When Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly in 2010, I thought he was the perfect choice. He was an excellent football coach. He had the right surname. And he had the right public-relations style for the job.
What I didn’t know then was. . . he’s pugnacious. He IS Fighting Irish.
And guess what? That could be the right formula for ND to make the most of a salvage effort for the remaining five games of this season.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Asked what Notre Dame’s come-from-behind 30-27 win over Miami meant on Saturday, he chose an us-vs.-them spin.
``It just meant that we're not going to have to go through this again,’’ Kelly said. If ND had collapsed again, ``We were all going to have to listen to, `OK, the locker room is falling apart.’—a bunch of baloney—and we'd have to go through all this again. It wasn't going to change anything.’’
What he was talking about, I think, was this: By winning, the Irish would diminish the outside noise about their shortcomings. The blame game—is it the coaches, the players, the attitude?—wouldn’t go away. But it wouldn’t have another log on the fire.
And that would make it easier for Notre Dame to move forward.
``We were still going to do the same thing,’’ Kelly said. ``The attitude would have been great. Their preparation would have been great. But they were going to have to figure out how to win a football game late.’’
In this troubled season, Notre Dame has excelled at the exact opposite of that. When the Irish gave up 27 unanswered points after jumping out to a 20-0 lead on Miami, it was the fifth time this season they have allowed at least 17 unanswered points: Texas (17), Michigan State (36), Duke (21), Stanford (17) and Miami (27).
That’s why it was such a relief for Kelly when ND, down 27-20 with 6:49 to play, rallied.
In that final stretch, the Irish scored on a 41-yard run by Josh Adams and kicked the winning 30-yard field goal with 30 seconds left—to snatch back a win they desperately needed. ND also got some defensive stops to go with its encouraging offense and special-teams play in those final minutes.
As far as Kelly was concerned, it was a start.
``They executed and closed out a game,’’ the Irish coach said. ``Now they know how to do that. Now there’s a lot more confidence in that room. They believe that if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they can win every game they play. Because they lost five games by one possession.’’
That one-possession explanation is an over-simplication in my mind of the complex, roller-coaster start that saw ND—which began the season No. 10 in the rankings and looking like a national-championship dark horse—open with a miserable 2-5 record.
But if the 3-5 Irish can build on their second win in six games and handle Navy and Army the next two weeks, they can get back to .500 and see what happens in their final two games against Virginia Tech and at USC.
Without this comeback against Miami (4-4), which lost its fourth straight after a 4-0 start, even that meager window would have closed.
``This was very important,’’ said defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who had six of Notre Dame’s 12 tackles for loss, the most since a 2005 game vs. Syracuse. ``We have to win out to go to a bowl game. That’s our focus, just trying to go to a bowl game. Finish out 7-5. That’s it.’’
When I asked quarterback DeShone Kizer politely to explain how the Irish can have such titanic uanswered-point swings, he got very animated—more than I would have expected.
``We won. That’s all that matters,’’ said Kizer, who recovered a goal-line fumble on ND’s last drive and threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns. ``I don’t care how [Miami] came back, I don’t care about the lull we had on offense. We fought for a win. That’s all that matters at this point. I don’t care how pretty it looks. I just want to make sure that we fricking win games, because that’s all that’s on my mind.’’
What’s happening, I suspect, is that the Irish, who are always under a media-and-fan microscope, are taking a cue from their coach and putting a chip on their shoulder.
While articulate and affable when he’s in the mood, Kelly doesn’t shirk in his interview sessions. With the possible exception of supposed Xs-and-Os whiz Charlie Weis—who never played the game, so to speak—Kelly is the most brash ND coach I can think of.
That didn’t come from guys like Tyrone Willingham or Bob Davie or the first Irish coach I covered, Gerry Faust. Lou Holtz had all sorts of tricks—from magic to jokes to that often-imitated lisp—to deflect things.
When I talked to him, and from what I know, legendary Ara Parseghian coached tough, but seemed way too pleasant to spar in public.
As a kid growing up in Chicago in the ‘60s, I vaguely remember an aging Frank Leahy doing post-game commentary on the Bears on the local CBS affiliate’s 10 p.m. news.
He was caustic—``There’s Frank Cornish in his favorite position again, lying on the ground.’’—but so frail, and those Bears were so open to criticism, that it seemed more funny than tough.
The point is, Kelly is showing that he can go from charming to feisty—and that’s what this ND team needs.
Irish players are given so much attention, and so much adoration and respect, that it shouldn’t be surprising when they take things for granted.
Kelly hinted at that after the Irish had survived the Hurricanes.
``Look, our whole football team had been battling at times being indecisive in certain areas, ‘’ the coach said, ``whether we were indecisive at the quarterback position, whether we were indecisive as a play caller, whether we were indecisive at the cornerback position, Indecisiveness kind of put us where we are today. So the word that we were using was, `Let's be decisive in everything we do.’ There's still some indecisiveness that is lingering. It's slowly leaving. [But] we have to be more confident. I just have to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive.’’
Kelly was especially pleased when Kizer recovered a goal-line fumble on ND’s last drive.
``I needed some toughness from him, some mental toughness,’’ Kelly said. ``And that's an indication. He was not going to be denied. He was going to find a way to get that football. That grittiness is maybe what we were lacking a little bit, and he showed some of that grittiness in the way he went and fought for that football.’’
That’s the kind of grittiness Notre Dame needs to show the rest of the way this fall.
And Kelly’s top priority will be to find the balance between encouragement and feisty leadership to keep ND at the proper edge.
If the Irish do that, they can still salvage some things this fall.[/membership]