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"When I got here, the locker room was a mess," says Kelly. "I'm not saying these kids were badly coached, but it was a mess. So we started there. We call it unconscious competence. At the beginning it was unconscious incompetence. Now it's in their DNA. And from Day One we preached mental and physical toughness."
Players who straddle a coaching change are sensitive to questions probing the difference. They are loath to trash the old, yet it slips into every endorsement of the new. "What did I learn?" asks Blanton. "I learned that coaching makes a difference. Coach Kelly and his staff were just more direct in what they wanted from us."
WINNING AS TRANSITION
Kelly was equally direct in what he wanted from Notre Dame. A training table, to start. Weis (right) had wanted one as well, but it had long been part of Notre Dame tradition that football players got no special dining privileges that might create a sense of entitlement or separate them from the campus community. Weis's staff—and probably earlier staffs, too—argued that it was affecting performance on the field, and that most other top college football programs have a training table to accommodate players after late practices.
"When Charlie left, [Notre Dame athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] did exit interviews with Charlie's staff," says a Notre Dame employee in the football program during the Weis era. "Everybody told him, 'You need a training table.' You can't just send a guy over to North Dining Hall for scraps. We had kids losing 12 pounds, 15 pounds in the last month of the season, linemen more than that. We thought it was creating extra wear and tear on their bodies." (Weis's last two teams went 1--8 in November. His first three teams went 9--3 in November.)
Now Notre Dame players gather dinner from a buffet line arranged on a second floor landing of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and eat at round tables in a seldom-used recruiting lounge at the corner of the building. These are not the intended uses for either space, but it works. (The training table began in the spring of 2010; other Notre Dame athletic teams now also have training tables.)
Downstairs in the players' lounge Kelly added pool and Ping-Pong tables, XBox 360 and PS3 video-game consoles and two arcade machines. "Now it's a place where you can blow off some steam with teammates at the end of a long day," says Golic Jr. This seems simple enough—it's not like Kelly has Guinness on tap down there—but crosses into yet another delicate area at Notre Dame, where Do It the Right Way assumes that football players are just regular students who play games on Saturday. This has generally been true: Notre Dame keeps most football players in campus dorms for three years before allowing them to move off-campus. There have never been athletic dorms.
As a social experiment this is an interesting idea, although some players fit in better than others. Many current students remember quarterback Jimmy Clausen, now a backup with the Carolina Panthers, as unpopular around the dorms. Golden Tate, a third-year wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks, was universally liked and spent his final weeks on campus in the winter of 2010 (he left after his junior season) signing memorabilia for students, his dorm room door open for visitors. Then there is Te'o, whose campuswide appeal is described with reverence. "You read stories in the outside media about Notre Dame athletes, and you think, Well, that's not really true," says Joseph. "But with Manti, it's all true. He is everything people say about him."
Te'o lived in Dillon Hall for three years before moving off-campus for his senior season. "I miss dorm life," says Te'o. "I miss walking out of my room and seeing guys in the hallway playing board games, or kicking a soccer ball around. I don't miss my small bed, but that's a small price to pay to experience the spirit of Notre Dame. It's like no other place."
Whether tempting football players to leave their dorms and shoot pool or play Call of Duty can erode that spirit is a slippery question. Whether it might help win football games, not so much. The Weis-era employee says, "I thought the concept of being a well-rounded student at Notre Dame was a neat idea. But I also think the campus environment softens a kid. Then you've got to get him back over to the facility and unsoften him. Now I hear kids are coming to the building and hanging around as a team, not just hanging out on campus. I think that's a good change for the program."