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Kelly’s Coach of the Year award a validation of the process

Dec 6, 2012, 11:48 AM EDT

Brian Kelly

As the only coach to finish college football’s regular season 12-0, the naming of Brian Kelly as the Home Depot Coach of the Year might have been a foregone conclusion. Yet when Kelly steps to the podium tonight in ESPN’s made for television award show, it’s a great validation of the process Kelly used to rebuild this football program, and the decision athletic director Jack Swarbrick made when he decided to bring the former Cincinnati coach to South Bend.

Kelly is the only coach to win the award twice, honored after his 2009 Bearcats finished their regular season 12-0. And while that team succeeded with an explosive, quick-strike offense, Kelly’s Irish squad reached college football’s summit by playing dominant defense as a first-year quarterback learned on the job.

With a third-year benchmark being a historical indicator for Irish head coaches, Kelly’s sparking 2012 season came as a surprise to many — including his athletic director — who candidly said after the team’s final victory that he thought 2013 would be the year. Yet Kelly’s progress, while seemingly incremental at best with back-to-back eight-win seasons, was being established off the field, through player development, weight room gains, and program building, things that seem like coach-speak when a team loses five games, but became a perfect alchemy this season. Kelly’s football team continued to improve throughout the year, fighting for wins as it learned about the perils of success along the way.

It may be too long ago for success-drunk Irish fans to remember, but August was a very different time for Notre Dame nation. While there was no sense of this inside the program, many fans had already begun to sour on a head coach who didn’t appear to bring many of the attributes that got him the job with him to South Bend.

Yet Kelly’s restructuring of his coaching staff — including the bold move of turning a defensive position coach into his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach — paid immediate dividends. Saying goodbye to respected coaches Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton, both of whom went to Ohio State to work with Urban Meyer, allowed Kelly to promote Scott Booker and bring in Harry Hiestand. With Booker, the staff added another hard-working young assistant, a coach already familiar with the team after spending two seasons as a graduate assistant. In Hiestand, Kelly brought in an old-school offensive line technician, a coach that would turn the Irish trenches into a game of physicality, immediately beloved by his players after not getting those results in his first two seasons.

But the biggest gamble Kelly made this season was doubling-down on himself. After spending two seasons demanding excellence from his players and riding them with a hard edge, the head of the Irish football program reconnected with his players, spending more time with them, breaking down the wall that had been erected as he put the ownership of the team back into the hands of its leaders.

With a strong group of veteran leadership, four captains led by the transcendent Manti Te’o, two years of results seen mostly off the field transitioned to remarkable success on the field.

For Kelly, the result is another large trophy that’ll impress recruits and find a spot in the trophy case inside the Gug. But for the Irish football program, it’s a validation of a coaching search that led to a choice that was disliked by many because it was so obvious.

And more important than anything, it’s the culmination of a terrific regular season, and Notre Dame’s first chance to play for a national title in over 20 years.

  1. bernhtp - Dec 6, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Kelly certainly deserves the award. The transformation of the program, the team, and himself have been miraculous.

    I’ll also reiterate my belief that Swarbrick may ultimately go down as the most important figure in Notre Dame athletics since Knute Rockne. What he has done in hiring Kelly, adopting new policies (e.g., training table), navigating the turbulent waters of conference realignment, making the ACC deal, and so much more while maintaining Notre Dame’s identity and values has been absolutely masterful.

    • heisenbyrg - Dec 6, 2012 at 12:46 PM

      Apologies if this is an ignorant question, but what is “training table” and what is its significance?

      • bernhtp - Dec 6, 2012 at 1:22 PM

        Training table is a special food service for athletes. Football players now get meals at the Gug. Previous to two years ago, all athletes ate in the dining halls with other on-campus students.

        Weis argued for it but was denied; Notre Dame wanted to treat all students the same. In his exit interview with Swarbrick, Weis reiterated the need for training table and cited the fact that his linemen, in particular, all lost weight (average -15 lbs) during the season. Kelly reemphasized this and he got it.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Dec 6, 2012 at 1:44 PM

        To keep those horses from losing weight during the season where they practice everyday, lift weights, play a 4 hour game each saturday, that training table must have barrels of sausage gravy and vats of lasagna.

    • onebigloadofcrap - Dec 6, 2012 at 2:14 PM

      and he kept their independence. don’t forget that my friend. otherwise they could have been playing wisconsin for the bigten title last week.

      • bernhtp - Dec 6, 2012 at 3:26 PM

        Of course. I thought that was clear in “navigating the turbulent waters of conference realignment”

    • thepiper3 - Dec 6, 2012 at 3:53 PM

      Bingo on Swarbrick. Nowadays an AD needs to be a negotiator, lawyer, sports agent and motivator. If you’re not in a major conference, then this is not a job for an athletics administrator. The contracts, decisions, etc are too big.

      Swarbrick’s work in this arena have been legendary. And he also cares about the non-revenue sports as well.

      There have been 2 great ADs in our history – Gene Corrigan and now Jack Swarbrick. Kudos to Captain Jack on this.

      • jajensen23 - Dec 6, 2012 at 4:35 PM

        Moose Krause was a great AD as well. Legendary in fact.

