Brian Kelly Has Learned His Lesson When It Comes to Hiring at Notre Dame

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2015

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You can forgive Brian Kelly for not wanting to start spring practice in 10 days. Not just because the snow keeps falling on South Bend, but because he just spent one of the slowest months on the football calendar rebuilding his football program. 

While Notre Dame has yet to make any of the moves official (blame a glacially slow HR process put into place after the embarrassing George O'Leary resume fiasco), the Irish will open spring practice—now set for March 18—with a transformed coaching staff.

Those changes on the coaching staff likely gave Kelly a reminder how the other 99 percent of head coaches live. The first week of February might be a paradise for college football fans, but it's turned into moving day for a slew of assistant coaches. 

Todd Lyght will replace Kerry Cooks on Notre Dame's staff.
Todd Lyght will replace Kerry Cooks on Notre Dame's staff.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Dozens of recruits built relationships with coaches they expected to work with, only to see them hightail it for another program before the fax machine finished chirping. That attrition even hit Notre Dame, with Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Matt LaFleur all departing. 

In Alford and Cooks, two seemingly universal truths played out at Notre Dame. Two assistants passed up for coordinator jobs (Kelly chose Mike Denbrock to run his offense over Alford and brought in Brian VanGorder instead of promoting Cooks) left only a year later. 

Alford joined Urban Meyer at Ohio State, putting Notre Dame's best recruiter in the hands of another Midwestern power. Cooks left to join Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, moving closer to his roots in Texas and leaving a big hole in the Irish's recruiting efforts in the Longhorn state.

Autry Denson will reportedly coach running backs.
Autry Denson will reportedly coach running backs.Craig Jones/Getty Images

In LaFleur, we saw Kelly's familiar formula of rehiring past assistants get overruled by the power of the NFL. After spending six years coaching professionals, LaFleur was quick to jump back, another reminder that coaching—and recruiting—at the college level is a different beast. 

Making any judgments on Kelly's new staff—especially considering the group hasn't even been announced, let alone coached a practice—is a tad premature. But there's reason to be optimistic.

And proof that Kelly has learned some important lessons.

Lesson One: Get Your Offense Right 

It appears Kelly has taken last year's performance personally. After watching Everett Golson regress throughout the season and the Irish offense perform well below his expectations, he's looked outside his office walls to solve the problem. 

Enter former Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Multiple reports, including Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, have Sanford taking over as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 

Jay Tust @KTVBSportsGuy

#BoiseState WR commit Bryan Jefferson on what he thinks of OC Mike Sanford: "I think he's a genius." http://t.co/Oydoac48Qy

Sanford has no connection to the Kelly coaching tree. He's young, just turning 33, and just finished his first season as a top-tier coordinator, steering Boise State's offense to a Fiesta Bowl victory and 12-win season. 

While Kelly and Sanford share some spread offense DNA, Sanford ran the football 57 percent of the time last year at Boise and came up coaching under David Shaw at Stanford.

With Notre Dame's offensive line expected to be the strength of the offense and Malik Zaire showing himself to be a handful as a runner, incorporating some principles from the Stanford power attack couldn't hurt. 

Lesson Two: Sell the Best of Notre Dame

In Todd Lyght and Autry Denson, Kelly has brought in two coaches who can speak specifically to what Notre Dame can do for student-athletes. While neither has been announced, Lyght has already been on the recruiting trail and has an official Twitter handle set up.

Evan Sharpley @EvanSharpley

NFL DB Brandon Boykin Raves About Notre Dame's Todd Lyght http://t.co/zJEhD9n4mk via @247Sports

Multiple media outlets have reported that Denson has joined the staff as the running backs coach. He's Notre Dame's all-time leading rusher and spent four seasons in the NFL.

In Lyght and Denson, both players and recruits can see two former stars who embody the best in Notre Dame. Lyght was a first-round draft pick after being a two-time All-American and national champion in South Bend. He was a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion during his 12-year NFL career.  

Denson stands atop the record books at a position that's had plenty of impressive players come through the program. While he certainly has less experience than Alford, he'll have a better pitch for recruits in the state of Florida, having lived the Notre Dame success story.

Lesson Three: Build Coaching Depth and Make Tough Decisions

An early knock on Kelly's coaching staff was his reliance on coaches he'd worked with at previous stops. While that's certainly the case with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore (also reported by multiple outlets to be heading to South Bend), Kelly's willingness to bring in Sanford, Lyght and Denson seem to pound a few more nails in that coffin.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Maybe more important was the difficult decision to make hires that shook up the status quo. Giving Sanford the coordinator job meant reassigning long-time lieutenant Mike Denbrock after just one year on the job.

If Gilmore does in fact come to South Bend, Kelly will have brought in one more new coach than positions open. That requires the move of veteran assistant coach Bob Elliott to an off-field role.   

Keeping Elliott on staff while moving him to the administrative side continues a trend that allows Kelly to flex some of Notre Dame's institutional muscles. It's also likely the role for former Kelly offensive coordinator and Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn.

Building the staff behind the staff is part of what makes Nick Saban's Alabama machine continue to hum. And Kelly has done a nice job building organizational depth, adding former UCLA star Johnathan Franklin to the student welfare and development earlier this year, as well.


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