Commentary

Brian Kelly gives Irish reason for hope

Updated: September 5, 2010, 9:09 AM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly does not smell roses. Were he inclined to grow roses, Kelly would know everything there is to know about them: how much sun they need, when to prune them, which fertilizer will make their colors burst and, most of all, how to grow them better than everyone else. Kelly is a process guy.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireBrian Kelly preaches the importance of process to his players.

That's why Kelly ran onto the hallowed grass of Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday in his first game as the head coach of the Fighting Irish. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick wanted a man who could coach football and revamp everything else in the program, from what the players eat to how the trainers work.

"He knows what he's going to do," Swarbrick said. "He's going to follow that program. He really doesn't take a sideways turn, doesn't step back, doesn't pause. That's absolutely the way he reacted to this day."

Notre Dame defeated Purdue 23-12 on Saturday with a performance that was more notable for what the Irish didn't do than what they did. In their first game of the season, they didn't burst out with big plays. They moved the chains. Other than one red zone fumble, they didn't stop themselves. Notre Dame committed two penalties for 15 yards, both in the kicking game.

Neither its offense nor its defense drew a flag, this from a team that had averaged 55 yards per game in penalties a year ago. After the Purdue defense took away wide receiver Michael Floyd, the offense ran the ball well. Led by quarterback Dayne Crist, the Irish adapted well to Kelly's fast tempo. The 40-second play clock rarely ticked past :15. At times it never made it to :25.

Kelly wants efficiency. It's not that he doesn't appreciate Touchdown Jesus. But he doesn't wax poetic about "Our Lady" the way that former coach Lou Holtz did. The team's walk across campus from the basilica to the stadium Saturday morning is a part of Notre Dame lore. It didn't make a dent in Kelly.

But Kelly did see something that he relished.

"A lot of kelly green shirts," Kelly said. "It's cool. I saw those shirts."

Kelly started his football coaching career at small colleges, where recruiting budgets creep into the four figures and the attendance might, too. When he left Grand Valley State as a two-time Division II national championship coach for the Football Bowl Subdivision, he didn't go to a traditional power. Kelly coached at Central Michigan and at Cincinnati. They are the schools that go on the road for paychecks, the terriers that yap for attention in a kennel full of big dogs.

Look who the big dog is now.

"Any time that I've gone into the stadium with 81,000, I've always played up to that [level]," Kelly said. "Now it was 81,000, and it was our people. It's kind of nice to have that crowd, that 81,000 rooting for your team. … I think the one thing that stood out to me today was the crowd obviously was into it, and it was a great advantage. That's probably the one thing that will stick in my mind."

They are used to winning openers at Notre Dame. Starting with Ara Parseghian, who arrived in 1964, Irish coaches are 7-1 in their maidens. Parseghian's team, which had gone 2-7 the year before, demolished Wisconsin 31-7. The players carried Parseghian off the field on their shoulders.

In 1981, head coach Gerry Faust, one year removed from coaching high school, wanted to see what all the fuss about Notre Dame football was about. Faust grabbed someone to drive him around the quad in a golf cart 30 minutes before kickoff. The driver ran the golf cart into a tree.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
AP Photo/Michael ConroyManti Te'o and the Irish defense stifled Purdue.

Parseghian won national championships in 1966 and 1973. Faust never came close before resigning after five seasons.

But before you read too much into omens, it should be pointed out that Holtz, the only Irish head coach to lose his debut (1986), also is their last head coach to win a national championship (1988).

The standards of the football program have not fallen, just the results. Charlie Weis' first team, the 2005 Irish who lost to the Bush Push, came close to being a national contender. Before that, you're back to Holtz and the mid-1990s. In the wake of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Weis, the hope is that Kelly will build a football program that the men's lacrosse team, an NCAA finalist last year, would be proud of.

"We've got some programs here on this campus that have that in their DNA," Swarbrick said. "The third-ranked women's soccer team? They know how to win. These guys have to get there, and they will. I'm so sure they will."

Someone asked Kelly whether he saw himself as the white knight riding in to save the program. His response began in sarcasm, albeit without malice.

"Oh, yeah, exactly," Kelly said. "I couldn't put it any better.

"What is a white knight anyway? Look, I took on the challenge at Notre Dame because I want to see this program back to where I believe it should be, and that's amongst the elite of college football. We've got some work to do. We are not there yet, believe me. Trust me. But we took a step today, and we are going to keep pounding at it and working at it."

Kelly gave the Irish fans a victory. But the lack of excitement in how the Irish won ought to give them something just as important. It ought to give them hope.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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