Brian Kelly

Kelly’s talking points translate to pro football


Next man in. Unconscious competence. Count on me. Just a few of the building blocks Brian Kelly has used as he resurrected the Irish football program in his third season. For some, this sounds like your stereotypical management jargon that goes in one ear and out the other. But inside the Notre Dame football program, sentences like these have become commandments, maxims carried in day-to-day life that helped reshape the Irish football team.

It’s easy for those of us long out of college and following along from the internet to feel like Kelly and his staff’s message is just a bunch of coachspeak. But watching this season unfold, it’s hard to argue against the use of seemingly generic mantras like the “A-Team” or “Unfinished Business,” as they have become bedrock for a football team that’s fought against long odds to the top of college football.

Scrolling across the internet this morning, I stumbled upon two key quotes from coaches that show you the universality of Kelly’s coaching maxims. And funnily enough, they’re being used in the NFL, among the professional ranks where multi-million dollar contracts and grown men might see through anything that feels more like a motivational ploy than steadfast belief.

In Peter King‘s Monday Morning Quarterback, King talked with New Orleans interim head coach Joe Vitt, who had some keen observations on the plight of this year’s Saints team. If you’ve been following Notre Dame for the past 10 years, you can certainly see the parallels.

From King’s MMQB:

I thought interim coach Joe Vitt said something prescient after the 52-27 mauling at the hands of the Giants Sunday: “When you’re losing the way that were losing, you’re a fragile football team. We’ve got a lot of guys who are used to winning and doing things the right way around here. But unfortunately, we don’t have enough of them. All of a sudden something goes bad and its, oh, here we go again, instead of just setting your jaw and drawing a line in the sand and having some mental toughness to get it done.”

The dreaded “oh, here we go again,” has been infecting Notre Dame’s psyches for more than a decade, and was a major roadblock for Kelly and this coaching staff when they came to South Bend. In year one, Kelly helped establish a change in the program when his team picked itself up of the mat after hitting rock bottom against Tulsa, with the Irish running the table in November, beating Utah, Army and USC to propel the Irish into a blowout bowl victory against Miami.

But in 2011, that virus reinfected the team, and back-breaking losses to USF and Michigan started a promising season in the gutter before the squad could blink. It took a long offseason of training, and transcendent leadership from guys like Manti Te’o and a strong group of captains to change the culture of the program. Matching hard work in the weight room and practice field with mental preparation that allowed the team to peak during close and late situations, when the Irish often wilted.

Building mental and physical toughness sounds like one of those talking points that get a fanbase excited. Yet Kelly’s ability to do exactly that — as it has been on display throughout this magical season — is one of the reasons why Kelly is looked at as one of college football’s finest coaches.


One other quote that struck me came from Redskins back-up quarterback Kirk Cousins, who lead Washington to a miraculous comeback against the Ravens after Robert Griffin III was injured in the fourth quarter. Irish fans are very familiar with Cousins, who had a record-setting career at Michigan State and played many close games against Notre Dame, with Cousins often folding down the stretch.

Yet it was Cousins who saved the day for the Redskins. And after, he basically mirrored Kelly’s talking points about his quarterbacks this year, citing the delicate balance between science and art that a quarterback must possess.

Here’s Kelly from last spring’s Blue-Gold game, where he discussed Everett Golson‘s progress running the Irish offense.

“The quarterback position is both art and science,” Kelly said back in April. “The art part he’s got down. It’s the science and the consistency, all of those things to be a championship quarterback.”

And now this from Cousins yesterday to King:

“One of the things I’ve learned about being a quarterback,” said Cousins, and for a minute, he sounded like a Penn professor of Football 101 with a tweed coat on, “is that it’s a balance between being a robot and being an artist. On the touchdown to Garcon, that’s being an artist; you don’t really know how it’s going to look, but you’ve just got to get out of the pocket and create something. On the two-point conversion, you’re a robot. You take the play and do what’s called, because you know if it’s blocked the right way and set up the right way, it’ll work — the quarterback just executes it.”

Cousins and Griffin are being groomed under Mike and Kyle Shanahan, a coaching duo that knows quite a bit about offensive football. That Shanahan and Kelly both use strikingly similar analogies to the art of quarterbacking should have Irish fans feeling pretty good about the trajectory of Golson.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.