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 1986 Waterford Crystal National Championship trophy. They built a statue to Lou 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 against Tulsa, 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 coordinator.
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?
My great-grandparents were from Ireland. My grandfather was a Boston cop for 35 years, and my first introduction to Irish culture was talking to him about the where the term Paddy Wagon came from. We lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which was a naval pier town where all the Navy guys would come in and they’d have some beers and then the police would be called in to round them up. They [the police] drove an open-air police truck and it was so cold at night that the guys who drove it had to have a little Irish Paddy [whiskey] to stay warm and that’s why they called it the Paddy Wagon. Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea. But it’s a good story, and that’s why I tell it.
We have a family name that has an Irish story to it as well. My youngest son is Kenzel Kelly, and we got that from my great-grandparents. When they came over from Ireland and they were traveling through downtown New York as the Passion Play [depicting the passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death] was being put on. It was directed by a Father Kenzel and they liked that name. So my grandfather was [christened] Kenzel and my dad is Paul Kenzel and the last chance at keeping a Kenzel in the family was when my youngest boy was born; my dad bribed my wife, who wasn’t a big Kenzel fan, and said, listen, if you go with Kenzel and keep the name alive, you get the house on the Cape. So the name Kenzel is still alive.
Tell me about your dad.
Dad comes to all the games. He’s a bit of a celebrity. He’s on TV all the time. He’s a Notre Dame [fan] – it was all Notre Dame [growing up].
He was a big influence. I think you are who you are based upon your life experience. He grew up as an Irish Catholic in Boston, going to church and being part of the community, and all the things that he was taught growing up were passed on to me and now to my family and that was that the church was important, community service was important, and we all played sports and were involved in athletics.
And like your dad, I know you went to work for the Democratic Party. That’s an interesting departure for a college coach…
Well, it didn’t start that way. Actually, when I graduated college I went to work in the State House of Boston and worked for a state senator. Gary Hart was running for president and the state senator that I worked for in Massachusetts endorsed Gary Hart. So he lent me to his campaign. After that campaign ended, I wanted to go back to the thing that I wanted to do all along, which was coach. I probably wasn’t courageous enough to say it at the time [I graduated], which was “[I’m sorry] that you used all this money to send me to school and I want to be a football coach.” Didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time. So I went into politics for a couple of years, I enjoyed it, it was a great experience but it wasn’t what I was passionate about.
What did you learn from that time?
I would probably say relationship building, how important it is, trust, and also knowing how to work with the media. I was working with the media on a day-to-day basis. So I think it helped me at an early age to work with the media and reach out as best we could to build good relationships.
So when you started coaching, what were your initial plans?
Just to be good at what I was doing, more than anything else. I thought I had a lot to give and the ability to communicate the game and teach it.
Where did that come from?
I think it was being in the back yard playing basketball with my brother, or going out in the street playing stickball. I think just competing. Today, everything is all planned for kids. When I played, it was just – let’s go play. And you played because you loved to play. You didn’t play for any other reason. Everything is so planned now. Sometimes, I think today, we’ve got kids just playing to play.
So I had that inside, that I was passionate about playing and loved the game and felt like if you’re passionate about something you should be able to teach it. Who were your football heroes?
I loved watching Joe Montana when I was an Irish fan growing up. I’ve never been enamored with just one person. The great ones have always caught my attention.
So when you’re coaching Notre Dame obviously it is an incredible responsibility. It is like no other job, is it?
Well, I think if I thought about that every day I’d jump out the window. So I try to think about the process. Like I said earlier when we began the conversation about winning and losing. Obviously winning is much better than losing, but it’s a process. I focus more on the process of developing a program than on all the things that could make this overwhelming. That’s how I operate on a day-to-day basis. I’m confident in the plan and that the people that I have around me will accomplish those goals, and sometimes those goals take some time to reach.
Anything surprise you so far?
I think anytime you take over a new business or a new organization you go in there and you try to find out where the air’s coming out of the tires, so to speak. We’ve got a good idea of where it was and we’ve been able to address that. I was pretty well-schooled on the fact that there was going to be a lot outside of the game itself – whether it be the media or alumni or development, whether it be Thursday night shows, Friday luncheons, Saturday walk to the basilica, there’s so many things. I was prepared for that.
I think the surprising thing, more than anything else, was the players and some of the things that they were missing just in the game itself, and so that was a bit of a surprise. But nothing surprises me too much. That’s the Irish in me. I’ve always been this way.
What did your wife say when you came home and said ‘I’m going to Notre Dame?’
