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.