Two years ago, Brian Kelly was at a crossroads. After losing 10 games in his first two seasons in charge of the Notre Dame football program and after watching his offense sputter in a 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish head coach was in need of some changes.
“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said after the disappointing loss. “Because the offense just has to get better.”
The primary order of business was fixing the offensive side of the ball. Then offensive coordinator Charley Molnar was already headed to UMass, a job promotion to a first-year FBS program that served as a golden parachute for an assistant who wasn't likely to return for a third season in South Bend.
With the offensive coordinator job vacant, Kelly had in-house options to fill Molnar's position, something he hinted at in the days preceding the Irish bowl game against Florida State.
“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said in late-December 2011. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”
The most obvious candidate for the job was offensive line coach Ed Warinner. The only staffer who wasn't a part of Kelly's coaching tree, Warinner had experience coordinating a high-powered Kansas offense and received a promotion to run game coordinator for the Irish in 2011.
Yet Kelly bypassed Warinner for the job, making the decision to flip trusted lieutenant Chuck Martin from safeties coach and recruiting coordinator to offensive coordinator, a move that was pretty controversial at the time.
While the decision wasn't made official for nearly a week, it was hardly surprising when just days after Kelly informed his staff of the decision, Warinner decided to leave South Bend for Ohio State, following then Irish running backs coach Tim Hinton to Urban Meyer's Buckeye coaching staff.
In choosing Martin, Kelly picked a coach he worked with and groomed at Grand Valley State, handpicking his protege from his system over a veteran assistant who probably looked like the better choice on paper.
Here's how Kelly explained it in the team's official release from early January 2012:
"Chuck is a very talented coach that will make our offense better in the future due to his knowledge of our offensive system as well as how defenses like to attack it," Kelly said. "I wanted someone that knew the system I'm familiar with and our experience coaching together will make for an easy transition. Chuck did a great job directing the Grand Valley State offense after I left and led the program to unprecedented heights. I look forward to witnessing the impact he'll have on our offense."
Kelly's gamble was essentially a bet on himself. And it paid off big time for the Irish.
With Martin at the helm of the offense, Notre Dame ran the table with an undefeated regular season in 2012, made all the more amazing considering the Irish did it with a first-year redshirt freshman starting quarterback in Everett Golson and after saying goodbye to Michael Floyd, the engine of the offense.
Two years later, Martin was rewarded for his fine work, hired to fix a Miami Redhawks program that had won just eight games in the three seasons since Mike Haywood won double-digit games in 2010, including a winless 2013.
Kelly wished him well after the news was made official.
"I want my coordinators to have an opportunity for leadership positions," Kelly told Comcast SportsNet. "I do not endorse lateral moves for my coordinators, but if they have a chance to lead a program I'm excited for them. Miami of Ohio is the cradle of coaches—Bo Shembechler, Woody Hayes, some of the great coaches have gone through there. It's a great opportunity for Chuck Martin."
But it's also another crossroads for Brian Kelly.
After cashing in the risky bet on Martin two years ago, the Notre Dame head coach is faced with another interesting dilemma:
Go outside the program and find an offensive coordinator with a national profile or promote from within?
In the interim, Kelly has decided to lean on wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock for the bowl game.
"I'm involved with the offense, I coach the quarterbacks," Kelly told CSN. "Mike Denbrock, who's been with me now for 15 years, he'll take the offensive coordinator role through the bowl game. I'll coach the quarterbacks and then we'll make a decision where we go from there."
Depending on the timing of the bowl game, Kelly will likely have a week to decide what direction to turn. (He'll want to have a full staff in place to close out recruiting.) But if history is any indication, you can't expect the Irish head coach to turn over the keys to a promising offense to a stranger.
Kelly's last big hire was a coach outside his network, bringing in offensive line coach Harry Hiestand from Tennessee after an impressive career with the Chicago Bears. But filling a position coach job is one thing. Expect Kelly to look long and hard at his internal prospects first before casting out his net.
Many expect recruiting coordinator Tony Alford to get a long look at offensive coordinator. It's a natural progression for Alford, who has coached wide receivers and running backs during his tenure with Kelly and is also known as one of the top recruiters in the country.
Of course, Denbrock is the guy Kelly turned to for the bowl game, a telling sign. Denbrock has already coordinated a Brian Kelly offense, running the show at Grand Valley from 1992-95. Denbrock also coordinated the defense for the Lakers under Kelly and has coached offensive linemen, tight ends and just about every other position in his quarter-century as a college assistant.
Whoever coordinates the offense for the Irish, the cupboard is hardly bare. With Everett Golson returning, the Irish offense should be loaded next season, returning every major contributor except T.J. Jones, with the ground game expected to get a major boost with Golson back at the helm.
That alone makes you think that Kelly would prefer to leave well enough alone, finding a caretaker for his offense more appealing than a new landlord.
But after a disappointing slide in 2013, Kelly faces a choice he's navigated capably before. And if history has told us anything, don't be surprised if Brian Kelly doubles down on Brian Kelly.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.