- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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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.
"You can think all you want that you know what this job is, and you just don't," Swarbrick said. "You simply don't. For anybody, there is a learning curve in it. Ara [Parseghian, the Notre Dame coach 1964-74] told me during the coaching search when I chatted with him about how important head-coaching experience would be for the next person. He said, 'Jack, I needed every year as a head coach I had, every single year, in order to prepare to be at Notre Dame. It's everything.'"
Between the way the Irish played as a sum less than their parts and the way in which Kelly's conduct drew tsk-tsks, the third season would be a big year, and not because Frank Leahy, Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz won national championships in their third season beneath the Golden Dome.
"I was hard on our guys. And I was very demanding on our football team," Kelly said. "And so if there were perceptions of 'It doesn't fit' or 'He doesn't fit,' we've got great kids that I demanded a lot from. And maybe that was the perception. I don't know."
He went on to discuss the academic demands that Notre Dame places on its recruits, but then interrupted himself.
"You know what?" Kelly said. "They're just football players. And they weren't playing the game the right way. They weren't practicing the right way. They weren't preparing the right way. That's all I did."
Kelly isn't trying to meet some standard of Notre Dame coaching. He wanted his players to meet his standard of Notre Dame playing. But over the course of 2011, as Kelly ran from alumni club to media interview to practice, repeat as necessary, he began to see that he had tilted out of balance. His players didn't fully comprehend his message.
Notre Dame lost at home to archrival USC, 31-17, in October 2011. The game turned when backup quarterback Dayne Crist fumbled near the USC goal line and a Trojans defensive back scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. Again, after the game, Kelly didn't bother with coachspeak. He lit into his team in the locker room.
"So, I told our guys," Kelly said in the news conference afterward, "'Listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back. I'm not going to tolerate it. It's not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day' because they know how I feel about the way we played."
The next day, when a writer asked Kelly whether he was concerned about Crist's mental state, Kelly said, "No, I don't have to worry about it. He does."
Kelly took more criticism. The Coaching Handbook says a coach should take the blame. Kelly shrugged it off. He knew what he meant. He knew his team needed to hear the message he had sent. But when he saw the players' reaction, Kelly understood that he had a bigger problem.
"They didn't know me well enough," Kelly said. "Not their fault. My fault. You'd want a response to my comments [like], 'That's Coach. He has high expectations. He's demanding this.' No, it was the other way. 'Coach doesn't trust us. He didn't recruit us.' That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players."
Last winter, he retrenched. Kelly cut his outside appearances by half. He used the three openings on his staff to remake it. When offensive coordinator Charley Molnar became head coach at UMass, Kelly handed over control of the offense to secondary coach Chuck Martin, a longtime Kelly assistant who had replaced him as coach at Grand Valley State. Martin knew the offense blindfolded.
"I knew then that, from an offensive standpoint," Kelly said, "I was going to have to pull back, and I wanted somebody who knew exactly what I wanted. That's why I moved the defensive backs coach to offensive coordinator, which I'm sure was met with, 'This guy has no clue what he's doing.'"
Kelly made every hire with the intention of spending more time with his players. Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.
"It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us," offensive tackle Zack Martin said. "[Before the meetings,] I don't think it was something that I thought, 'Oh, I wish I had this.' After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it's nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field."
Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn't need name tags for the guys on defense.
"He's there as a more familiar face," safety Zeke Motta said. "It's great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other."
Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.
"I could be the guy who wasn't jumping on them because they didn't run the route the right way," Kelly said. "I could be the guy who said, 'Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That's what Coach is trying to tell you.'"
It's a new way of coaching for Kelly. He isn't sure that it means he adjusted to the way that Notre Dame does things. But it sure sounds as if the spotlight is no longer making him squint.
"I've been the one hollering at the quarterback and getting in his face and doing all those things," Kelly said. "Coach Martin does that now. So, if we can circle back here for a second. Does that mean I now know Notre Dame? Or does that mean I now know at any [AQ] school, that has to be the case for the head coach? That's kind of how I saw it. Here, not Cincinnati, where I had to drive the train, or Central Michigan or Grand Valley, I can be the head coach."
And so Kelly's third year is one win from becoming another Year 3 at Notre Dame. The No. 1 Irish are 12-0 and playing No. 2 Alabama for the crystal football. He is winning in the big time.
One week after an emotional, double-overtime victory against Stanford, and one week before Notre Dame would play at Oklahoma, the Irish struggled to put away BYU, winning 17-14. Kelly came into the postgame locker room and found a team reacting as if it had lost.
"We were kind of upset," defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "We didn't play well that game. Give credit to BYU. They fought hard and everything. After the game, a lot of the guys were saying, 'We're so much more capable of playing better.' 'We won, but we're so much better than that.'"
For one of the few times this season, Kelly found something to complain about -- sort of.
"Our guys after the game were like, 'We're sorry, Coach,'" Kelly said. "I'm like, 'Sorry? You just won! A BCS game. And don't forget, in this process, the only thing that matters is finding ways to win. Because you have found ways to lose in the past. So you've done a 180.'"
In a 12-game season, where one loss can torpedo a goal, Kelly taught his players that the outcome is all. In turn, his players taught him something about their makeup. Kelly may have barked at his players for their obsession with style points, but he had to admit he liked their style.
"It's going to be hard for somebody to beat us when your team comes in and goes, 'We won, but we didn't play very well,'" Kelly said. "Those are good moments to have. I've had it with other winning teams where they came off the field and felt that way. But never with Notre Dame."