SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A visitor stopped Brian Kelly last week as the Notre Dame coach exited a news conference. Kelly is an admirer of Bobby Kennedy and was riveted by the description of a 2008 book written about Kennedy's 82-day presidential campaign in 1968.
|Manti Te'o is back at Notre Dame after a strong freshman year. (Getty Images)|
Notre Dame might have missed the marketing slogan for its coach's debut season. Its new coach can campaign and there is a feeling of finality with the school on its fifth coach in less than nine years. Not that anyone was looking to make the connection. The most optimistic program in northwest Indiana is enjoying its high. It is similar to every school that has swept out the previous administration only to be replaced by personality, pride and pomp.
It's what a Bobby Kennedy presidency would have been. It's what Kelly hopes to be. But how many more coaching reboots does the program have to go through before allowing itself to consider the obvious? Notre Dame belongs in a conference. Not that it should or will, just that something has to be done and Domers know it. What's the point if Notre Dame is struggling mightily to compete for championships? Chasing a Rose Bowl every year beats settling for a Champs Sports Bowl.
The fact that AD Jack Swarbrick would even bring up the conference subject in the offseason -- saying there is a "scenario" where Notre Dame could go to a conference during realignment -- tells you the idea has been planted somewhere. And fairly high up.
Brian Kelly, you're on deck. Whichever way Notre Dame heads, time is getting short as realignment looms and patience is wearing out. The last guy was a Notre Dame grad, had three Super Bowl rings, went to consecutive BCS bowls and won a postseason game for the first time in 15 years. The new guy is an Irish-Catholic Democrat from Boston. Notre Dame is getting the demographic, if not the winning, down.
As we get farther and farther away from that last national championship (1988), the middle ground has been eliminated. It is BCS or bust for Kelly. The man said it himself: There is not five-year plan, only a five-minute plan. The restlessness is palpable. He knows it. He speaks it. Now he has to do something about it.
"They were sick and tired of being sick and tired, too," Kelly said of his players. "They were 6-6 and they felt that walking around the campus."
|Independents Quick Hits|
|Best offense: Navy|
|Best defense: Notre Dame|
|Sleeper team: Army|
|Coach of the year: Ken Niumatalolo, Navy|
|Offensive player: Ricky Dobbs, Navy|
|Defensive player: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame|
|Game of the Year: Notre Dame vs. Navy, Oct. 23|
The media bought in soon after the players. Kelly is everything Charlie Weis wasn't in terms of personality and player access. In that recent news conference he openly spoke about the freshmen he expects to play. From mid-January through the end of May, Kelly made 136 appearances. Asked about expectations from his best player, Kelly gave a typically thoughtful response: He said receiver Michael Floyd was "overhyped."
The coach made it sound like Floyd having a 6-foot-3, 220-pound body that could out jump everyone on the field was akin to punching out a priest. Throw it up and he'd get it. Big deal.
"But in 20 years," Kelly said of now precise route runner, "I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked."
Bobby Kennedy couldn't have won over a depressed populace better. And ND Nation has been depressed. The difference, at least this time, is that Kelly has been a head coach for 19 years. That's a big difference that supporters believe will make all the difference. Weis could recruit. He was, and is, a good play caller. There was a gene missing, through, when it came to running the entire program.
Kelly came in and had a blueprint, literally, for how players should keep their lockers tidy. It's a teaching tool he brought from a quarter-century ago as the softball coach at his alma matter Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
"I was like, 'Wow, seriously?' Floyd said. "After thinking about it, a lot it is discipline. If you're neat a lot of things come with that."
Kelly is so forward-thinking that he has had talks with rightsholder NBC about the pace of his no-huddle offense. NBC obviously is worried about being able to fit its commercials around an offense that averaged 77 plays per game last season at Cincinnati. That's nine above the national average. Houston led the country with 82 plays per game. The perfect solution: If Kelly's unit scores enough touchdowns and NBC can run all the 30 Rock promos it wants.
None of it takes hold, though, unless Kelly enhances his rep as a fixer. Wherever Kelly goes, they win. At Grand Valley State, where Kelly won two Division II titles. At Central Michigan where he won back-to-back MAC titles. Cincinnati was national afterthought until Kelly arrived and produced consecutive BCS bowls.
"I've been here two seasons and we've had basically losing seasons," said Floyd, a junior who many expect to be in the NFL a year from now. "Coach Kelly emphasized that in our minds. It's time to win and the time is now."
