How soul searching and a culture change turned Notre Dame around in one offseason
The Irish went 4-8 in 2016 and replaced seven coaches, including both of their coordinators
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A 6-foot-8, 310-pound left tackle sitting across the desk from me has no problem telling you what went wrong with Notre Dame last year.
Now just imagine the gigantic Mike McGlinchey telling it all to his coach's face.
"I had problems with people that were on the staff. I made that clear to him," said McGlinchey of his conversation with coach Brian Kelly.
McGlinchey is a respected captain, one of those stern, proud, square-jawed Notre Dame types from a Hollywood casting call.
"We needed a culture change," he continued. "We let things get too stale around here. If it wasn't going to change, it probably wasn't going to be an environment conducive to me being here anymore."
That's not-so-subtle code for McGlinchey, now a fifth-year senior, considering a departure for the NFL.
"I wanted to stay," he added, "but I wasn't going to stay if things didn't go the right way. I didn't say that to him but that was my thought process."
It's refreshing how candid they are around here these days. It's old news now that No. 3 Notre Dame changed seven coaches, even more attitudes and accomplished a radical turnaround to the point of playoff contention.
The latest test is a trip to Miami that once again wakes up echoes of tunnel brawls,.
"Being a part of it kind of sends chills down your spine," McGlinchey.
But this game wouldn't include two top 10 teams had not Notre Dame looked into its soul.
It's astounding how the Irish have owned the strife that contributed to a 4-8 season in 2016, the Irish's second-worst record since 1963.
Linebacker Drue Tranquill recalled starting 1-3 last season after a home loss to Duke.
"I remember having tears in my eyes when I rolled out of bed that Sunday morning," he said.
We already know about McGlinchey's candor regarding his coach.
"He's a guy who looked at himself and looked at the lack of relationships that he had with players at certain times," he said. "That's been a big change."
McGlinchey, of course, is back having an All-American season. Notre Dame's massive hype machine is at work promoting Heisman Trophy candidate Josh Adams. (This video could have been produced by Speilberg.)
Surrounding it is a new $600 million Notre Dame Stadium upgrade that includes labs, classrooms and network-quality video facilities. It's not exactly the House That Brian built, but in this comeback season, the foundation that was crumbling has been shored up.
"It's like I've shed the skin and come back in a different form," Kelly told the South Bend Tribune in the offseason.
Before asking what went wrong in 2016, you have inquire as to why it went wrong in the first place.
"The issues were discreet and identifiable," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said, cryptically.
"We lost a certain amount of accountability in the program," he added. "We had lost a certain level of competitiveness. The kids fought like hell externally. The staff dynamic wasn't what it should be."
That alone could have led to the seven losses by eight points or less last season, but there was more.
Kelly and Swarbrick sat down in the offseason to sort through that coaching staff. It's probably safe to conclude Notre Dame's coach of eight seasons (26 years overall), didn't agree with all the moves.
But Kelly was introspective enough to go one-on-one with about 85 players in individual meetings.
Included in those seven coaching changes were new coordinators -- Chip Long on offense from Memphis and Mike Elko on defense from Wake Forest.
Neither had a professional relationship with Kelly. Long leaned on that physical offensive line to pound Adams.
"I kind of do a lot of observations," Tranquill said. "I did this with my fiancé when I first started dating her. For eight months, I kind of observed her and watched her interact with people."
Same thing for Tranquill with Elko, a 40-year-old one-time Ivy League safety at Penn.
"I'm an engineer," Tranquill said. "I'm really analytical in the way I think about things. I asked him, 'Coach, what is your defensive philosophy?' He said, 'Dude, how do you not know this by now?'"
It's simple, Elko said: Stop the run, eliminate big plays, create turnovers, stop 'em on third down.
Notre Dame's defense has gone from 39th to T3 on gains of at least 40 yards. The 19 turnovers forced are T15 nationally. Last year, ND was 104th in that category. The rush defense has gone from 72nd nationally to 30th overall.
Tranquill said Kelly "wasn't necessarily available to his players" last season. Now? It's not necessarily a bad thing for Kelly to be a CEO coach.
"It changes, kind of like the wind coming through the door," he said.
Consider the odds of such a turnaround being successful. Kelly and Swarbrick were ripping up the comfortable plush carpet in an opulent Taj Mahal. There was funk that was hanging over the program.
"Like there is tension between mom and dad," Swarbrick said. "It may not be overt, but you can feel it."
Most importantly, 2016 had to be a down year -- nothing more. The days are a long gone of even a single dip like this being tolerated. Remember, Kelly was one of our.
"It's all reality television," Swarbrick said. "You're voted off the island or you're fired. Culturally, that's where we are."
Swarbrick had faith because the Irish won 10 in 2015 and went to the Fiesta Bowl. He had faith because, five years ago, Notre Dame played for the national championship in Kelly's third season.
"I'm dealing with what I think is one of six coaches in America that have coached in a national championship game," he said. "You've got a lot of fundamental things in place."
Really, the players aren't that much different. Adams has been a consistent performer for three years. Tranquill is that hard-hitting backender that Notre Dame always seems to have. Left guard Quenton Nelson was a second-team All-American in 2016 just like McGlinchey. Brandon Wimbush seemed to be an athletic upgrade at quarterback from the NFL-bound DeShone Kizer.
Two games into the season, the Irish were 1-1, having lost by one gut-wrenching point to Georgia. McGlinchey blamed himself for whiffing on a late pass block. That old doubt started to creep in.
"I gave up that sack at the end of the game," he said. "Bad time, I let our team down when I needed to be at my best."
But Notre Dame rallied, winning by 20 at Michigan State, a team that -- now late in the season -- controls its for the Big Ten title. USC was destroyed by five touchdowns. Wake Forest on Saturday piled up more than 700 yards. Kelly blamed it on second-half "scoreboard watching."
Suddenly, that Georgia loss looks like the "best" such L in the country considering College Football Playoff implications.
For Kelly, the changes have been conceptual and anecdotal. The media isn't allowed to speak to his assistants during the season.
The coach himself seems to be looser, less of the camera magnet noted for his sideline rants. When reminded that Saturday marks his 100th game at Notre Dame, Kelly joked.
"That's like a thousand dog years, isn't it? I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever get a chance to coach one game at Notre Dame."
After a one-year dip, a massive tear down and a rapid rebuild, Kelly is also sure of something else.
"Fans could be more patient," he said.
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