When Notre Dame turned to Brian Kelly after another disappointing season in 2009, many wondered whether or not he was going to be able to make it on the recruiting trail. Cutting his teeth at Grand Valley State, then spending stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, moving to Notre Dame was a big step forward. And for Kelly and his staff — a group that was largely coaching on college football’s biggest stage for the first time — there was real concern whether this coaching staff could battle with the biggest names in college football to get elite talent to come to South Bend.
That answer has been rather obvious the past three years. After filling out a recruiting class built by Charlie Weis and his staff, Kelly’s 2011 class included elite defensive prospects Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams, all recruits that needed major work in the final days of their recruitment.
Last season, Kelly plucked five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel out from under LSU’s nose while also bringing in high profile players like Sheldon Day, Davonte Neal, Elijah Shumate, and KeiVarae Russell, who walked onto campus and started at cornerback from day one.
After recruiting prospects to Notre Dame after two eight-win seasons, Kelly and his staff have put together a banner class, with a handful of names still in play in the final days before faxes begin arriving.
With the Irish in the running to have the nation’s top recruiting class, ESPN’s Travis Haney took notice, including Brian Kelly among his top ten recruiting head coaches.
Here’s his list:
1. Nick Saban, Alabama
2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
T3. Art Briles & Kevin Sumlin, Baylor & Texas A&M
5. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
6. James Franklin, Vanderbilt
7. Will Muschamp, Florida
8. Lane Kiffin, USC
9. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
10. David Shaw, Stanford
Here’s what Haney had to say about Kelly:
Kelly is pure polish, illustrative perhaps of his brief run at politics before settling on a career as a football coach. Kelly cut his teeth at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before landing at Notre Dame, which is to say he had some time to ready himself for the particular demands of that highly visible job. (Not that anything could have prepared him for something like the Manti Te’o saga.)
But Kelly sure does not seem to represent the sometimes phony side of politics. Kelly has the ability to personally connect with recruits and their families and coaches. All of a sudden, high-end prospects — those who can get in, anyway — are again interested in Notre Dame.
To get the surge, Kelly partly used a message that sometimes pops up in recruiting: “Come help us win again.” And it’s working, as evidenced by more than just the BCS title game appearance. The Irish currently have the third-ranked recruiting class, behind only Florida and Alabama.
It’s interesting to look at this list from the viewpoint of perception. A majority of this group is known primarily for their recruiting acumen. It’s hard to find an article on guys like Swinney and Franklin that doesn’t mention their ability to charm recruits. When you read about Kiffin, the negative press that plagues him (much of which was his own doing), is almost rationalized with his ability to connect with young players.
Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have practically built their myth around their relentless nature — recruiting just as hard as they do everything else, with Meyer’s one-year sabbatical from the sport a product of simply trying too hard. A similar story is in its infancy for Muschamp.
Sure, Haney’s decription of what makes Kelly a great recruiter toes a familiar line. For a guy that spent a post-college year working for a political campaign as he figured out what he was going to do with his life, you half expect Kelly to have been Ryan Gosling from The Ides of March. But it’s got to be reassuring for Irish fans that Kelly has excelled so quickly on the recruiting trail.
As a coach that was hired for his ability to build a program and for his knowledge of Xs and Os, the fact that he finds himself on a list like this after just three seasons at Notre Dame — and only one where the Irish have had any sort of success — is a great sign of things to come.