Notre Dame's Brian Kelly answers Michigan nightmare with a higher standard and bigger dreams

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

On the 2½-hour bus ride home from Ann Arbor, with the rain outside as relentless as the ache in his soul, Brian Kelly knew.

The Notre Dame head football coach had promised himself and had exhorted offensive coordinator Chip Long, shortly after ND’s 12-0 regular season and first and only playoff run crashed in Arlington, Texas in 2018, that there had to be an evolution of sorts fitting around Long’s otherwise brilliance and promise.

Roughly nine months later, in late October of last year, Kelly kept his word about what had become a forsaken ultimatum forged in January of 2019, and reached out to a potential Long successor outside the program.

Ultimately, Kelly waited until shortly after the regular season had ended to banish Long — an admittedly dogged recruiter and savvy tactician — and eventually turned to internal option Tommy Rees in January.

It wasn’t about pinning a 45-14 cratering at Michigan on Oct. 26 on what Long wasn’t doing right. But Kelly knew the difference in that game being remembered as a bewildering splotch during a 33-6 win spree or a catalytic moment that could redefine his legacy was about holding himself and everyone around him to a higher standard than ever before.

In fact, the first words out of his mouth in a one-on-one conversation last month in framing that game as an outlier was owning his own miscalculation regarding Notre Dame’s bye week pacing in preparation for a Wolverine team that would finish six spots below the No. 12 Irish in the final AP poll. Too much time off, allotted from a coach who was 22-2 post-bye in his career going into the game, broke the rhythm and the sharpness, he said, of his eighth-ranked squad.

But the soggy nightmare in Ann Arbor also painfully reinforced to Kelly that if he couldn’t fix Long — specifically the dysfunction with offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and Long’s abrasive style of relating to players that was coaxing a mutinous response according to sources — aspirations to close the gap with playoff regulars Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State had no chance to manifest.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long (left) and head coach Brian Kelly parted ways in December after three years together on the Irish football coaching staff.

“Obviously that Michigan loss was hard on everybody,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. “And I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that game, honestly. But even though our season goals died in Ann Arbor, I think our unit was born.

“I think what I was most proud of, in reflection, we had a team, we had a defensive unit and we had a head coach that didn’t deviate from the process, that knew that we were good enough and that looked each other in the eye and doubled down on who we were.”

The Irish edged Virginia Tech, 21-20, at home the following Saturday with a harrowing rally, then mauled the final five opponents of the season by an average margin of 28 points, with the closest verdict a 45-24 road wallopping of Stanford.

The six-game win streak with which they’ll start the 2020 season, is tied with Tennessee for the second-longest active run among Power 5 schools, behind only defending national champ LSU’s 16 consecutive victories.

“I’m beyond impressed at how they put their cleats in the ground,” Lea said of the Irish, “after having your world completely shaken up and saying, ‘It’s not good enough. We’re going to get better.’

“Methodically, week in and week out, from that point forward they were on a mission. Look, we can analyze it as a low point in the year, and certainly it was. But certainly there was another angle of it and another story there.

“What we got to put on display was the response. A response that was representative of a program that believes in itself, its strength through adversity. That’s a testimony to coach Kelly and the structure he’s put in place here.”

Yet Kelly, much like his critics ironically, obsesses over the missing pieces and the ones that don’t fit, even in the best of times.

So while he’ll trumpet 33-6 in Zoom speeches to alumni clubs and on the virtual recruiting trail, his actions since the deconstruction in Ann Arbor have been brazenly ambitious.

Long’s purge, among them, hardly stands alone.

Notably, Kelly took a deep dive in late May and early June into the social justice movement in America, when he could have very easily pulled off being the coaching equivalent of Switzerland and coddled both sides of the issue.

He formed a unity council to help move the conversations about racial inequality into sustainable actions on campus and in the South Bend community. He empowered his players’ messages by amplifying them through the university’s social media accounts.

Notre Dame defensive lineman Daelin Hayes walks with head coach Brian Kelly during a celebration of Juneteenth and walk for social justice by Irish football players on June 19 on the ND campus.

He retooled his Kelly Cares Foundation to funnel resources toward eradicating systemic racism.

And Kelly went all in knowing there’d be significant blowback from a segment of the fan base and society in general, which there decidedly has been.

“Our country has become polarized in so many ways,” Kelly said. “And if you want change to occur, you’re going to have to deal with that (pushback). And if you don’t want to step out on that limb, you’re not going to see any change. And I think we need change.”

