What to think of the loud voice on the sidelines


Possibly the biggest surprise of the Brian Kelly era thus far has been Brian Kelly himself. Who’d have thought that such a nice man would be so grumpy on the sidelines? After fourteen years of Bob Davie’s tepid enthusiasm, Tyrone Willingham’s stoicism, and Charlie Weis’ controlled brashness, the bombastic nature of Kelly the coach — such a diametric opposition from the suit-wearing orator that looks the part of CEO Sunday through Friday — has plenty of people worried that the Fighting Irish football players might develop a complex.

For all those worried that their quarterback or receivers might develop a low self-esteem after being dressed down by the man-in-charge, fear not. This is football. That means coaches raising their voices to get a point across. Even using a few words you might not hear a professor utter.

Nineteen years ago, Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz led a player off the field by grabbing him by the facemask. He then proceeded to unload on freshman Huntley Bakich for mixing it up with an opposing player. Andy Staples of SI.com dug back into the archives of the Chicago Tribune and found a whopping three paragraphs buried at the bottom of page C-14 in the days following Holtz’s outburst, and a small note in a round-up column after Holtz apologized.

Needless to say Holtz didn’t coach in the internet era, where user-comments, message boards, and pop psychologists openly wonder about the effects of a tongue-lashing in the heat of battle.

Many have floated the idea that Kelly lost his poise on the sideline against Boston College. I couldn’t disagree more with that premise. (For those looking for an example of lost composure, click here.) Since 1997, Notre Dame has had 93 wins and 71 losses, winning at a clip of 56 percent. The Irish have been even worse against ranked opponents — winning only 32 percent of games against ranked teams under Davie, Willingham, and Weis. If Brian Kelly feels like he needs to use salty language and high-intensity to get through to his players, so be it. While Notre Dame fans vividly recall the glory days of yesteryear, Dayne Crist was seven years old the last time Lou Holtz roamed the Notre Dame sidelines. There is no latent memory of greatness in this generation of Irish football player. It’s up to Kelly to mold these players into a championship team.

Veteran Irish scribe and ND alum Tim Prister over at Irish Illustrated took the strongest position I’ve seen on the subject of Kelly’s fiery sideline disposition:

Kelly has to be careful about straddling that fine line
with his players. A players’ coach he is not. One can’t help but wonder
if the players will reach a point where they begin to tune him out.

In most instances, it won’t happen this season.
They’re trying to please their head coach. They want to win. They’re
sick of losing. Most players will hop on board and stay on board, no
matter how rocky the waters or how loud the yelling.

But one gets the feeling that some players, say
Michael Floyd for example, won’t leave after this season because he’s
ready to move on to the NFL as much as he’ll look forward to not being
berated every time he makes a mistake.

The Notre Dame football player is different than most other college
football players. They aren’t, speaking in broad terms, completely
comfortable with extreme amounts of verbal abuse. They consider
themselves to be a cut above intellectually. Their initial response is
to do whatever it takes to please the head coach. There’s likely a limit
to being verbally humiliated in front of millions of viewers, but it
worked well enough Saturday night.

There are plenty of risky assumptions in these paragraphs, including the hypothesis that Michael Floyd would flee South Bend for the NFL because he’s berated every time he makes a mistake. Kelly’s certainly been tough on Floyd and challenged him to become a complete player. He’s also paid Floyd some of his most effusive compliments.

On a macro level, Prister’s most dangerous presumption is that Notre Dame football players are different than most college football players. Prister has certainly spent more time around the program than I have, but his contention that, in broad terms, Irish players aren’t comfortable with extreme amounts of verbal abuse seems to be completely off-base, and more importantly, a misrepresentation of what Kelly’s program is all about.

Having spent time with this coaching staff, one of the key tenets of this staff is dealing with every player with respect, and never humiliating or dehumanizing them. (If anything, this team is still dealing with the negativity that was reaped on it by the previous regime, though not in front of national TV cameras.) Lip-readers out there may have had a good idea of what was actually being said on the sidelines against Boston College, but I believe firmly that there’s a rhyme and reason for these outbursts, and a team letting their foot off the gas after jumping to a 21-point lead against a hated rival certainly seems to qualify.

Prister is right on with one of his main contentions. It’s true that Notre Dame football players are different than elite college football players. They’re not as good at playing football — or at least they haven’t been over the last fourteen years.

Any belief that student-athletes wearing the blue and gold of Notre Dame need treatment different than that of players under Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, or Bob Stoops merely feeds into the institutional arrogance that Brian Kelly spoke of when arriving in South Bend. The scoreboard doesn’t care what your SAT scores are. Your opponent likely wants to beat you more because he doesn’t match up intellectually.

Brian Kelly has spent 19 years atop college football programs, and likely won’t bat an eye at the outsiders that challenge his treatment of a football team desperately in need of an identity change. Good thing. This is the coach that Jack Swarbrick hired to transform the Fighting Irish. And while a few egos might get bruised in the process, his players — and all Notre Dame fans — will likely thank him in the end.

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.