Prior to Brian Kelly’s second season in 2011, Blueandgold.com asked him what is the most essential quality to building an elite college football program.
Consistent day-to-day excellence is the hallmark of Brian Kelly's program.
“Consistency and continuity,” Kelly replied. “A consistent approach, a clear message in what is expected of these young men on a day-to-day basis. No surprises, no changes, here’s what we ask you to do.”
Notre Dame was an extremely consistent program when Kelly arrived in December 2009 — one that consistently averaged exactly seven wins per season under predecessors Charlie Weis (35-27 in the five years from 2005-09), Tyrone Willingham (21-15 from 2002-04) and Bob Davie (35-25 from 1997-2001) despite typically reeling in top-10 recruiting classes.
Now in year 3 — which has been the defining season for every Notre Dame coach to walk its sidelines — Kelly’s blueprint has taken root. Tomorrow evening, a Fighting Irish football team has a chance to exit from Notre Dame Stadium with an 11-0 record for the first time ever. The only other opportunity came in 1993, when the 10-0 and No. 1 Irish fell to Boston College, 41-39.
Step 1 for Kelly was to create a pride and winning atmosphere beyond the field. This included a detailed primer on how a locker should be organized while keeping the area immaculate.
“We were like, ‘What’s he talking about? Why does he want the locker room so clean?’” recalled fifth-year senior receiver John Goodman. “We thought it was clean enough.”
Current senior wideout Robby Toma now has the power of hindsight.
“The locker room was a mess,” Toma said. “Now that I’m older, I kind of understand that. It’s the little things in life that will help you succeed. Even though it’s off the field, just having a routine, being clean with yourself can only help you with football and life in general.”
There was some aversion to change because many of the players still felt a closer bond with the deposed but well-liked Weis and would even consult with him on matters such as the NFL.
“You don’t really want to even try doing something else,” said fifth-year senior Braxston Cave. “It’s tough to transform and throw everything you’ve always done behind. But once guys finally did it, we’ve seen great results.”
Another pivotal step was embracing a new standard in daily habits rather than viewing it as just drudgery.
“We had known our own ways for a while, and we thought, ‘Okay, that will get us through, that will get us by,’” said junior outside linebacker Danny Spond. “But it’s not about ‘getting through.’ It’s about being the best you can at everything you do throughout the day, whether it’s class, on the practice field. It’s just that little type of things that he’s preached to us that have made a real big impact.”
Goodman said what was specifically imparted relentless by the staff, including strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, was that every college football team engages in year-round strenuous work.
“What Coach Longo preached to us is ‘Everyone is working this hard — but it’s not necessarily how hard you work. It’s the little things you do once you get into the season, the discipline outside the hard work that makes you a championship football team,’” Goodman said.
When you hear the message of consistency often enough, it eventually takes hold, even if it might take a few years.
“I don’t think he’s really done anything different [this season],” said senior tight end Tyler Eifert, one of four captains this season, of Kelly. “… Now it’s the third year and we’ve had time to grow our relationships and now we know what’s expected of us. Just the attention to details, the small things, we’ve finally gotten that.”
Kelly recognized that he probably wouldn’t win any popularity contests his first season or two.
“The first couple years I had to set a bar and a standard and an operation of the way we wanted things done on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Sometimes that means that you’ve got to be hard on some guys.
“This third year was a year where you knew our guys knew exactly what was expected, and it allowed me to spend more time with my players and build those relationships that are so important to having great morale.”
Senior captain and linebacker Manti Te’o, the face of the program during its current renaissance, said a two-way trust finally developed.
“He doesn’t have to test us anymore,” said Te’o of Kelly. “He knows what we can do, he knows how we’re going to play, and he knows we’re going to give everything we’ve got. So we don’t have to do drills or have double practices … He knows how much heart we have, and he knows how much we care about him and we’ll do anything for him. He’s found that little comfort with that and confidence in his team.
“When he got here, he didn’t know us. Whenever you don’t know, you try to feel them out —and we were trying to feel him out too. It’s a growing process, a learning process that we got through. There were some bumps along the way, but it’s brought us to where we are.”