Notre Dame spring practice is in full swing, and the optimism over head coach Brian Kelly and what he brings to the football program hasn’t been this high since Lou Holtz took over for Gerry Faust following the 1985 season.
That’s not to say that Kelly arrives at Notre Dame with the same résumé as Holtz’s. Holtz had taken programs at North Carolina State, Arkansas and Minnesota — schools from the ACC, the SEC and the Big Ten — and turned them into success stories. He then solidified his spot in the College Football Hall of Fame by going 100-30-2 with the Irish, which included the 1988 national championship. After a brief hiatus, he jumped back into the coaching business at South Carolina.
For most Irish fans, the change from Charlie Weis to Kelly is a step in the right direction. Weis arrived in South Bend flashing his Super Bowl rings from his stint as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. But after winning 19 games in his first two seasons, Weis lost 21 times over his last three. He also may have set a record for most people offended in a five-year span.
And so the mixture of losing and acerbic behavior led to change, which is always the buzzword when a head coach is replaced. Kelly changed the off-season conditioning program to prepare the Irish for the rigors of a no-huddle, spread offense. He changed the defensive alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4. He changed a long-standing policy to incorporate a training table for the players to improve their nutritional habits. He went out into the community and made strong first impressions, particularly on the Notre Dame campus. He opened the doors of the football office and made it feel like a place where family and friends were welcome again. He even changed the way the players organized their lockers.
Any time there is a coaching transition, the more the new coach changes, the better it is received. During a coaching transition, change is always considered an improvement because the end results from the previous regime were unsatisfactory.
To be sure, changes within the Notre Dame football program were necessary. The most important adjustment started with the mindset of the players, which Kelly interpreted as one of entitlement and individualism.
But more important than change with the arrival of the Kelly regime is the need for Kelly to follow form. You see, everywhere Kelly has gone, he has won. Every team he has touched has turned to gold.
Kelly got his start as a head coach at Grand Valley State, a Division II school that could win 100 games in a row and most college football fans wouldn’t know it. He was 118-35-2 in 13 seasons, including 41-2 over the last three in which the Lakers won two Division II national titles and appeared in a third championship game.
At Central Michigan, he took over a program that had lost 34 times in the four years prior to his arrival. By his third season in Mount Pleasant, the Chippewas won nine regular-season games. That landed him the job at Cincinnati, a program that hadn’t won more than eight games in a season during the decade. Kelly promptly won 34 times in the next three seasons, landing back-to-back BCS bids and nearly claiming a spot in the national championship game in ‘09 with a 12-0 regular-season mark.
Simply put, the man wins. His career record as a head coach is 171-57-2.
So while some changes were necessary for the Notre Dame program to improve from its 16-21 record over the previous three seasons, the key to Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is not change — at least not after the initial adjustments in the program — but for Kelly’s status quo to kick in. He is a proven winner on every level he has performed.
But is he ready and prepared enough to win at Notre Dame?
“I can tell you for sure I wouldn’t have been ready for it six years ago,” Kelly said. “Three years ago? I think I still needed some more BCS experience, if you will, from a recruiting standpoint.
“But there’s no question that the three years at Cincinnati have put me in a position where now, as I sit here, I’m very confident that I have the background and the experience necessary to do the job at Notre Dame.”
So you see, it isn’t so much that the Irish need to change to have success on the football field. It’s simply a matter of following the lead of its new head coach who has made a habit of winning the last two decades.
Winning consistently at Notre Dame? Now that would be a change.
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