Notre Dame Football: How Brian Kelly Brought Irish Back to National Spotlight

Connor Killoren@@Connor_KillorenSenior Analyst IFebruary 1, 2013

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Head coach Brian Kelly (R) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gives instructions to his team against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 21-17.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

November 28, 2009

The faces in the room were dejected, each one staring off in different directions of the dimly-lit, mid-sized apartment with cream-colored walls and light blue carpet. Various Notre Dame decorations were scattered throughout the apartment, but they weren't sufficient to bring smiles to the faces of those enervated, weary Irish fans. 

I, along with close friends and family, had just witnessed Notre Dame lose a closely contested game to Stanford, 45-38, that would wind up as Charlie Weis' final as the Irish's head coach. 

That heartbreaking loss dropped Notre Dame to 6-6 overall, though, despite being bowl eligible, the school would deny any bowl invitations due to the impending firing of Weis that would arrive two days following the loss to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. 

For a few long minutes following the conclusion of the 2009 season, the only sounds in the room were those of soda being poured, chips and pretzels being munched, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger discussing Charlie Weis' future and the painfully audible sighs from those in attendance. 

Then, the television was shut off and rampant discussion commenced about the current state of Notre Dame football and whether the program would ever again be able to compete for national championships. 

December 11, 2009

Brian Kelly shook hands with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick before he took a few steps to stand behind the lectern in front of a throng of media members, university administrators and, most importantly, his family. 

Dressed in a striped, lime green tie, white shirt and black blazer, Kelly placed his hands on the lectern, smiled and gazed at the crowd in silence for a few moments before delivering his first speech as the head football coach at Notre Dame. 

The former Cincinnati head coach, whose 34-6 record with the Bearcats earned him the gig at Notre Dame, was candid about the primary reason why he accepted Swarbrick's offer, and took a proverbial, yet direct swing at the Irish's critics. 

"We hear about academic standards," Kelly said. "That's what the mission is of this university. That is the mission of Notre Dame, excellence in academics and athletics, and I wanted that challenge. And I'm excited about that challenge, that you can do it in the classroom and be prominent in the athletic arena, as well." 

Kelly's attitude about the possibility of achieving the highest level of success at a school many thought would be forever bogged down by the academic standards he referenced was a breath of fresh air for fans who had become sick of that notion. 

"Yes, we've got challenges just like everybody else," Kelly said. "But we'll go to work on that right away by continuing to recruit what I call the 'RKGs,' the 'Right Kinda Guys.' Those that match the mission of this university.

"We'll continue to look towards player development as being the key and the cornerstone of our success," Kelly emphatically stated. 

Listening to those proclamations was difficult for Irish fans, as they had heard similar comments from former head coach Charlie Weis, who made many promises, but failed to deliver on them. 

Then, Kelly paused, smiled once again and gave the Irish faithful some food for thought

"We're going to build this program to where it needs to be," Kelly said. "There's going to be success down the road if they stay with it." 

September 1, 2012

Brian Kelly earned his reputation as one of the best coaches in the collegiate ranks through his glitzy, high-scoring offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. 

Upon accepting the head coaching position at Notre Dame, the consensus opinion was that the university had just hired a carbon copy of Charlie Weis—a big-name coach with a high-octane offense who didn't consider defense a priority. 

Concisely, the naysayers were wrong

"When I came to Notre Dame, having lived in that world of trying to outscore opponents, I felt the best blueprint we could put together here for a national championship was through our defense," Kelly said. 

Concisely, Kelly was right. 

Kelly's assertion about defense was proven on a sun-bathed afternoon—morning for those of us on the East Coast—at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, where Notre Dame met Navy for the initial contest of the 2012 season for both teams. 

Mind you, Navy had shredded the Irish defense for 367 rushing yards in a 35-17 shellacking of Notre Dame in 2010 in which defensive coordinator Bob Diaco told media members that "we had no plan B" following the excruciating loss. 

This meeting would be vastly different, though. 

There was former 5-Star prospect and linebacker Ishaq Williams strip-sacking Navy quarterback Trey Miller, whose fumble was recovered by another former 5-star prospect, Stephon Tuitt. 

The mammoth, 303-pound defensive end returned Miller's fumble 77 yards for a touchdown, outrunning every Navy player on the field during the process. It was a graceful display of that vaunted "SEC speed" from a player whom the Irish coaching staff was able to nab right out of the heart of SEC country in Monroe, Ga. 

There was former 4-star prospect and defensive tackle Louis Nix busting through the Navy offensive line like a tank through plywood en route to a sack. Nix, like Tuitt, was also lured out of SEC country—Nix hails from Jacksonville, Fla.—to Notre Dame. 

Williams, Tuitt and Nix are three defenders who signed with Notre Dame in the post-Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame. They are three defenders who the critics said Notre Dame would never be able to sign because of the school's rigorous academic standards. 

In the case of Nix and Tuitt, the critics claimed that elite prospects from the South would be silly to jettison anywhere outside of SEC country. Well, two did. And their decisions have paid dividends for the Irish. 

November 24, 2012

The "oohs" and "ahhs" from the standing room only crowd of 93,607 pierced through the balmy Los Angeles evening as the Irish's defense—and Brian Kelly's desired vision from the moment he accepted the job at Notre Dame—stonewalled the USC offense at the goal line not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times with 2:33 remaining in regulation and the Irish holding a nine-point lead over the USC Trojans. 

The Trojans were the final obstacle facing the Irish and their date with destiny. 

And it was perfectly fitting that the Irish barreled through that final obstacle by way of their seemingly impenetrable defense. 

That now-storied goal-line stand will forever glow in Notre Dame lore, as it was the final propulsion to the Irish's 12-0 record and first berth in college football's national championship game in 24 years.

They earned that distinction through Brian Kelly's player development system, through unparalleled recruiting successes and through the construction of, perhaps, the best defense in Notre Dame football history.

The Irish may have been humbled by Alabama—the most dominant football dynasty of my lifetime—in the BCS National Championship Game, but make no mistake about it: Brian Kelly has truly awakened the echoes of the historic program.



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