Buzz surrounds coach Brian Kelly
Before last season's opener, former Notre Dame player Tom Reynolds and a group of like-minded friends identifying themselves as "Linebacker Alumni" paid for a billboard in South Bend, Ind. They derisively wished Charlie Weis good luck in the fifth year of his "college coaching internship."
Reynolds is out of the billboard business this year. But if he were to purchase more ad space, it probably would be to offer an endorsement of new coach Brian Kelly.
"The ol' guys strongly believe that he will more than deliver on all of [our] success-defining criteria," Reynolds wrote in an e-mail.
Kelly is all the things Weis was not. A proven college head coach. A world-class schmoozer who can make everyone from the law school dean to the library janitor feel like a part of the same program. A motivator. A polished spokesman.
He seems like the perfect fit for Notre Dame, and his history suggests that he'll get the Fighting Irish back on a winning track sooner rather than later.
Kelly took Division II Grand Valley State to the playoffs in his first year as a head coach and ended up winning two national titles. At Central Michigan, he guided a program that had won 12 total games in the four seasons before his arrival to a winning record in Year 2, followed by a 9-4, MAC championship season in Year 3. And at Cincinnati, he led the Bearcats to a 10-win campaign his first season before winning back-to-back Big East titles.
"He gets the most out of his players and makes you believe you can reach your goals and your potential right away," said Ben Mauk, Kelly's first starting quarterback at Cincinnati. "He really knows how to sway people's votes and get them to believe in certain things."
Don't be surprised, then, if Kelly brings instant success to South Bend. Then again, that wouldn't be anything new.
Notre Dame's most recent previous two coaches, after all, experienced fast starts themselves. Tyrone Willingham won his first eight games. He went just 13-15 after that and was fired. Weis made BCS bowl games his first two years before sinking to 16-21 his final three seasons.
This is all about getting this program nationally in the top echelon immediately, and then continue to work on that every single day.” -- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly
So the question is whether Kelly -- who likes the talent and depth Weis left behind -- can turn this into more than just a one- or two-year wonder. Waking up the echoes is one thing; keeping them from punching the snooze button is another.
Kelly talks about five-minute plans instead of five-year ones. To him, then, the long term is just an extension of the here and now.
"We took this job over with the idea that we're not going anywhere," Kelly said. "I'm staying here for the rest of my life and going to coach Notre Dame. It's not like there's the next part that has to be implemented, or let's get off to the good start here and next year we'll do this.
"This is all about getting this program nationally in the top echelon immediately, and then continue to work on that every single day."
Small changes have occurred since Kelly took over, including the installation of a football-only training table for the first time. But for the most part, Notre Dame still has the same strengths and obstacles it did under Weis and Willingham.
If there's one major area that needs addressing, Kelly acknowledged, it's an obvious one: recruiting. Yes, most of Weis' classes were ranked in the top 10 nationally and were full of highly regarded skill players. But championship teams require more than that.
"If you look at Notre Dame's class each and every year, they don't have the guys on the defensive line that an Alabama does, or a USC does or LSU or Florida or Georgia does," ESPN Recruiting's Tom Luginbill said. "That's the biggest single difference between Notre Dame and the teams that they're expected to compete against on a national level."
If titles are won in the trenches, no wonder the Irish were happy to make the Hawaii Bowl in 2008. Since 2000, Notre Dame has had only seven offensive or defensive linemen selected in the top four rounds of the NFL draft. By comparison, Florida had 15, Texas 16 and USC 17.
Although Notre Dame's admissions standards will always present hurdles, Kelly has tailored his early recruiting efforts around linemen. Half of the 16 prospects currently committed to the Irish Class of 2011 play on either the offensive or defensive fronts, including three highly rated defensive ends from talent-rich Florida.
"He's off to a very impressive start," Luginbill said. "They're certainly moving in the right direction."
Kelly joked this summer that he bought a house in a gated community in case the Irish "only win 12 games" this season. But anything less probably would disappoint him, too. He has often said his only goal is to win every game -- which he did in the regular season last year at Cincinnati -- and he finds ways to make players believe that's possible.
"When he speaks, the kids listen and want to follow him," said Irish special-teams coordinator Mike Elston, who is entering his sixth season working under Kelly. "We don't go into any game expecting to lose. He just exudes so much confidence that it bleeds into the staff and the players."
Kelly has already ingratiated himself with the many tentacles on and off campus that vie for his attention. He estimated that he did more than 150 public appearances or speaking engagements this offseason. He has met just about everyone, including the billboard king himself, Tom Reynolds.
"Pretty much the uniform feeling of my colleagues going into the upcoming season is excitement," Reynolds wrote, "for the first time in more than a decade."
That's what the advertising folks would call either buzz or good word-of-mouth marketing. The former yields short-term results, but the latter helps sustain long-term success.
Which route will Brian Kelly take?
Brian Bennett covers college football for ESPN.com.
2010 SEASON PREVIEW