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Brian Kelly's best sales pitch

12/27/2012

Before Brian Kelly could sell Notre Dame, he had to sell himself. Ivan Maisel has the story:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly arrived at Notre Dame three years ago with a long résumé of winning in the small time. Kelly had won at Grand Valley State, bringing two Division II national championships to Central Michigan, where he won more than he lost in the Mid-American Conference. He stepped up in class and took Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season and the Sugar Bowl.

With no disrespect to the Lakers, the Chippewas or the Bearcats, Kelly hadn't coached on Broadway. He hadn't coached as a celebrity. When he got to Notre Dame, he embraced that role, even if it didn't always return the hug. Kelly spoke to alumni clubs. He spoke to Rotary clubs. If asked, he would have spoken to a set of golf clubs.

"Worked really hard at that," Kelly said, "because it seemed to be a piece that needed to be developed as well."

Kelly's nature is to sell. He likes people. His predecessor, Charlie Weis, ran a closed shop, resembling the NFL system in which he cut his professional teeth. Kelly sold his brand of football to anyone who might be listening.

"When you talk to Brian, the thing that sticks out is his unwavering confidence," said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, a former assistant who followed him at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. "The first time you meet him, you can feel it. If there is anyone who could handle the day-to-day pressures that the Notre Dame job brings, it would be Brian Kelly."

But here's the thing: Kelly spent so much time selling to outsiders that he didn't quite complete the sale to his players.

Notre Dame went 8-5 in 2010, Kelly's first season. The Fighting Irish went 8-5 in his second season, too. Three red zone fumbles -- two by the Irish, one by the opponent -- were recovered and taken for touchdowns by opponents.

"We were significantly better than people perceived last year," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "But virtually none of those breaks went our way."

Kelly didn't respond well to the mistakes. And Kelly doesn't wait to get behind closed doors to express himself. He saw himself doing what he had done for more than 20 years as a football coach. Kelly set a high standard and held his players accountable.

But that message got lost. It got lost with the public, Notre Dame fans or not. They saw a coach peeling the paint off the helmet of his players on the sideline. Kelly went so ballistic in the 2011 season-opening loss to USF that a blogger for the National Catholic Register wondered whether he should be fired.

You don't get that level of scrutiny in Mount Pleasant. Kelly learned the hard way that a camera is trained on him from the moment he emerges from the tunnel.

To read more from Maisel, click here.