Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2017

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

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4 APRIL 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED P ro c e s s o v e r p e r f o r- mance; grit over goals; dedication over depth — each of these three spring football themes followed the script Brian Kelly never strayed from during an in- triguing March 7 press con- ference when he promised to build the tightest bond he ever has with his players. "If I'm available to them, if I'm there to be able to talk with them, help them through whatever I need to help them with, that's the best way for us to win," in- sisted the Notre Dame head football coach. In a press gathering that felt more like the introduction of a first-year Irish coach than it did one entering his eighth season here, the endless in- quiries about last year's beefy expectations met with 4-8 re- sults brought a drastically different tone and message compared to Kelly's previous seven spring season introduc- tions. Hoping to reinvent himself after his toughest season in 26 years as a head coach, Kelly insists that being less in- volved in marginal responsibilities this next campaign will create more involvement in the essential ones, and the wins will follow. Gone, Kelly said, are the days of micromanaging every detail this job demands, a dynamic that he claims often takes him everywhere, except for where he needs to be. "I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team," Kelly conceded of last season. Instead of hobnobbing and fund- raising with alumni, Kelly plans to spend that "extra" time outside of practice and game days bunkered down with his staff and players. And instead of Kelly bringing the strongest voice to game planning each week, the coach said the diffi- cult lessons of last year will have him strategizing less and delegating more this time around. "Anytime you take a different ap- proach to the way you're doing things on a day-to-day basis," he said, "it has a tendency to move you in a dif- ferent way." So, if we follow Kelly's spring blue- print, the Irish coach will become more of a mentor and a teacher this season than a coach and a tactician, with the Irish assistants handling the X's and O's, while Kelly handles the Jimmys and the Joes. "They're all my players," Kelly said of caring more and coaching less, "and I'm going to be responsible for all of them." Hearing a coach after a tough sea- son make promises of improving a bond with his players is nothing new and a repeated mantra when trying to calm a restless fan base and an im- patient athletics director. But Kelly insists this fresh commitment to ca- maraderie is much more than lip ser- vice, evidenced at 5:30 a.m. every day with the coach's voice and presence now an important addition to weight room workouts before the sun rises, a first for Kelly. "They like it when I'm around. They like when I'm having breakfast with them," Kelly said of adopting an earlier campus arrival. "They like when I'm available to them." Accessibility sounds great, but will added face time and breakfast bonding guaran- tee redemption this season over five repeat opponents — Michigan State, North Car- olina State, Stanford, Navy and USC — that beat the Irish last year? Are longer office hours and an open-door player policy enough to ensure improve- ment on a team that routinely blew second-half leads and lost six games last season by a touchdown or less? And is an earlier arrival and a later departure for work going to help beat Georgia this season? Kelly believes his increased presence is already moving the needle in that northern direction. "The biggest difference," he said, looking back to 2016, "is that we're all talking the same lan- guage." All of which begs to the obvious question: Why did it take a success- ful head coach of 26 years this long to realize stronger relationships often bring better results? "There weren't enough hours in the day," Kelly explained, when asked that question point blank. Seems strange to many that any coach with seven full seasons on the job has to start from scratch before his eighth campaign with all the ame- nities, benefits and big budget that only the top football programs in the country can provide. But following a season where Kel- ly's employment contract paid him roughly $1 million for each of his four wins, if an early alarm brings better results, then get some rest, coach, and leave the snooze bar alone. ✦ Brian Kelly Takes A New Approach With His Team 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 "I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team," Kelly said at his pre-spring practice press conference in early March. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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