WINNING AS A PLAN
It's a bit of leprechaun's magic that the coach at the helm in Notre Dame's revival is named Kelly, but it's also a little misleading. Brian Kelly, 51, was raised in the small, industrial city of Chelsea, Mass., north across the Mystic River from downtown Boston, the second oldest of four children born to Paul and Thelma Kelly. They were Irish-Catholic and they rooted for Notre Dame on football Saturdays, but not nearly as hard as they rooted for the Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox or, especially in Brian's case the Big Bad Bruins. Brian's bedroom walls were decorated with years of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers as a kid, but more treasured was a print of the iconic Bobby Orr dive photo after the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. "Signed by Bobby Orr," says Kelly, who was eight years old on the night of the clinching game.
Brian's parents divorced when he was 10 and his older brother, Paul, was 11. Their mother moved to California with the two younger children, a brother, 9, and a sister, 8. Their father remarried almost immediately. The family was effectively split in half. "It wasn't easy, and the divorce was contentious," says Paul. "Brian and I did a lot of bonding."
Most of that bonding was over sports. When it came time for high school, the family moved from Chelsea to the distant suburb of Andover, and the boys were sent to St. John's Prep, a Catholic boys school in Danvers. Four years later Paul, now an oil trader, went to Holy Cross in Worcester, and Brian joined him there a year later when he enrolled at Assumption College, where he played linebacker on the school's club football team, wearing number 63. After college Brian worked in politics for a few years before taking a job as the defensive coordinator--linebackers coach at Assumption. From there he moved on to a graduate assistant job at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., in 1987.
Four years later Kelly, at 29, became the head coach at Grand Valley, and in his 13 years the Lakers won 118 games, went to the NCAA Division II playoffs six times and won two national championships. Kelly then spent three years at Central Michigan and three at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to consecutive BCS bowls in 2008 and '09, before Notre Dame hired him in December '09. It was not a job he had dreamed of every day: "I didn't sit at my desk doodling the [Notre Dame] monogram," Kelly says.
Perhaps because it had been devalued. Kelly took over an Irish program that had been thrice battered, by the post-Holtz failures of Bob Davie (35--25 in five seasons; 5--6 in the last), Tyrone Willingham (21--15 in three seasons; 6--6 in the last) and Weis, a Notre Dame grad who came to his alma mater having earned three Super Bowl rings as the voice inside Tom Brady's helmet, promising a "decided schematic advantage," but providing only 35 wins in five seasons before he was fired in December 2009. At that point Notre Dame hadn't won a national championship in 21 years and hadn't seriously contended in 16, the longest such gaps in the school's football history.
Weis and his staff brought ample talent to South Bend. "I can honestly say this," says Robert Blanton, a rookie defensive back with the Minnesota Vikings who played two years under Weis and two years under Kelly. "Except for my freshman year against USC, we had as much talent as every team we played. You could see it on the tape."
Kelly walked in dishing out tough love. In the first spring players shoveled snow off the practice field and worked outdoors in the cold. A diagram was posted in the locker room with a precise configuration for equipment storage inside a dressing cubicle: helmet upper right cubby; playbook right side; shoulder pads on top. If anything was out of place, the player ran. Some days they all ran.
At the initial workout of the 2010 season, Kelly's first, Notre Dame players were doing a series of drills involving four rubber cones placed on the ground, and many were hopelessly failing. "We do it all the time now," says junior tight end Tyler Eifert. "Nobody ever messes up. That day people were running to the wrong cone, cutting in the wrong direction. Bad." Kelly stopped the drill and ordered three side-to-side gassers—sprints back and forth across the width of the field. Some players didn't touch the lines, so Kelly ordered more gassers. "Those three turned into six or seven," says senior offensive tackle Zack Martin. "Then eight or nine."
Eifert says, "Guys were falling out of the drill. At that point, you're thinking, This guy isn't messing around."