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

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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.