After ten days of wild rumors, wild goose chases, and wild denials, it’s being reported that Brian Kelly has agreed to coach the Notre Dame football team. The agreement ends a clandestine search orchestrated by Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, his first real test as the man in charge of his alma mater’s athletic department since taking the job sixteen months ago. While many assumed that Kelly would be the one ultimately tapped to be the next man in charge of the Irish football program, the way the decision came to be was far from routine.
Brian Kelly walks away from a 12-0 Cincinnati football team that will now play the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl with Kerry Combs as the interim head coach. That Kelly was willing to walk away from a team that was a 48-yard field goal and a replay official away from playing in the BCS National Championship game goes to show you that the Notre Dame job still means something.
Kelly wasn’t only willing to leave town before a bowl game against the mighty Florida Gators, he was willing to take over a Notre Dame team that just lost it’s two most prolific offensive weapons, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate. It’s a team that will now rely on untested and unhealthy quarterback Dayne Crist, who is only 40 days removed from an ACL tear in his right knee. Even with the instability at quarterback, Kelly’s largest problem will be solving an Irish defense that was historically bad.
So why would a coach that’s presiding over a top college program in a conference ripe for the taking be willing to walk away and take over a Notre Dame program that hasn’t consistently won in 20 years? As we all get to know Brian Kelly, the answer will become obvious.
Brian Kelly has won football games at every stop in his coaching career. He won prodigiously at Grand Valley State. He won big at Central Michigan. He pushed Cincinnati to the apex of college football. And while Kelly won football games with offensive wizardry and tenacious defense, his greatest skill of all might be his upward mobility.
“He’s a salesman, is what he is,” Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin said of Kelly back in 2007. “Whether it’s Grand Valley State or Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he has kids believing they can move mountains. His number one strength is offense. His number two strength is how good he is politically at getting people to believe in his program. He sells it door to door, which not a lot of coaches do. I remember at Central Michigan, somebody asked him how long the rebuilding cycle would be. He said, ‘About 10 seconds.'”
That Kelly believes he can move mountains should come as no surprise. That Kelly would be willing to jump into the eye of the media storm that comes along with the job and tackle the ghosts of Notre Dame’s past, should be enough evidence that Kelly’s self-belief is far from wavering.
Kelly will be named the ESPN Home Depot Coach of the Year tonight, but he’ll face a much larger task when he meets the press for the very first time as the head coach of Notre Dame. He’d be wise to take note of his predecessor’s stumbles when meeting the press for the first time, and no doubt Kelly will now that anything he says today or tomorrow will be used against him in the years to come.
While many Irish fans hoped for Urban Meyer or Bob Stoops, the hiring of Brian Kelly is solid, if not spectacular. For the first time since Lou Holtz, the Irish will be managed by a battle-tested, proven winner at the collegiate level. While there will surely be growing pains, there likely won’t be any of the fatal flaws that doomed the last three regimes.
More important than Xs and Os, Kelly’s political savvy and ability to sell an image could be his greatest asset, as he tackles a job that’s become one of the more polarizing posts in major sports. Notre Dame is in desperate need of a coach that can become a media darling. Kelly’s quick ascent to the top has shown us he’s capable on the sidelines. As we’ll find out in the days the come, he’s more than ready for his time in the spotlight as well.