era will necessitate any of those strategies for the coach himself, but the mostly bests and some worsts from the first decade of Kelly-coached ND football was concocted with the reader in mind.

Here’s what made the cut:

Notre Dame All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson (56) walks off the field following Notre Dame’s 38-20 loss to Stanford, Nov. 25, 2017, at Palo Alto, Calif.

• Most impactful offensive player: Offensive guard Quenton Nelson actually made it onto my Heisman Trophy ballot, in third position, in 2017. He made offensive guard highlights on social media a thing, and became the first offensive lineman at Notre Dame in 42 years to be named MVP.

In the bigger picture, the current All-Pro with the Indianapolis Colts was a major figure in bringing Notre Dame football back after a 4-8 cratering in 2016, and not just with his on-field performance. Behind the scenes, the unanimous All-American set the tone for the player exit interviews, with unabashed and unfiltered honestly, that led to the Kelly offseason reboot.

He also helped set a new standard when it comes to work ethic. The Irish are 33-6 since. Oh yeah, and he comes back to campus regularly to see that the standard is being met.

Would you want to make him mad? 

• Most impactful defensive player: Without 2012, there would have been no cliff for the 2016 team to fall off of and likely no College Football Playoff berth in 2018. And without middle linebacker Manti Te’o, 2012 looks a whole lot different.

Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te’o surveys the Stanford defense during an Irish win, Oct. 13, 2012, at Notre Dame Stadium.

At some point history will remember that Te’o became the most decorated defensive player of a generation at ND for what he did on the field and not the side story during the run to the BCS National Championship game that weirdly fell apart shortly thereafter and still stalks the Heisman runner-up somewhat to this day.

• Best example of muted greatness: Linebacker Jaylon Smith. Sure, he went on to consensus All-America honors in 2015, the final year of his three-year career. But Smith could have been so much more, and so could the Irish defenses in which he played, with the right scheme and the right defensive coordinator.

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) takes off his gloves to give to a group of excited Irish fans after the team's 28-7 win over Wake Forest, Nov. 14, 2015.

As it was under Brian VanGorder for Smith’s final two seasons, Smith was an eraser of sorts, cleaning up mistakes athletically for teammates in an overcomplicated system. It’s stunning in those two years, given Smith’s talent, that he didn’t play on a defense that finished higher than 72nd nationally in rush defense or 45th in total defense.

• The one who got away: Including pending transfer Michael Young, 26 percent of the high school prospects Kelly signed in the 2010-19 recruiting cycles (59 of 227) eventually transferred, a mix of traditional and grad-style transfers. A 60th transfer, Freddie Canteen, came to the Irish as a grad transfer from Michigan.

Not one of the transfers, though, has gone on to earn All-America honors at their new school. Only two have played as much as a down of football in the NFL. One of those, defensive end Aaron Lynch (South Florida), didn’t make it to his sophomore season before parachuting out.

Stanford’s Paulson Adebo (11) breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (83) during the ND's win over the Cardinal, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium.

The other, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA), bolted before he took a single class.

So the one who got away is a poached recruit, cornerback Paulson Adebo, a 2018 All-American at Stanford who likely would have repeated in 2019 had his season not been cut short by an injury.

In 11 completed recruiting cycles, Kelly has lost 29 committed prospects, while gaining 51 from other schools’ classes. Adebo’s defection came in the 2017 recruiting cycle, when the Irish lost a record six commitments during and after the 4-8 season in 2016.

Adebo, who redshirted in 2017, would be a star in 2020 at ND on the most tenuous position group heading into next season. Instead the Irish have to play against him. Again.

• The one who didn’t get away: Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a five-star defensive end from SEC country (Georgia), was the kind of recruit Kelly predecessor Charlie Weis kept missing on to complement the steady flow of elite offensive talent he was able to attract.

Tuitt, as a sophomore, indeed turned out to be a key piece in Notre Dame’s 12-1 season in 2012 and its berth in the national title game. But it almost didn’t happen. Because Tuitt decommitted and was briefly headed to Georgia Tech.

Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt stalks BYU's Riley Nelson during their Oct. 20, 2012, matchup at Notre Dame Stadium.

The home visit that swayed Tuitt back to ND stands as the most memorable of Kelly’s coaching career, he says, in part because then-Tech coach Paul Johnson was unaware Kelly and assistant Chuck Martin were in the room when Tuitt called Johnson on speaker phone to tell the coach he was switching back to ND.

“And (Johnson) goes, ‘You’re going to Notre Dame? (To play for) That guy from Grand Valley State?’” Kelly recounted.

“And we could hear him on the phone. And so he’s tearing us apart. We finally had to interrupt and say, ‘You better let him know that we’re here, ‘cause we’re getting quite angry.’”

• Best win: No. 5 Notre Dame 30, No. 8 Oklahoma 13; Oct. 27, 2012 in Norman, Okla. This is the game that regenerates hope when the Irish fall off the big stage, and the kind of win they’ll need in 2020 if they’re going to make it back there.

Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Brown (2) hauls in a deep pass during ND's 30-13 upset of the Sooners, Oct. 27, 2012, in Norman, Okla.

The score and venue alone hint at the big-picture significance. The details bring it home. The lower-ranked Sooners were 12-point favorites. The Irish ended up outrushing their hosts, 215-15, in only the second non-conference home loss in then-Sooners’ coach Bob Stoops 14 seasons in Oklahoma at the time.

It was just the fifth home loss overall in the 84 games in which Stoops had been stalking the Sooner sidelines in Norman.

• Worst loss: Two come to mind. The first, a 45-14 pummeling at Michigan on Oct. 26 of last year, was mitigated somewhat by ND’s response — a six-game winning streak to end the 2019 season. But given the stature of the Irish program at the time, it’s still at least the most perplexing setback of the Kelly Era.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, left, looks at the clock as Irish head coach Brian Kelly stands behind him during their final game coaching together, a 38-35 loss to Duke, Sept. 24, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium.

The other, a 38-35 home loss to Duke in late September of 2016, cost then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder — the worst assistant coaching hire of the Kelly Era — his job, and it could have cost Kelly his. Kelly’s clandestine interim defensive coordinator for the final eight games of that season, Mike Elston — the best Kelly Era hire and current D-line coach — helped make sure that didn’t happen, on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Yes, the quarterback for Duke that day was current New York Giants QB Daniel Jones, then a redshirt freshman. But the Blue Devils finished 4-8 overall that season, 1-7 in the ACC.

Best quote from Kelly’s introductory press conference back in December of 2009: “You know what, that’s what is so magical about this is that my kids know that this was a dream for me.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick (right) introduces Brian Kelly as the new Irish head football coach on Dec. 11, 2009.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, left, makes a point to quarterback Dayne Crist during a spring practice back in April of 2010.