        And although many people don’t talk about him, Dick Rosenthal did a wonderful job as well. Keep in mind that Coach Holtz admitted that if Rosenthal had not retired he would still be the coach. It was issues with Wadsworth that led to him leaving.

        Holtz had (and has) a great relationship with Rosenthal, who also did a ton to bring women’s athletics to the forefront at Notre Dame as well. I had a chance to interview him when I was a student and could not have been nicer.

      • thepiper3 - Dec 6, 2012 at 5:21 PM

        Jajensen – moose was a legendary player. But all he did as AD was drink cocktails and shake hands. As for Rosenthal he was a very nice guy….but he also didn’t do much. He was owned by Holtz and so Lou ran the dept.

        It wouldve been nice for Dick to have actually met the athletes of our other teams. Didn’t ever do that.

  2. jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 6, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    Congrats to BK, it is a well deserved honor. He’s had to handle a lot of stuff in three short years like the death of a recruit, the Declan Sullivan tragedy, some recruiting misfires and defections and some internal dissension. All this and he brings the team in undefeated in year 3 which is fantastic. Also a good job by puppet master Swarbrick for pulling all the right strings. Lastly Keith, I think our buddy Urban also went 12-0 as a head coach this year.

    • joeschu - Dec 6, 2012 at 1:58 PM

      Keith should have qualified it as BK being “the only head coach to go 12-0 while not suffering the consequences of taking over a cheating program that had the audacity to celebrate the coach and players who were all cheating.”

      That would have cleared it up 😉

      • nddc21 - Dec 6, 2012 at 2:57 PM

        This is a topic for another discussion, and I’m no lover of tOSU or Urban, but in my mind “selling memorabilia you legally own in exchange for tattoos” =/= “cheating.” Against the NCAA’s (unfair?) rules, but not cheating. That is all, I don’t want to expound on this, just my 2 cents.

      • irishmurphy25 - Dec 6, 2012 at 3:50 PM

        The players didn’t cheat but the head coach did. He chose not to report the illegal actions of the players because he knew that reporting them would give his team am athletic disadvantage.

      • irishmurphy25 - Dec 6, 2012 at 3:51 PM


      • irish4006 - Dec 6, 2012 at 4:40 PM

        nddc21, I agree with you on the players (although they should have known that they were breaking the rules), but that was just the beginning. Tressel decided to sweep it under the rug, lie to NCAA and, after all came to light, the AD said, “I hope Coach Tressel doesn’t fire us” implying the firing of the liar was out of the question. All these are valid points and show what kind of moral standard the athletic program maintains.

      • irish4006 - Dec 6, 2012 at 4:42 PM

        Not to mention the ridiculous suspension for the following season keeping them eligible for the bowl and to end their college career before the next season began. It was pretty clear that winning was a lot more important to the program than playing by the rules.

      • 9irish - Dec 7, 2012 at 3:36 PM

        See that’s the thing right there. It wasn’t what the players did, it was the fact that nobody knew about it, and then tried to cover it up. Richard Milhous Tressel

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Dec 7, 2012 at 9:39 PM

        You can’t visit the sins of Tressel upon Urban. Urban went 12-0. It is a fact, just pointing it out that Kelly was not the only 12-0 coach this year. NOT saying that Urban deserved COTY Award or that Tressel didn’t cheat, just pointing it out that’s all.

      • joeschu - Dec 9, 2012 at 8:34 AM

        I’m sure the victims of Urban’s crime wave in Gainesville would be willing to testify to the “sins” of Saint Urban.

  3. kiopta1 - Dec 6, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    Man it’s hard to believe that just a few months ago large portions of the ND fan base were saying Kelly isn’t the guy, or just writing this season off as a 7-9 win max season. Just such a storied year so far. I am sure those voices will be back if ND has a 9 win season next year. I just feel that even though next year’s team will have more talent it will have to replace some amazing leaders.

  4. kiopta1 - Dec 6, 2012 at 12:57 PM

    For those unfamiliar with what exactly a training table is, it is basically a “table” for athletes to eat at which contains different food from a standard cafeteria with a specific menu developed by the school’s nutritionist to provide maximum support to strength and conditioning work. In short, its a way of making sure athletes are eating the proper foods to supplement their weight training.

    • onebigloadofcrap - Dec 6, 2012 at 2:17 PM

      all i know is that when i went away to college i was 125 lbs. after freshman year i was 155. and i wasn’t lifting weights. but the weight i put on was all dorm food and pure crap. potatoes, bread, blah blah. cant believe nd went this long without a proper approach to nutrition. oh well, better late than never

  5. kiopta1 - Dec 6, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    Holy crap you small…or we’re small.

  6. fnc111 - Dec 6, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    Again, Chuck Martin was the offensive coordinator at GVSU while being the HC. It wasn’t a shocker move.

  7. sinister23 - Dec 7, 2012 at 8:33 PM

    So I just read there are 2 rapists on the ND squad….teams trying to cover it up!! Real classy….oh, the source? ND ALUM!

  8. harvupdyke - Dec 9, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    I don’t understand. Did Coach Saban remove himself from consideration for the award? This Kelly guy had a nice year at Grand Valley, but they missed D2 playoffs. How on earth does that top what Coach Saban has done?!?

    See y’all January the 7th. Roll dam tide.

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