It is a mid-October Sunday morning at Notre Dame, right after the home victory against Pittsburgh. It was a close-run thing and the sense of relief around the Notre Dame campus is palpable. Nowhere is it more obvious than in Coach Brian Kelly’s headquarters at the Guglielmino complex.
It is easy to see what pressure a Notre Dame rookie coach is under just when you wander into the center. Framed under glass is the 1988Waterford Crystal National Championship trophy. They built a statue toLou Holtz near the football stadium for delivering that.
As against that, some of his successors were essentially run out of town for not delivering. This Notre Dame fan base is a tough, impatient crowd and it is easy to see why.
On the walls at the Guglielmino complex are Hall of Famers from Knute Rockne to Joe Montana; all around are artifacts of the most glorious era in college sport when Notre Dame were kings and champions. Not any more, which is where Brian Kelly comes in. Hugely successful at Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, he has been brought in to wake up the echoes and restore the glory days.
Like any restoration, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, yet Kelly seems remarkably unfazed by the pressure. As the new head coach he bears the dreams of millions across America for the glory days to be restored.
Yet on his wall in his spacious office there are no homages to the past. The main artifact to catch the eye is a painting, a striking
modernist rendition of ten or twelve faceless workingmen ready to go to work.
This is how Kelly sees his new job, as a member of a team, where no individual is more important than the other, where the blue-collar
pail-and-bucket mentality rules and where progress is not measured in headline inches but in yards and inches for the next first down.
In the days following our interview, Notre Dame was rocked to its core when a student, Declan Sullivan, was killed filming football practice when the video tower he was on collapsed.
Kelly, who said that dealing with the death was especially painful because he had gotten to know the 20-year-old personally, was among
the many mourners who traveled from Notre Dame to the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove for the funeral. Notre Dame’s vice president for student affairs, the Rev. Tom Doyle, delivered the homily. The service was closed to reporters but AP reported that Doyle asked attendees “to let go of the things that give you pain and ascend to a stream that will give you joy.” Sullivan was also remembered in the game againstTulsa, when both Notre Dame and Tulsa players wore helmet decals in the shape of a shamrock with the initials DS in the middle. Notre Dame also wore the decal against Utah.
Kelly knows what adversity is like. His wife Paqui has battled breast cancer and has undergone a double mastectomy. It is a battle she and he are committed to winning, not just for their three kids, but also for American women everywhere. They have established a foundation to raise millions for the cause. So Brian Kelly knows it is about far more than X’s and O’s and where the next spread formation comes from.
But he’s also a college coach in the best or worst job in the nation. The will to win and desire are evident. He will tolerate nothing less.
Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Kelly was a linebacker at Assumption College, where he graduated with a degree in political science in
1983. His father Paul was a politician – a Boston alderman – and Kelly could have followed in his father’s footsteps, but football was his
true passion and after a run at working in Democratic party politics, he was back at Assumption as a linebacker coach and defense
In the following years, at Valley State (1991-2003), Central Michigan University (2004-06), and University of Cincinnati (2006-09), Kelly
developed a reputation for building winning teams. We began our conversation by talking about the win over Pittsburgh the day before.
Despite the victory, Kelly is quick to say that the team is a work in progress.
Coach Kelly: We are in it for the long haul. We are in it to build it
and sustain it for many years. So these are just short steps along the
way. I knew when I got into this business – that when
18-to-21-year-olds were going to decide whether I could pay my
mortgage – I already knew I was crazy. So from there it makes it
easier, as long as you start with that perspective. The big picture is
that you’re developing a program, and when you’re building a
successful business or organization, you don’t measure it by what
happens at the end of the month, you measure it by where you’re moving
to over the long term, and that’s really the perspective that I have.
Niall O’Dowd: An Irish coach and Notre Dame is a pretty
good mix. What’s the heritage – how far back do you go?