Kelly determined to turn Irish around

Brian Kelly was deep into a discussion this week about his offensive line, rattling off names and explaining how he’s building depth in his second year at Notre Dame, when suddenly the truth slipped out.

It’s no secret that redshirting football players as freshmen, especially linemen whose bodies need to get bigger and stronger, is crucial to building a top-10 program. But at Notre Dame, the practice of holding players out their first year on campus is so controversial the word dare not be spoken — that is, until Kelly started to talk about senior Taylor Dever, whose emergence last year allowed the Irish to redshirt a promising freshman named Christian Lombard.

Then Kelly caught himself.

"Not redshirting," Kelly said. "We don’t redshirt at Notre Dame. What is that thing? They didn’t play the first year. God, I can’t wait for this email I’m going to get in about 45 minutes."

Everybody laughed at that one, including Kelly, because the man who’s about to bring Notre Dame back to big-boy football doesn’t do the self-righteousness and phony pretentiousness that’s been as common on this campus the last couple decades as 7-5 seasons. He also doesn’t do losses. Suddenly, it’s not going to be so easy to poke fun at Notre Dame for either one.

No team in the country is as polarizing as the Irish, steeped in tradition and its holier-than-thou approach to academics and discipline, all while churning out NFL players and competing for national titles under Lou Holtz. That’s not to say Notre Dame didn’t have higher standards than other top football schools. But if the program was truly as pure as the 1940s image it strove to protect, it would have been more like Army or Navy and less like Oklahoma and Miami.

As the 2011 season opens, however, a different atmosphere has settled around Notre Dame. The Irish are ranked 18th in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, and with good reason. They return 16 starters — not counting quarterback Dayne Crist, who was injured — from the team that finished with four straight wins, including an impressive victory at Southern California and a curb-stomping of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

Just three years removed from Charlie Weis’ 3-9 disaster, this is a team that could compete for a BCS bowl.

It is also a program that reinstated star receiver Michael Floyd this week without a significant penalty following a March 20 DUI, his third alcohol-related offense since he arrived on campus. The decision to bring Floyd back — and the fact that Kelly, not a university board, got to make the decision, according to the Chicago Tribune — got a lot of attention because that’s not the way things have always worked at Notre Dame.

But give Kelly credit. While Notre Dame’s legion of fans across the country may not be able to admit it, Kelly doesn’t have to pretend. From the way he handled Floyd’s discipline to recruiting some players with questionable academic profiles, his mandate is to bring Notre Dame out of the dark ages. There’s no wink and nod here. This is exactly what it looks like, and he doesn’t particularly care what you think about it.

"I’ve never had a policy conversation where the president, myself, admissions, we all sat down and said, ‘Coach, we’re going to open up the vault for you. Whatever you need, you got it,’" Kelly said. "What they’ve said is, ‘Here’s who we are at Notre Dame, here’s our expectations of you. One, they better graduate. Two, they better represent us in a positive way.’"

Kelly can laugh at Notre Dame’s quirks, like the complete avoidance of the word "redshirt," precisely because he’s not born and bred of a lineage where morality in college football mattered. All he’s ever worried about is winning at the highest level possible for his program.

At Grand Valley State, Kelly won a Division II national title. At Central Michigan, he won the MAC in his third year. He took Cincinnati to the Orange Bowl in his third season there and went undefeated in his fourth. Unlike so many of his predecessors, he was not beholden to the mystique of Notre Dame. He was simply the hottest coach in the country in December 2009, and Notre Dame was the best job available to him.

Unlike his predecessors, Kelly didn’t come in trying to figure out how to win the Notre Dame way. Instead, he looked around and said, in effect: This is Notre Dame. Let’s make that our advantage.

Now, seemingly everything is in place. Notre Dame has a talented, experienced team and a manageable schedule. His freshman class has eight prospects rated as four or five-stars by Scout.com, and his 2012 class is shaping up to be just as good. And Kelly will win with them because few in the country are better at coaching football.

It’s always been easy to dislike Notre Dame, and some of its sanctimoniousness will never go away. It’s too much a part of the program’s identity. But from the depths of the Weis debacle, the Fighting Irish are roaring back, and they’re doing it Kelly’s way. No need to roll your eyes any more.