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Kelly met the challenge

Irish coach’s weekly meetings with players formed bond

– Chris Watt and his Notre Dame teammates had no idea what to expect.

Coach Brian Kelly had decided that he was too far removed from his team as he entered his third season with the Irish, so he instituted a 3 p.m. gathering every Monday for him to spend time with the players.

“It was just like, ‘What’s this? What are we going to be doing?’ We didn’t know what we were going to be doing. It was kind like a (BS) meeting, just talking and things like that. It was nice. It was a little weird when we started, after awhile it became pretty normal.”

Carving out time to spend with the players was just one change Kelly decided he needed to make after back-to-back 8-5 seasons.

A tipping point that highlighted the need for a new way came last season when the Irish lost 31-17 to USC in a home night game. When some Trojans players commented that they felt that the Irish had quit late in the game, Kelly was asked if it was hard to get players to play like he wanted them to at Notre Dame.

Kelly responded: “You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We’ve had one class of recruiting, kids that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it’s a process. It can’t happen overnight. They’re getting there. They’re making good progress.”

The remark appeared to draw a line down Notre Dame’s locker room between the holdovers from former coach Charlie Weis and the players Kelly was bringing to the program.

Linebacker Manti Te’o was so upset by Kelly’s comment, he posted on this Twitter account, “Playin for my bros and that’s it!!!!”

Kelly apologized to the team before the next game that year, and he started thinking about what he could do differently at Notre Dame.

“I think the job tends to distract you,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things that pull you away from the primary reason why you want to be head coach of Notre Dame, and that is graduate your players and play for a national championship.

“Now, to do that you have to have the pulse of your football team and you’ve got to have relationships with your players. If you’re already going around the country doing other things other than working with your football team, it’s hard to have the pulse of your team. So I made it a point that I was going to spend more time with our team this year. That’s why I got into this. I want to develop 18- to 21-year-olds. … For me, that is why it’s been the most enjoyable year as the head coach at Notre Dame, is that I got a chance to spend more time with my team.”

Some changes Kelly made, such as meeting weekly with just him and the team, were his own doing, other changes were made because of circumstances.

After last season, Charley Molnar, who was the offensive coordinator in Kelly’s first two seasons, left to become the head coach at Massachusetts, and offensive line coach Ed Warinner and running backs coach Tim Hinton departed for Ohio State.

Kelly filled the holes by moving safeties coach Chuck Martin, who had worked under Kelly at Grand Valley State and took over as head coach there when Kelly left, to offensive coordinator. He brought in Harry Hiestand to coach the offensive line and Bob Elliott to coach the safeties.

Kelly also formed a unity group, which was made up of the captains and a player from each position group, during the summer that met with him to talk over any concerns he or the players had with the team.

“That’s why coach Kelly is the best football coach in America,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Coach Kelly will do what’s necessary to try to be sure that we have one more point at the end of the game than our opponent. He’ll talk to who he needs to talk to. He’ll change what he needs to change. He’ll tweak what he needs to tweak. And he listens, and he is about it every day. It is one of his greatest, greatest assets.”

The greatest asset to Notre Dame is that every move Kelly made before the season was to bring the team closer together.

The result has been a close-knit group that will play for Notre Dame’s first national championship since 1988 when the No. 1 Irish (12-0) take on No. 2 Alabama (12-1) tonight.

And if the Irish win the title, they will do it with everyone on the same page.

“This is not a team, it is like a big family,” Te’o said. “We know everything about each other. We know that their doors are always open to us.

“This team has just evolved into just a family.”

tkrausz@jg.net

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