Notre Dame, Brian Kelly prepare for ‘new normal’


Despite the awkward, forced Zoom background mimicking Notre Dame’s usual sponsored press conference backdrop, despite the unusual nature of answering questions submitted through a Q&A chat and despite the only certainty being uncertainty, Irish head coach Brian Kelly struck the right tone Wednesday afternoon in what is the increasingly common method of meeting the media, an online video chat.

Kelly did not paint broadly with overeager optimism, as one 2020 opponent’s head coach did this week, and he did not diminish the health threats faced by his players, a tact that garnered deserved criticism elsewhere. Instead, Kelly balanced practical preparation with recognizing reality as it pertains to college football’s future.

“All I can tell you is that it’s going to be a new normal and we’re going to have to adjust,” Kelly said when asked what he thinks game atmospheres will look like this fall. “What that looks like is probably going to be something different than what we know now. We’re all prepared and ready for it, but I don’t know all the implications of what it is that football looks like without fans and how all that works.”

Kelly was responding to Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick earlier this week expressing a reluctance to play many games without fans during an interview with ESPN’s Paul Finebaum. In a moment of honesty, one he acknowledged may seem flippant though it was not meant as such, Kelly pointed out those worries were more on par with Swarbrick’s duties, not his own.

“I’ve really been focused much more on the day-to-day and trying to create a structured environment for our football team,” Kelly said. “Those are his topics that he really has to focus on.”

Kelly’s focus on his football team is not a blind eye to the present problems facing the sport because of the coronavirus pandemic. He knows the season may not start as planned; addressing the viability of the Aug. 29 game against Navy in Dublin cannot wait until mid-May, as an obvious example.

“We’d like to play the game in Ireland,” Kelly said. “Whether we can or not, that is still obviously a topic that is being discussed, but we’ll have some alternatives. … I can tell you this: Those discussions are underway and they’re certainly being deliberated as we speak, relative to where that game is going to be played.”

For now, though, Kelly needs to prepare the Irish as if they will open the season at the end of August. Obviously, that simple task comes with vast limits in a time of stay-at-home orders covering the country, but Notre Dame has done what it can. When classes moved to distance learning and everyone was sent home, the first two priorities were health and safety, and creating structure for the academic situation.

Then came strength and conditioning, followed by checking on each player’s at-home nutrition. Only in the last few days have the Irish moved to football-specific tasks.

“This last piece has been we’ve incorporated some football-related position meetings, Zoom meetings,” Kelly said. “We’ve had some installation as if it was a spring practice. We’ve added to our playbook through these meetings. We’re using video. We’re using some of the technology that Zoom has where we can have some handouts. We’ve started those up and are making some pretty good progress.”

That work will have to be enough for the foreseeable future. The University has already canceled on-campus activities well into the summer, including the first session of summer classes. It intends to make decisions regarding the back half of the summer in mid-May.

Until then, and possibly long after, the Irish will lean on the leadership of its SWAT (Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Teams) captains, players each in charge of a subset of the roster.

That is usually a leadership duty focused on a spectrum ranging from locker-room tidiness to weight-room performances. Now, those details are not the concern; general wellbeing is.

“We don’t want to put them in a position where they have to be a big brother all the time,” Kelly said. “… We don’t want them to have to feel every time they make a call to one of their SWAT team members that it’s a negative situation. We want it to be a positive, a program builder.

“… This is not about disciplining somebody that misses a Zoom conference and somebody that doesn’t turn in a workout because you’re responsible for keeping an eye on them. This is much more about the positive things and balancing that out.”

If some of those players flout stay-at-home orders, there is not much Notre Dame can do about it, but it has encouraged them to listen to the experts. Kelly’s focus is on their health, not on rushing back to the field, as seems to be the case on other coaching staffs.

“It does us no good to have any of our players — and knock on wood, we’ve been very, very lucky that none of our players have tested positive for COVID-19 — because of that we want to be sure our players stay safe and take all the precautions,” Kelly said. “Being consistent with our message has allowed our players to clearly understand how important it is for them to stay healthy during this period of time and they can’t afford to not listen to the experts and the science in this period of time.”

In that respect, Kelly’s message for Irish fans is the same as it is for his team. As frustrating, bothersome and tragic as the last month has been, there are still 30 figurative minutes to play.

If we stay at home and stay vigilant, if we stay patient, we’re going to see ourselves on the other side of this and we’re going to be stronger for it.

“We have not won yet. We’re just getting to halftime. We have a second half to play. Really good job in the first couple of quarters, but we’re just getting into the locker room. Let’s look toward having a better second half. If we have a better second half, we’re going to win this game.”