Blue and Gold Illustrated

Dec 19, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 DEC. 19, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED I n a rg u a b l y, t h e m o s t memorable press confer- ence so far during the 11- year career for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly came not long after the end of his most forgettable season. A 45-27 drubbing by USC in November 2016 dropped Kelly to 4-8 for the year — the second-most losses in a season for the Irish since 1960 — after which, the seventh-year Notre Dame skipper was left to wonder if he'd return for an eighth. A n u n w a v e r i n g v o t e a confidence from Notre Dame director of athlet- ics Jack Swarbrick brought Kelly back. Some deep intro- spection from the Irish coach brought a program back. "A lot of things had to change, including me," Kelly explained. "We didn't reinvent the wheel here. Behind the scenes, we made some tweaks." Those "tweaks" included bringing in three new coordinators among 17 new football staff members and an overhaul of his strength staff, and — most importantly — talking less and listening more. To his credit, Kelly belly-flopped on his own sword after that night- mare season and took full respon- sibility for the lapses in mental toughness, physical conditioning and general accountability from his players. "Part of the whole culture I let slip up," Kelly explained. Even as a veteran coach and a crea- ture of habit, Kelly realized that he needed to fix himself before he could fix his program, and he did so by detaching from old coaching routines and attaching more to his players. Instead of isolating upstairs inside his corner office to craft and crunch X's and O's all day, Kelly went downstairs at 6 a.m. each morning to be with his guys for breakfast and weight training, a gesture the Irish players openly admitted brought a needed climate change. "Why did we do this? Why did we go through all this? Why did we hire all these new coaches?" Kelly re- called of his self-examination before the 2017 season. "We did it because there's a tradition of excellence that I need to live up to, period. "I didn't live up to it, and I'm go- ing to make sure that never happens again." And now, almost exactly four cal- endar years later, Kelly's program and his personal transformation have sparked the best run and improve- ment stretch for Notre Dame in at least 30 years. When asked last month by Colin Cowherd during an interview on FOX Sports if this was the best team he has ever coached at Notre Dame, Kelly didn't flinch. "I would say it is," Kelly said, ref- erencing previous teams from 2012, 2015 and 2018 as honorable men- tions. "I think we've gotten to the point now where it's about our pro- duction and how we play on Satur- days, and the rest takes care of itself." And maybe that's the point. Even if it suffers a loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Dec. 19, a 10-1 Irish team has clearly demon- strated this season through produc- tion and eye test — and pro- gram momentum — that it deserves a College Football Playoff invite over some un- defeated team from another conference that plays only six or seven games. Since Kelly began his res- toration project and started clearing the football offices in December 2016, his team has recorded a program-re- cord four consecutive sea- sons with at least 10 wins, it has won 24 straight games at Notre Dame Stadium, the fourth-year seniors have gone 41-5 during their ca- re e r s i n re g u l a r- s e a s o n games and Kelly's Irish are on track to reach the CFP for the second time in three seasons. "It's gone pretty good for us over the last four years," Kelly celebrated. As a true freshman in 2016 and now a fifth-year senior starter, Irish defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji personally lived this re- markable transformation from both a personal and program standpoint. When asked last week about the secret to seemingly immediate im- provement, Ogundeji singled out Kelly's hiring of Matt Balis as the new Irish strength coach. "We all knew that this was a new program, and we were going to go somewhere that we haven't been be- fore," Ogundeji recalled. "We are go- ing to push ourselves like we haven't pushed before." With seven of the eight losses in 2016 coming by eight points or fewer, Kelly could have easily dismissed it as "not getting the breaks" or an anomaly and returned to his familiar routine and comfort zone. But four years later, and with the best team the 30-year head coach has ever fielded now poised to make an ACC and national championship run, thank goodness he didn't. ✦ Adaptability Brought Brian Kelly To This Point UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Four years after finishing with his only losing record in South Bend, Kelly made a personal transformation that has sparked the best run and improve- ment stretch for the Notre Dame program in several decades. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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