ARLINGTON – Angry, red-faced, spittle-spewing Brian Kelly depictions are plentiful in cyberspace, mostly on YouTube and in GIFs.
That Brian Kelly, however, did not surface Thursday during Goodyear Cotton Bowl media day at AT&T Stadium, site of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal between Kelly’s Fighting Irish and affable Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers.
There’s no guarantee that Combustible Kelly won’t reappear at some point on Saturday, but such sightings have been scarce the past two seasons, in the aftermath of the 2016 Notre Dame team’s 4-8 finish.
When asked Thursday whether he looked in the mirror after that season and made any personal tweaks, Kelly, 57, responded emphatically.
“Absolutely, it starts with me,” he said. “It always starts with the leader of the organization. We went 4-8 because of my leadership, so I had to make changes.
“Nobody’s going to follow somebody who thinks they know everything. I don’t know everything, so I had to make some changes, and we made changes as a group.”
What changes, specifically? Fighting Irish players say Kelly has been gentler; except when stern coaching is needed. But players say even those occasions fall well short of Kelly’s infamous sideline outbursts of the past.
The players say he is more conversational, in team and one-on-one settings. Kelly says he delegates more responsibilities to his assistants, which gives him more time to have a personal impact on varied aspects of the program.
“All areas,” Kelly said. “The mental, the physical, technical, tactical – building those relationships with players has afforded us, I think, a better opportunity to be successful.”
Junior cornerback Julian Love describes this year’s Notre Dame team (13-0) as fun and loose, adjectives that he admits could not have been applicable under the old Brian Kelly.
“It just wasn’t [possible],” Love said Thursday. “Not just with him, but other staff members we had. It was business.”
Earlier this month Kelly was named Home Depot National Coach of the Year. He’s the only coach in the award’s 25-year history to win it more than once, and it’s a fact that both of his previous wins – with Cincinnati in 2009 and Notre Dame in 2012 – were before his personality transformation.
Those Cincinnati and Notre Dame teams posted unbeaten regular seasons, although the 2012 Fighting Irish team later had to vacate all 12 of its victories due to academic violations.
Clearly, Massachusetts-born-and-raised Kelly knew how build successful programs, as he did at Grand Valley State (1991-2003) and Central Michigan (2004-2006). Notre Dame’s drop in stature after getting demolished 42-14 by Alabama in the 2012 BCS title game, however, caused many to wonder about Kelly’s ability to maintain excellence at the highest level.
And of course, no college program is more visible than Notre Dame, which has won or shared 11 national championships, but none since 1988.
The 2014 Fighting Irish started 6-0, but lost five of their last seven. The following season’s team finished 10-3, but the 2016 team’s finish was Notre Dame’s worst since Charlie Weis’ 2007 squad went 3-9.
Graduate-student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Kelly’s ability to “put the pieces in place” during that turbulent time showed that he had an effective, larger vision for the program.
“Like many coaches he has times where he’s going to get on you and then times where he’s going to be more relaxed and get to know you more as a person,” Tranquill said. “I think he’s very balanced in that regard.
“I think a lot of people see the screaming Coach Kelly on the sidelines in games. That’s not who he is as a person, as a coach.”
Love said the difference in Kelly after the 2016 season was immediately noticeable, with the first spring practice leading to the 2017 season.
“You could see it right away,” he said. “You could see that he realized that things needed to change. It started with him and he really took that responsibility upon himself, to really change the program, starting on the inside and spreading outward.
“The program is a reflection of your coach, and I think he realized that. The difference was amazing, in terms of really bringing that fun side of everything to the field. When he’s like that every day, special things happen.”
No, he’s not as conversational with reporters as Swinney, but Kelly was visibly relaxed Thursday. If being one step away from another national championship opportunity is weighing on him, it isn’t showing.
Perhaps angry Brian Kelly still lurks. Perhaps a referee or player will feel a moment of wrath on Saturday, but the new Brian Kelly seems more equipped to suppress such episodes.
Sharing responsibility and being more personable seems to have at least somewhat lessened the burden of being Notre Dame’s football coach.
“It’s been good,” he said. “It’s healthy for me. It’s healthy for our football team that I spend more time and delegate more to our assistant coaches. It’s certainly something that it’s a ‘healthy kind of me,’ relative to how I work every single day.”
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