Brian Kelly goes back to tough-love basics to restore Notre Dame

Captains cleaned the locker room. Exemplary players earned the right to wear green jerseys. `Swat teams’ were created to measure accountability. Losing teams were required to report at 7 a.m. and run.

Gould Headshot square

It was all part of the tough off-season love Brian Kelly introduced as he prepares for his eighth season at Notre Dame.

A lot of this stuff sounds like things a new coach would do. I remember Lou Holtz imposing a boot-camp-like martial law when he arrived at Notre Dame in 1986, intent on picking up the pieces of Gerry Faust’s disappointing regime.

The difference is, Kelly isn’t a new coach—although he sounds like he intends to be after a dismal 4-8 campaign. Would he have been fired if he hadn’t signed a six-year extension in January of 2016 after guiding the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl?

We’ll never know.

What we do know is that Kelly sounds like a man who has turned over a new four-leaf clover. Not necessarily because another ugly season in 2017 might be his last at Notre Dame.

But rather, because he has proven himself to be a top-notch coach, and a feisty competitor who doesn’t like to lose.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

``They've had a tough summer,’’ Kelly said the other day at Notre Dame’s media day. ``It's been difficult. They've done a great job. I'm proud of them. But now we go through another difficult phase. But they feel really good about where they are with relationships, with coaches and players. And now we go through the next stage. We haven't played a game yet. But we're in a good position right now.’’

Uncertainty? At Notre Dame? It’s a bit unusual. But a 4-8 season that includes shocking losses, ugly losses, heart-breaking losses, befuddling losses will do that. A year ago at this time, the Irish were considered a dark horse by some to sneak into College Football Playoff. That has put the proverbial chip on ND’s shoulder.

This team is hungry for a season to remember.

``Look, we're coming off a very disappointing year,’’ Kelly said. ``Everybody is fueled by what happened last year. So the eagerness is part of the confidence that they've gained in the off-season. But it's also fueled by what transpired last year as well, for those that were here. So it's a combination of the confidence they've gained in the off-season, as well as obviously not living up to the tradition of excellence here at Notre Dame, all of us. Me included.’’

Kelly has overhauled his coaching staff, and tightened the reins during a winter, spring and summer of discontent in an effort to restore ND to prominence.

The biggest thing he learned from painful 2016?

``[I] focused way too much on production and not the process itself,’’ he said. ``How important it is to have that attention to detail, that laser focus, being smart both on and off the field, grit, that attitude, those traits. I let our football team down not focusing on those very important values and that process and went right to production. Just looked to replace production.’’

He believes he’s made the proper corrections. But as with a new coach, the proof will be in the pudding.

``Look, we haven't played a game. We have a lot of work to do. It's going to be hard. But we're in a different place.’’

The optimism/uncertainty starts with the new quarterback, redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush, who’s similar to his predecessor, DeShone Kizer, in physical skills and leadership but lacks experience. That process will be aided by an excellent running-back group, and an offensive line that returns four starters who have been grinding hard this off-season.

``We have enough players [who can make things happen],’’ Kelly said. ``I think the difference between last year and this year will be about the atmosphere that I've created within our football team. I think they're going to make plays. I think they're going to exceed the expectations that we all have for them.’’

On defense, Kelly is stuck on one word to explain where he expects the improvement.

``Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,’’he said. ``Fundamentally sound, how we tackle the football and taking it away. I think it starts with the fundamentals. It starts with just building that programming from the very beginning. When we touch the field, we're going to be talking about technique and assignment, and tackling, and how to take the football away. We'll get to third down and nickel and dime. We'll get to that. But it's not a priority in day one, two, three, four, and five. It's about the fundamentals, and we will be much, much improved in those areas.’’

So what are we to make of it all, this new leaf under an old coach?

The Irish certainly have the talent to return to glory this fall.

They’ll find out early, when Georgia comes to South Bend on Sept. 9. USC’s Oct. 21 visit and the season-ending Nov. 25 trip to Stanford stand out as the top three marquee games.

But the Nov. 11 trip to improving Miami also looms large,. And while Michigan State also is coming off a 3-9 shambles, the Spartans will be pumped up for ND’s Sept. 23 East Lansing visit.

So where does this all end up? I can see a 9-3 season and a return to a prominent New Year’s bowl for the Irish.

I think last year was a very humbling season for Notre Dame, especially for its coach. And I think Kelly, more than anyone, will learn from that, take the ball and run with it.

He’s a very sharp coach who sometimes gets ahead of himself. I don’t expect him to have that problem this fall.[/membership]