The shakeup outside the movement and inside the program, meanwhile, included philosophical shifts in recruiting. Perhaps they’re the most tangible of all the post-November tweaking in how the 11th-year Irish head coach’s final years in South Bend will play out.

“I think I had to be involved a lot more with recruits and a lot more intimately,” Kelly said, “in a sense that I had to be exposed to the players more that we’re recruiting, more so than just the assistant coaches.

“Twitter? I’m on it every day. The Zoom calls. They’ve got to get to know the head coach more, and that’s been one of those pivots.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made parts of the plan more difficult to execute in that there haven’t been official or unofficial campus visits allowed since the NCAA shut them down in March.

But Kelly last month reiterated his enterprising vow uttered late last December that recruiting should and will be better in the upcoming cycles, as in classes rated in the top 5-10 nationally. Consistently.

“You’ve got to raise the bar, right?” he said. “(The status quo) would be akin to saying, ‘Hey it’s OK if we just have our sights on a New Year’s Six (bowl). The next stage is not New Year’s Six. It’s playoffs or bust.

“So where we were from a recruiting standpoint was what? In that 12-15 category (national class ranking) each year. We had to raise the bar, based upon the on-field success. So I stand behind the statement that we needed to raise the bar from a recruiting standpoint.

“It was a calculated statement. It wasn’t a throwaway line.”

But is it realistic? And is there actually a higher ceiling overall for him and for Notre Dame football?

In the humiliating aftermath of perhaps the most perplexing outcome of the 129 games Kelly has coached since succeeding Charlie Weis, he made another promise to himself. On the bus.

To find out.

“The most impressive thing about Brian Kelly to me has been how he’s changed,” observed Aaron Taylor, a college football analyst and a former offensive line All-American in the early ‘90s during the Lou Holtz Era.

“It’s rare to see somebody with the wherewithal and the courage and ultimately the ability to look in the mirror and realize that sometimes we’re our own biggest problems.”

Confirming first impressions

Before there ever was an inkling that the Charlie Weis Era of Notre Dame football was about to take its final, fatal hairpin turn, Aaron Taylor knew.

The former Notre Dame football All American’s work as an analyst for the CBS College Sports Network had capriciously landed him at the University of Cincinnati to do a profile on the Bearcats’ rising coaching star, Brian Kelly.

“This is the guy who needs to be the next head coach at Notre Dame,” Taylor told a small circle of confidantes at the time.

Five weeks later, Taylor’s vision collided with reality. Notre Dame announced Thursday night the 48-year-old Massachusetts native as the storied program’s 29th head coach.

That was the opening passage of the college football world’s introduction to Brian Kelly through the lens of the South Bend Tribune the night it broke the story and a day before Kelly was formally introduced at a press conference on Dec. 11, 2009.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick looks on as new Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly addresses the media during his introductory press conference on Dec. 11, 2009.

Taylor talked confidently that night about why he thought Kelly could lift the program back to Holtz-like levels, including competing seriously for and winning national titles — something Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Weis only flailed at.

George O’Leary, the other post-Holtz hire, self-incinerated less than a week on the job because of fabrications discovered on his résumé.

Privately, in late 2009, Taylor wondered if he turned out to be wrong about Kelly or how the job had evolved, was there ANYONE who could rescue and restore Notre Dame football?

“I think without question he’s elevated the profile and the relevance of Notre Dame back to the national stage on where it needs to be,” Taylor said last month. “But we’re living in an era where we’ve seen unprecedented success in programs like Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson, where it’s these perennial runs.

“We’re watching the best college football coach in the history of the sport, in Nick Saban, and what he’s done. College football has become a comparison industry. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses, and good enough is not good enough.

“I think to a certain extent Brian Kelly’s reputation has suffered from that. With that said, with what he’s been able to accomplish and being consistent with winning multiple Coach of the Year awards, getting opportunities to play in national championships, the recruiting level, what’s happened academically, we’re very much upper, upper, upper middle class.

“I think programmatically, he’s yet to take that elite step to be in that perennial top 5 to top 10 category. But I think Brian Kelly has it in him.”

Brent Lesniak, like Taylor, applauded the Kelly hiring in December of 2009 and shares all kinds of common ground with him on where Kelly stands a decade later.

Today the Granger resident, husband and father works as a program manager for Rite of Passage. The organization helps 15- to 18-year-old juvenile offenders transition back into the community.

Roughly two decades ago at Grand Valley State, he was a plucky and prolific 5-foot-7 running back from nearby Dowagiac, Mich, who was a part of Kelly’s first seismic coaching makeover and eventually his first national championship team.