She did give me a blank look, like, ‘are you sure?’ My daughter, Grace Kelly, said, “Dad, I know it’s your dream job, but I’m crying now because I’m sad for me, because I’m going to miss my friends. I’m happy for you, I’m just sad because I’m moving again for the fourth time in six years.”
I think that’s how the whole family felt. Now that they’re here and they’re settled and they’re around Notre Dame and I can share the things that Notre Dame has with them, it makes it all worthwhile.
How do you cope with the stress?
There’s a lot of stress. I’ve worked hard to take care of myself and getting fit and getting check-ups and all those things because I worked 20 years to get here, I don’t want to have a heart attack while I’m here, you know? I think that’s absolutely a concern and I’m taking it seriously.
Do you get time off at all?
No. This is my time off [doing the interview with Irish America]. You guys get to spend it with me. How lucky are you? No, you get a couple hours here and there. I’ll have dinner with the family tonight – you just pick your spots and when you get a couple of hours, make it quality time.
The painting hanging on your wall with the faceless workers is very striking.
You can see they’re Irish…I look at that [and I see] the Irish immigrants who came over and lost their lives and dug the canals. When I first saw it I said, “I’ve got to have that picture.” It also is about where we want to bring our football team – back to its Fighting Irish roots. Back to faceless and nameless. It’s not about superstars but about a team, about trust and commitment and all the things I was taught growing up from my family, from my Irish Catholic roots, and we’re trying to bring Notre Dame back to that, and that’s kind of the full circle here.
That’s the job and the process. When you’ve been in it and it’s ingrained in you and you know where you want to go with it, you don’t get derailed too easily.
You seem very strong in yourself; you’re not worried what people think.
There’s going to be plenty of opinions. There’s never a shortage of opinions in this business. That’s the great thing about Notre Dame. As long as you understand that, and this is where my background helps me, when I was at University of Cincinnati, nobody cared enough. Here people care too much. It allows me to keep perspective on it, as well, and I know what we want to do. I know what our plan is, and they’ll all be on the bandwagon sooner or later, so I just always reserve room for them.
Anything else surprise you here?
There are some things at Notre Dame you have to get used to and one of them is TV time-outs. We have to pay the bills, so to speak. It’s hard to keep flow and momentum. It is choppy and I’m working through that right now. I think I’d like to get our players to see their head coach is involved in the game and he’s not just walking up and down the sidelines but he’s invested in it. The coaches that I played for were like that and I enjoyed that.
Now, there’s this line that you can’t cross, but I’ve always felt that that’s the way I’ve played the game and that’s the way I’m going to coach the game.
How do you feel about the game in Ireland – Notre Dame against Navy in 2012?
I can’t wait. I’m so excited. Just can’t tell you how, for me, to go to Ireland to take an American football team to Ireland, how special that’s going to be.
Three years ago, I spent two weeks up and down the West Coast. We golfed, enjoyed all the great courses and all the lively conversation in the pubs. It’s always good to go into a pub and start a conversation about politics. You’re either going to get somebody to buy you one or you’re going to have to leave. [Laughs].
What was it like to go back to Boston – against Boston College?
For me, we just needed to win the game. My family loved it. They had 100 people tailgating. Cousins, aunts, uncles, cousins I didn’t know, wanted tickets too. Everybody was my cousin that weekend. I know they had a heck of a time and really enjoyed it, but I’ve been back there twice to play.
When I was at Grand Valley State we went and played Bentley College which is just outside of Boston and beat ’em pretty good, and then came back and beat BC, so I’m doing pretty good in Boston right now.
So what’s your secret to creating a winning team?
I think winning starts with you – [but] you all have to be in it. It’s a team game first of all and it’s not just a bunch of individuals. Those that win at the highest level win as a team, and once you’re able to develop that structure of a team where people care about each other you can then go to work on all the other principles.
Until you have a team that cares about each other you have no chance of winning. When we got here, this was not a team. This was a collection of individuals that played at Notre Dame, and that’s what we’re changing and it’s coming together pretty good.
You seem deeply aware of the Notre Dame history and its mystique.
Yes. As a football program, we’re getting back to our traditional roots. It should be fun. We’re going to unveil the green jerseys for that game too, (against Army in New York on November 20th) the green is recognizable in certain parts of the country. Green does not work very well here, but in New York green is a good thing. We’re going to be using that helmet right there with a shamrock on it, next year when we play the University of Michigan. We’re going to be using throwback uniforms. We’re going to play the first ever night game at the University of Michigan.
It goes deep. I didn’t know all the history until I read about four of the books, and learned a lot about Notre Dame and how Notre Dame was perceived. It is an incredible history and imparts a great sense of mission. It is just great to be here.
Thank you, Coach Kelly.