Brian Kelly made more than a few Notre Dame fans bristle when he eschewed a 36-yard field goal and took to the air against Tulsa in his first season as Irish head coach, letting freshman quarterback Tommy Rees target All-American Michael Floyd on a jump ball in the end zone. The result of the pass was an interception and a back-breaking loss, the low point of an era that’s seen plenty of ups and downs. When asked about the decision in the post game press conference after the game, Kelly confidently told the reporters there that we all better “get used to it.”
It was a perfect snapshot of the head coach, a man no worried about sounding tone deaf or apologetic to the masses. Kelly was a man that had run a program before, and wasn’t about to doubt the convictions that led him to one of college football’s most high profile positions when he stepped foot in the pressure cooker.
“We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today,” Kelly said back in October of 2010. “But in time, we’ll make that play.”
Unflinching in his belief in himself and his rebuilt coaching staff, Kelly showed that same resolve this season when he took a redshirt freshman and rode him through growing pains all the way to the NCAA championship game. Winning with defense, Kelly showed tremendous versatility for a guy hired for his offensive innovator status. He turned his offense from a throw-first, spread team to a power-running group of chain movers.
Building a team through unprecedented recruiting success, excellent player development, and with a singular vision for the program for the first time since Lou Holtz, it was only a matter of time before the NFL began kicking the tires on the first Notre Dame coach to over-perform with his talent since 1988.
The whispers of NFL interest came in the days leading up to the game, though they were summarily dismissed by Irish fans too concerned about a national title run. And while certain fans are now cherry-picking quotes from the non-stop media access both team’s granted, Kelly was remarkably candid about the NFL, never issuing a zero interest statement.
So get used to it, Irish fans. Maybe even embrace it.
You’ve finally got a football program people want a piece of. Finally have a coach that runs a unified outfit filled with loyal coaches all with a singular, process-oriented mind. If you thought that a 20-plus year veteran of the head coaching ranks wouldn’t be part of the vetting process for one of seven NFL teams looking for a new leader, you were only fooling yourself.
While I don’t think Kelly is going to the NFL, I do think he owes it to himself to listen to any team that wants to have a discussion. That doesn’t make him any different than Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, Greg Shiano, or Will Muschamp, the head coach that pulled in Alex Anzalone after the oft-waffling recruit decided to head to Gainsville instead of South Bend.
Just as important, he also owes it to himself to capitalize on his value now. Not just for the head coach, but the assistants working under him. A group that’s being vetted by athletic directors all across the country, and being paid at a price point befitting of a mid-range Big Ten school, not one of college football’s most profitable programs — now one of its best. If solidifying the financial futures of his staff, and the head coach, cost Kelly just one top prospect to Florida, call it the trade of the century. (Are Irish fans still weeping over Justin Trattou?)
Don’t get me wrong, Kelly is playing a delicate game, a high-wire act that could come back to bite him. But Jack Swarbrick isn’t stupid. And ask Boston College how giving a successful head coach an ultimatum about the NFL worked. They’re still digging themselves out of a hole. While the intel has only come through back channels, multiple reports have Notre Dame brass hard at work ironing out contract extensions and pay bumps for Kelly and his assistants. And if that’s the case, a 48-hours in limbo was well worth it.
Will it cost Kelly a few approval points among fans of the program? Any coach that openly lobbies for field turf and a Jumbotron at Notre Dame isn’t too worried about his constituents’ feelings.
So while it’s been a topsy-turvy time for Irish fans still smarting from the trouncing Alabama put on their favorite team, it’s a nice reminder that the Irish finally have a coach worth sweating over.
Now it’s up to the University to keep him.