Notre Dame finally catches the rising star

This is all you really need to know about new Notre Dame coach
Brian Kelly: His football teams win.

They win far more than they lose. They win more than they did
before he arrived. They win championships.

The secret, if there is one, is this: Kelly is a smart and
charismatic leader with an almost mystical ability to make any
quarterback he touches play like an All-American.

But why get bogged down in the details? What truly separates
Kelly from the last three Notre Dame coaches (four, if you count
George O’Leary) is this number: .747. That’s Kelly’s winning
percentage in 19 seasons as a college football coach.

For all those who have reveled in Notre Dame’s misery as the
Fighting Irish suffered through 13 mostly mediocre seasons under
Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, the party just might
be over.

It looks as if Notre Dame got it right this time.

”We need to start holding up our end,” Kelly said in an
interview with the AP just a few hours before Notre Dame’s first
preseason practice. ”I kind of empathize with the sentiment out
there that, you know what, there is no reason why Notre Dame
football can’t be among the elite programs. We have all the things
we need. Let’s go do it.”

Not since Lou Holtz replaced Gerry Faust in 1986 have the
Fighting Irish hired a coach as accomplished as Kelly. And history
shows some of Notre Dame’s best runs have come with coaches who
were proven winners before they got to South Bend.

”When Notre Dame hires a successful college coach, national
championships follow,” Holtz said recently in a phone interview.
”When you go look at Frank Leahy at Boston College. Ara Parseghian
at Northwestern. Dan Devine at Missouri. Myself at Arkansas and NC
State, Minnesota and other places.

”It can’t be your first job, because of the complexities of it
and the pressure of it.”

Neither Davie nor Weis had been a head coach before taking over
at Notre Dame. As for Willingham, he had three losing seasons in
seven years at Stanford before becoming the head man at Notre Dame
in 2002. Willingham’s best records on the Farm were 9-3 and
8-4.

Kelly has had one losing season as a head coach (4-7 in 2004,
his first season at Central Michigan). He won two Division II
national championships at Grand Valley State. Central Michigan had
won 12 games in four seasons before he arrived. It took Kelly three
seasons to win the Mid-American Conference with the Chippewas.

Then it was off to Cincinnati. With the Bearcats, Kelly went
34-6 in three seasons with two Big East titles and two BCS
appearances. If he can turn Cincinnati, with its disinterested fans
and rundown stadium, into a national title contender, just think
what Kelly can do when he’s got Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome
on his side.

”What Notre Dame needed was a program changer and a coach who
had a proven resume of doing such,” said former Fighting Irish
offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, who works as an analyst for CBS
College Sports Network.

”Brian Kelly is on par with the Nick Sabans and the Urban
Meyers of the world: A proven program builder at every level he has
been at.”

Notre Dame tried to get Meyer when Willingham was dismissed in
2004, but had to settle for Weis when Meyer decided it was easier
to scoop up blue-chippers in his backyard at Florida than try to
lure them to South Bend.

This time the Irish caught the rising star, a coach capable of
ending an era of errors.

In the last 13 years, Notre Dame is 91-67. Purdue went 92-69
during that same period. Essentially, the only thing separating the
Fighting Irish and a middling Big Ten program has been a network
television deal.

Taylor said Notre Dame has suffered from a lack of leadership
more than a lack of talent.

”(Kelly) has identified the sense of entitlement that had
encroached the Notre Dame program,” he said. ”It became OK to be
a me guy.”

Kelly had no problem with Taylor’s assessment.

”Self-inflicted wounds,” Kelly said when asked what has gone
wrong with Notre Dame. ”Not everybody rolling in the right
direction.”

Kelly knows he needs to get the Irish rolling in a hurry – a
”five-minute plan” he has called it.

He’s accelerated the learning process with this team mentally
and physically.

”It put a lot of pressure on guys to spend the time away from
here to learn the offense, to learn the scheme, but there was never
an issue of buying in or not buying in with these guys,” new
starting quarterback Dayne Crist said.

Notre Dame’s first practice – which began under a blue-gray sky
if you’re looking for positive omens, Irish fans – could be summed
up in three words: fast and loud. The players run to where they
need to be and when coaches need to get a point across, it’s often
shouted from afar – no time to walk across the field to correct a
mistake.

”I need to get to Year 2 in Year 1,” Kelly said.

The Notre Dame brand still opens doors, but as Kelly out it,
”the clock is ticking.”

”Up to this point, I can get in the game with the players I
need throughout the country that can make us a championship
football team,” he said. ”But we got to win.”

The table is set for Kelly to do just that.

For all the talk about how Notre Dame’s academic standards and
location have stacked the deck against an Irish return to glory,
Holtz believes Notre Dame is in better position to compete for
championships now than during his years.

Back then, Notre Dame’s facilities were woeful compared to other
top programs. Now they are on par.

Notre Dame is also playing a schedule more in line with what
national powers do. The 2010 slate is indicative of what a typical
Notre Dame schedule will look like from now on: seven home games,
one neutral site game and some, let’s say manageable,
nontraditional opponents (Tulsa and Western Michigan).

”It’s very doable,” said Holtz, whose 1988 team won Notre
Dame’s last national championship. ”The changes that Notre Dame
made were made so that they could be very competitive.”

Kelly could also benefit from his rivals problems.

Michigan has spent two years foundering under Rich Rodriguez and
NCAA sanctions could be coming the Wolverines way, too. Who knows
when Michigan will be Michigan again?

Then there is Southern California, Notre Dame’s No. 1 rival. The
Trojans have dominated the Irish in recent years, winning eight
straight meetings and providing an annual reminder of just how far
away Notre Dame is from being an elite team.

Well, the dynasty days are over at USC. Pete Carroll is gone,
Lane Kiffin is in and the NCAA hammer has dealt a potentially
devastating blow to the Trojans. Suddenly, those USC games don’t
look quite so daunting for the Irish.

The ramifications of Notre Dame renaissance reach beyond South
Bend.

If Notre Dame is routinely winning 10 games, the Irish can bank
on a BCS bid (worth $4.5 million). Their current NBC deal runs
through 2015 and makes Notre Dame an estimated $15 million per
year. More Notre Dame wins generally equals higher ratings for NBC,
which leads to more money in the Irish coffers.

All that talk about Notre Dame giving up its football
independence and joining a conference could go away if the Irish
are playing as they did in the good ol’ days.

Kelly has been lauded by Taylor and other former Fighting Irish
coaches and players for trying to reconnect the current Notre Dame
players with the school’s glorious past.

Kelly showed his players a highlight reel filled with former
Notre Dame greats and flipped out when he found out one of his guys
could not identify Jerome Bettis.

”We did some history lessons,” Kelly said. ”Nobody knew some
of the real traditions of Notre Dame football.

”When there’s respect, there’s not entitlement,” he said. ”In
this locker room, many have come before you. There needs to be that
respect for it.”

Of course, Weis brought back ”Rudy” to speak at the pep rally
and what good did that do in the end?

There’s only one tradition that really matters at Notre Dame,
and Kelly’s track record shows he is capable of restoring it.

”I’ve got to bring the winning back.”