Brian Kelly made his bones from 1991-2003 on the Division II level, not only winning at least eight games in 10 out of 13 seasons at Grand Valley State, but in the post season as well where he played in three national championship games, winning two.
On Dec. 29, Kelly – with his Fighting Irish squad – will return to playoff football at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas as the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoffs against undefeated, No. 2 Clemson. A win in the Cotton Bowl would take the Irish to the national title game in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Jan. 7.
“This is a comfortable area for me,” said Kelly Sunday after the Irish and Tigers joined No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Oklahoma in the four-team playoff format.
“I kind of built who I am as a coach on playoff competition, being in the playoffs and understanding how to prepare during playoff competition. I’ve got a pretty good sense of how we need to prepare.”
Kelly lost the first three playoff games he coached from 1991-98, but then won three of four and all eight of his last Division II playoff games en route to back-to-back Division II national titles in 2002-03.
With final exams coming up following three days of unsupervised drills last week and a couple of weeks of strength training and conditioning, the Irish will gradually ramp it up in preparation for the Tigers, who handily defeated Pittsburgh (42-10) in Saturday night’s ACC championship game in Charlotte, N.C.
Kelly has been to the foot of the summit with Notre Dame in 2012 when the Irish fell to Alabama in the national championship game, 42-14. This will be the eighth time in nine seasons with the Irish that Kelly will be taking his squad to post-season play. But according to Kelly, this is much different than the typical post-season journey.
“The bowl game is a whole different mentality,” Kelly said. “You’re thinking about yourself and what bowl gifts you get. ‘This is it for me. Maybe I don’t play. I don’t want to get hurt.’
“There’s a different mindset. We’re on a journey here. We’re going to continue on the next step. We want to win a national championship. It’s just a totally different mindset in getting yourself ready to play in the first round, only in this instance, it’s the semifinals.”
The enthusiasm in Kelly’s voice rises when talking about playoff football. It’s what led him to Central Michigan, Cincinnati and, ultimately, Notre Dame. He welcomes the return to his roots.
“This is a playoff bracket,” Kelly said. “It just happens that this is just a little further along. We’re deep into it.
“All of our work was done in November to get us to the final four. Now there are four teams left and they’re all great teams. You’ve got to be really sharp for two weeks.”
Even the travel arrangements will be different provided the Irish defeat Clemson, which clearly is part of Kelly’s plan.
“We’ll fly back here (as a team) in preparation for the championship game,” Kelly said.