The move to a spread offense turned a consistently unbroken-but-unspectacular program into a perennial Division II football power, and touched off the chain of events that eventually led Kelly to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) celebrates a bowl victory with athletic director Jack Swarbrick following ND’s rout of Iowa State, Dec. 28, 2019 at the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

Lesniak attended Kelly’s first Blue-Gold Game in the spring of 2010, not because he was still chasing the question of whether his former coach’s formula could translate to college football’s biggest stage, but because he felt like he already knew the answer and wanted to watch it start to unfold.

Both Taylor and Lesniak’s two biggest surprises in 2020 are that Kelly hasn’t actually won a title at ND yet, and also how his practice demeanor and sideline decorum have lost most of their rough edges.

“I don’t know if that’s because he had to, because he’s at Notre Dame, but I feel like he’s really laid-back now,” Lesniak said. “When I went to spring practice a couple of times last year, he’s not really coaching the players. If anything, one of the things I saw him do was coaching the coaches.

“It’s just different to look at. But I think his intensity to win is still there. His ability to do it is too. But at Notre Dame, from what everybody believes, if you don’t win a championship, you’re not getting it done.

“So I think if he doesn’t win a national championship, he won’t be remembered as a great coach, even though he was.”

Day of reckoning

In mid-July current Grand Valley State coach Mike Mitchell was on a Zoom call with a group of his football players’ parents when one in particular took over the question-and-answer segment.

It was Kelly, whose son Kenzel is set to start his college football career as a defensive end at the school where his dad’s coaching career took off, pandemic-permitting.

“That’s a whole different deal. I don’t know how Division II is going to do it,” Brian Kelly said. “They’re going to try to do it without (COVID-19) testing. I just don’t see how they can do it.

“And I was like, ‘How, in fact, are you going to do this again? Could you go over this one more time?’

“(Mitchell) goes, ‘Coach, can I talk to you after we’re done with this Zoom?’ ‘Cause I was asking questions he didn’t have answers to.”

Truth be told, Kelly was even more relentless in asking himself just what went wrong at Michigan last October.

As much as it hurt perceptually, particularly from a national perspective, unraveling the whys of the pragmatics of the seismic loss was the more necessary exorcism.

A Wolverine team that entered the matchup 80th nationally in rushing offense, pushed around the Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage to the tune of a 303-47 rushing command. Beyond the numbers, the more shocking aspect was the Irish struggled the most in the very areas in which they were built to be indestructible.

Head coach Brian Kelly will hit the practice field on Saturday for Notre Dame's first spring football practice of 2021.

Notre Dame football falling off the big stage in big moments predates Kelly. Its 0-8 record against top 10 teams in late December/January by an average of 21 points spans five regimes going back to late in the Holtz Era.

Only one of ND’s six losses during the otherwise momentous three-year run came in that late December/January window, the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 playoff semifinals. And the Tigers, in ND’s reshuffled 2020 schedule, will confront the Irish and their demons, once maybe twice if the season indeed starts and finishes.

Not all six setbacks (Georgia, Miami and Stanford in 2017, Clemson in 2018, Georgia and Michigan in 2019) were blowouts. You could argue at least half of the six were won by the less talented team on the field that day.

But a common thread in all six was an offensive regression.

Rees being elevated to offensive coordinator while keeping his QBs coaching responsibilities was Kelly’s most critical response to what happened at Michigan, along with letting go of Long.

Fairly or unfairly, the 28-year-old Rees as a play-caller and Rees as a recruiter will significantly help define Kelly’s final seasons at ND and play into how Kelly is remembered by history once his run at Notre Dame comes to an end.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell happened in the Michigan game,” Taylor said. “It was shocking, baffling, perplexing, unbelievable. I think it took us all by surprise and left lots of people wondering, ‘Man, is that on Brian Kelly’s shoulders?”

“Ultimately that’s the head coach’s responsibility. His record is what it is, and we deal with the currency of wins and losses. But clearly to me, based on what he’s done, it’s without question an outlier, albeit one that’s a head-scratcher.

“That doesn’t take away from what’s still out there for him. The landscape around Brian Kelly has changed so much and so fast, it’s harder to win a national championship. But that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do it.

“He was the right hire at the time and he’s a much better coach than he was when he walked in the door. Notre Dame football is almost all the way back. And if Brian Kelly falls short of getting them to the top, he’s put the program in a place where I believe the next guy will.”

Notre Dame 11th-year head coach Brian Kelly smiles on the sidelines a lot more these days than during his early years in South Bend.