By Adam Hoge-
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CBS) Driving by a muffler shop north of South Bend, Notre Dame’s already revered head football coach saw a sign that read: “Long Live Brian Kelly”.
And the Fighting Irish haven’t even played Alabama yet.
Kelly is not naive to the meaning of winning a national championship at Notre Dame. If he beats the Crimson Tide in South Florida Jan. 7, the Eddie Robinson Coach Of The Year can pretty much do whatever he wants in South Bend for the rest of his life. In fact, it was suggested to him Monday that he could even run for governor of Indiana.
“I think I got one vote from the guy from the muffler place, so I’m pretty good there,” he said.
Kelly worked briefly in politics before he began his coaching career at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts in the mid-80s, where he also played linebacker. But don’t expect him to return to politics anytime soon. Win or lose in Miami, Kelly has a pretty good thing going in South Bend, where he has successfully turned around a program that had fallen silent, leaving many wondering just a few short months ago if Notre Dame would ever be Notre Dame again.
No one could have predicted that the Fighting Irish would be 12-0 and playing for a national title so soon. When the season began, Notre Dame supporters openly admitted they would would be happy with eight wins this year, instead eyeing a return to glory in 2013 or 2014. And Kelly admits he was aware of the tempered expectations for 2012.
“Those words were clearly in my ear,” he said. “But I have not done a good job my entire career listening to other people’s expectations. I had set my own expectations for what we wanted to accomplish and we went about it that way.”
Kelly’s vision worked, but that doesn’t mean the outcome hasn’t been stunning. He went into the season with no answers at quarterback, just hope and potential. The result was the decision to start promising redshirt freshman Everett Golson and utilize a relief system with veteran Tommy Rees, who no one but the coaching staff trusted. It seemed crazy to think Notre Dame could navigate one of the nation’s toughest schedules with a freshman quarterback, but Kelly refused to accept that his third year in South Bend was just going to be a developmental year.
“I didn’t believe nor did I want to use this year as a bridge year — a transition year. I wanted to win this year,” Kelly said. “I wanted to win not only for Notre Dame, but for the seniors and for everyone associated with the program.
“So we had two things going on there. We had: we’re going to play a freshman this year and we’re not going to say it’s a transition year. (It wasn’t) we’re going to give him experience, we’re going to take our lumps and we’re going to move forward — I’ve just never operated that way. So with those two things coming together, you have to find a way to win those games, manage those games, limit possessions, hold onto the football.”
The result was the quirky quarterback rotation that gave Golson plenty of experience, but also left Rees in the game to be the closer.
And it worked. The Irish did find a way to win games, even if they got a little help along the way. Notre Dame wouldn’t be going to South Florida if it weren’t for a questionable replay review against Stanford, a phantom pass interference call against Pitt and the referees not seeing that the Irish had two No. 2s on the field as the Panthers missed a game-winning field goal in overtime.
But every championship contender has some luck along the way and it doesn’t take anything away from what the Irish have accomplished in 2012. While Notre Dame found a way to win games each week, Golson eventually blossomed into a reliable starting quarterback, leading the Irish to an unlikely win at Oklahoma and bringing them back against Pitt despite being pulled earlier in the game.
Yet, even with Kelly’s confidence to go for it all this year, he admits his time in South Bend hasn’t been easy.
“I had 19 years of head coaching experience when I got here and I thought that would prepare me — and I think it did in a lot of areas — but not in all the areas necessary to be the head coach at Notre Dame,” he said.
To think this 12-0 season in Kelly’s third year was part of some grandiose plan he had when he arrived at Notre Dame would be a mistake. He may have expected to have success this soon, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have to make changes of his own to get it done.
“I think the job tends to distract you,” he said. “There are a lot of things that pull you away from the primary reason why you want to be the head coach at Notre Dame and that is: graduate your players and play for a national championship. Now, to do that, you have to have the pulse of your football team, you’ve got to have relationships with your players. And if you’re going all around the country half the time doing things other than working with your football team, it’s hard to have the pulse of your football team.”
Kelly will tell you a big reason why the Irish are undefeated right now is because he rededicated himself to the coaching part of his job this season.
“I made it a point that I was going to spend more time with our team this year, because that’s why I got into this — I wanted to develop 18 to 21 year olds,” he said. “So my development as the head coach of Notre Dame this year has been about getting back to why you would want to coach college players. Because you want to learn about them, you want to know their strength and weaknesses, you want to help them with leadership skills, you want to help them when they’re not feeling confident in their ability. That’s why it’s been for me the most enjoyable year of my tenure as the head coach at Notre Dame — I got a chance to spend more time with my team.”
The players have noticed a difference this year too, with star linebacker Manti Te’o saying that Kelly “made a point of taking time out of his schedule this year to get to know his players.”
The 51-year-old head coach used an unlikely path to get to Notre Dame and it’s understandable that it took him a couple of years to get comfortable on the job. He became head coach at Grand Valley State when he was just 28 and by his own admission, “I didn’t really know what I was doing.” But he still had success, winning two national championships before going to Central Michigan and then Cincinnati, where he led the Bearcats to two BCS bowl games.
But none of those places are Notre Dame.
“All of those experiences helped me get to where I was here at Notre Dame and then, there’s no job like Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “So all those experiences were great. Then you get here and you have to really understand the job here and no amount of preparation gets you ready for the job at Notre Dame.”
Yet here he is in Year 3 with an undefeated Irish team in the BCS National Championship Game. And once again, the expectations are tempered as Alabama is a heavy favorite.
Kelly wouldn’t have it any other way.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.