The jump from Cincinnati to Notre Dame is a huge one. You wonder if his staff can recruit nationally. They've gotten off to a good start, landing 16 commitments for 2011. You wonder if Kelly's deadly spread isn't arriving at the end of the national offensive revolution. More and more programs, including his, are going to the 3-4 or some variation of it, to combat the spread.
|RB||Armando Allen||Sr.||Notre Dame|
|WR||Michael Floyd||Jr.||Notre Dame|
|WR||Duval Kamara||Sr.||Notre Dame|
|TE||Kyle Rudolph||Jr.||Notre Dame|
|OL||Trevor Robinson||Jr.||Notre Dame|
|DL||Ethan Johnson||Jr.||Notre Dame|
|DL||Ian Williams||Sr.||Notre Dame|
|LB||Brian Smith||Sr.||Notre Dame|
|LB||Manti Te'o||Soph.||Notre Dame|
|CB||Harrison Smith||Sr.||Notre Dame|
|K||Nick Tausch||Soph.||Notre Dame|
|KR||Theo Riddick||Soph.||Notre Dame|
Did we say impatient? This thing has to be done and it has to be done right. During the offseason Kelly had a one- or two-second cameo in a controversial music video, "We Are ND," produced by film, television and theater department faculty member Ted Mandell. Cincinnati-based funk artist Freekbass agreed to write and perform the song that quickly went viral on the internet. While we can debate the quality of the song, the video was slickly produced. There was significant blowback on Mandell, though not on the coach. Mandell said a group of students and alums criticized him for spitting on Notre Dame's tradition.
In the end, Kelly calls the regime change a "paradigm shift." Still, several Irish players still text, or get texts from, their old coach.
"We keep in contact," said linebacker Manti Te'o. Weis went to extraordinary measures to fly across the Pacific multiple times to land the five-star prospect from Hawaii.
"Whenever anybody shows that much interest in you, of course you build a relationship with that guy. We all miss him."
There was a come-to-Touchdown Jesus moment when the new coach sensed that all his players hadn't bought in. Midway through spring practice, he called a team meeting where Kelly asked the non-believers to leave. All of them stayed. Now the challenge is to turn that solidarity into a BCS bowl. Make that bowls. Kelly's first campaign cannot be the beginning of a last campaign.
"You have to win football games here," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "Coach Weis is a great football coach. He did everything he could to put us in the best situation he could. We didn't hold up our end. At the same time when Coach Kelly got here, he knew the pressure that was on him."
Offensive player of the year:
Ricky Dobbs, QB, Navy: He wants to be president. He has beaten Tim Tebow's record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (previously shared with Air Force's Chance Harridge). He has beaten Notre Dame. Now he's a Heisman candidate leading one of the most powerful running games in the country. You want him to be your son. You want him protecting your country. You don't want him to play against your favorite team.
Defensive player of the year:
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame: No one could have blamed Te'o for transferring. He had formed a close relationship with Weis, who performed one of the best recruiting jobs in recent history in landing the Hawaiian. Teo's first choice, initially, had been USC. Would that have been better? It took a year but Teo now has convinced himself this place without waves and mountains is home. He is a leader to the local Mormon community. He is about to become a leader in Notre Dame's new dynamic 3-4. Pay close attention to ND's next great linebacker.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Navy: Whether it is Paul Johnson or Niumatalolo, Navy continues to be a triple-option force. With a triggerman like Dobbs at the controls, the Middies should win at least eight for the eighth consecutive year. Heck, Alabama hasn't done that. Navy will continue to run with a committee of backs that go six deep. It will continue to win without throwing the ball with much frequency or accuracy (no yards passing in a win against Wake Forest). It will continue to scare the wits out of Notre Dame. Must-see game: Oct. 23 vs. Notre Dame in East Rutherford, N.J. Navy has won two of the last three after losing 43 straight. This one is in the new Meadowlands Stadium.
2. Notre Dame: Coming off a knee injury, Dayne Crist will become a star. How can he not? Kelly is a quarterback maker. Tony Pike came from fifth on the depth chart two years ago to starter, helping Cincinnati win the Big East. Crist has gotten the full Kelly treatment through an offseason that will change the direction of his career. A sophomore, Crist has thrown only 20 career passes but he has a big-time target in Floyd. The defense has to come a long way after surrendering almost 400 yards and 26 points per game. With nine starters back, it will be better, but will it be good enough to get Notre Dame to a BCS bowl? Not yet. Must-see game: Sept. 4 vs. Purdue. It's not fair to put a lot of stock in Kelly's first game but ND fans can and will. If the Irish don't beat Purdue, can we kiss BCS bowl contention good-bye in the first week?
3. Army: The Knights have a chance to make the most improvement of any team on this list. Rich Ellerson got Army from three to five wins in his first season. This year it could go to a bowl. The only team worse than Navy at passing in '09 was Army. That will have to change as Ellerson devises a way to keep defenders out of the box. Opponents are getting more used to his Double Eagle Flex defense, last seen at Arizona in the mid-90s. The Knights will probably have to beat Temple, Tulane and Kent State to have a chance to get to six wins. Must-see game: Dec. 11 vs. Navy in Philadelphia. It would be nice to score a touchdown. Army hasn't against Navy since 2006.