There were no spottings of a racing stripe-clad, black 1983 GMC van parked outside the Guglielmino football complex this summer, but the A-team has apparently arrived on Notre Dame’s campus anyway.
Irish coach Brian Kelly greets the media Friday afternoon to open the 2012 season.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame’s very own Col. Hannibal Smith, borrowed the name of the 1980s television soldiers of fortune in an attempt to reconnect with his players this offseason. The Notre Dame A-team comprises members from each class on the Irish football team as a player union of sorts, introduced by Kelly to make sure he becomes more of a man of his people than he has been during his first two seasons in South Bend.
“Back in January, we started every Monday with our A-club, our A-team, and I would meet, just myself, with our players,” Kelly said Saturday afternoon. “I just think my emphasis of spending more time with the players and getting to know them better, and letting them get to know me better than just sitting up in an office and, ‘There's where the head coach at Notre Dame sits.' I've never been that kind of coach and I felt myself sliding toward that in my first couple years.”
The A in A-Team, Kelly says, stands first and foremost for accountability. And that starts with the head coach. In his two days with the media in August, Kelly said numerous times that he needs to do a better job of being a head coach. He made self-deprecating references to tactical decisions like waiting too long to have Michael Floyd return punts and more general comments about taking responsibility for a disappointing 8-5 season. At least in his rhetoric, Kelly is aiming to become more of a football coach that a football CEO moving forward.
The head coach’s office at Notre Dame can easily become an ivory tower. It’s stationed at the far corner of the brick Gug edifice with a generous balcony overlooking his fiefdom of practice fields and temporary cold tub tents. The many non-football-related demands of the job can easily keep a coach in the office longer than in the locker room. Several of Kelly’s predecessors have been drawn and quartered by all of the extra responsibilities pulling in different directions.
“Coach understands that amongst all this media and all the NCAA rules and stuff like that, at the end of the day football is football,” said Irish senior and team leader Manti Te’o. “He understands that the best the teams are those that trust their head coach and that will play for their head coach.”
Te’o said trust wasn’t an issue in the past, but he was one of the most outspoken players on social media about playing exclusively for his teammates following Kelly’s divisive media gaffe last October. From an outsider’s perspective, Kelly’s much-reviewed comments following a loss to USC cast a dark shadow of doubt over the relationship between the Irish players and their second-year head coach last fall.
Players say the weekly A-team meetings have helped build a stronger bond this season. Fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore said he knows his coach better as an individual now, and Kelly is learning more about what they face on a day-to-day basis.
“That goes a long way,” Lewis-Moore said. “I think he’s seen that Notre Dame is not the easiest the college to go to. That’s all a process of learning. This is his third year. Each year I feel like he’s learned something different. He’s doing a great job of handling it.”
The pressure of handling the many facets of the Notre Dame job was the biggest obstacle for Kelly, a self-proclaimed players’ coach at less demanding stops like Cincinnati and Western Michigan. In January, Kelly promoted defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to associate head coach. At the time, it looked like he was trying to keep his star assistant around as long as possible. Now, it looks more like a move to delegate some of the extracurricular duties that were keeping Kelly from his players.
“Some are better from sitting up on the tower and some are better being hands on,” said Kelly, referring more to a physical practice field tower than a metaphorical ivory one. “I just need to be involved. I need to coach. I need to be in the trenches. I need to be around our guys.”
The guys need that too. The original A-team’s television introduction lists three caveats for enlisting their mercenary services: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them…” Kelly is hoping his own version of the A-team will keep the third from ever being a problem at Notre Dame.