As they shovels come out to bury Brian Kelly, the stories keep writing themselves. A coach—often times too headstrong for his own good—struggles to look in the mirror.
These aren’t new headlines. Nor are they unfair.
They’ve existed as long as Kelly came to South Bend promising change, often times force-feeding it when the status quo could’ve probably done well enough (and maybe even clawed back a few victories in the meantime).
But Kelly has done things his way since showing up seven seasons ago. And in doing so, he’s won a lot of football games and completely changed the culture of the football program.
No, he hasn’t won as many as the guys with statues outside Notre Dame Stadium. But he’s had the Irish playing for a national title, and last year had the Irish a handful of plays—and maybe one or two less season-ending injuries—away from an invitation to play for another.
But Kelly is in hot water for committing a cardinal sin of coaching—losing games.
(Wait, you thought I was going to say, criticizing his players, right? Get serious.)
Kelly’s willingness to shoot straight may ruffle more than a few feathers. His postgame stubbornness has gotten him into trouble perhaps just as often as some of his ill-conceived strategic blunders.
His latest, daring to acknowledge that Sam Mustipher was terrible snapping the football in a hurricane, got some people up in arms. Never mind that it was objectively true. (Mustipher’s single-game grade was the lowest PFF assigned to any player on Notre Dame’s team this season—by a wide margin.)
Yet Kelly’s postgame comments went viral shortly after he made them. And perhaps more glaring than the coach’s unwillingness to reassess his decision to throw early and often in a hurricane were his comments about Mustipher, perceived (by some) as Kelly blaming his players for a game his team should’ve won.
But Kelly’s postgame media comments came after he addressed his team. And while national headlines and hundreds of message board threads across the internet focused on the comments aimed at evaluating the play on the field and ignored the coaching from the sideline, Kelly’s postgame talk with his players showed the message he sent to his team.
And that wasn’t a coach unwilling to be be critical of his own performance. It was a head coach who point-blank apologized to his players.
“You were ready to play, you were excited to play. You were energized to play. And I couldn’t find a way to win that game for you,” Kelly said, as you can see in the Inside Notre Dame Football episode. “And I apologize. I’ve got to look hard at how I’m doing it, to figure out a way to get a win for you guys. Because you deserved it.”
Any worry that Kelly is mentally checked out can probably be thrown out the window. Because Kelly didn’t speak to his team like a coach already planning an early December vacation. He didn’t sound like a guy ready to look at job openings, if only to consider a fresh start.
“All I can tell you is that I’m just going to work harder,” Kelly said. “I’m going to coach harder. I’m going to commit harder. I’m going to do everything that I can to make sure that we get all three units playing, and ascending, to the level that we’re capable of.”
None of this means Notre Dame is going to win on Saturday. None of it means that everything behind closed doors is happy and worry-free. That’s the cost of losing.
But before we run away carving the assumed into tablets, Kelly’s actual postgame comments—at least the ones that matter—shouldered the blame. And while you wonder why the coach doesn’t want to show that type of truthfulness to the hordes of reporters that cover his daily moves, at least credit Notre Dame for at least counterpunching, utilizing the embedded cameras and commitment to social media to get out both sides of the story—even if one will likely be ignored.