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Kelly’s winning attitude prevails

Eric Prister | Wednesday, January 19, 2011

EL PASO, Texas — When did Notre Dame start expecting to win games again? Not expecting to beat everyone they play, and to win national championships year after year, but expecting to win the games they should win, and then doing just that. It’s an attitude that has surfaced around the Notre Dame football program over the last two months, and it starts from one man — Irish coach Brian Kelly.

“Well, for us at the University of Notre Dame, it starts with being at a great site at the Sun Bowl. We had a great week together at a team, and El Paso treated Notre Dame so very well, so I can’t say enough about the bowl. This is just a great, great stop along the way.”

The first words out of Brian Kelly’s mouth in his post-game press conference, after handily defeating long-time rival Miami to end the season at 8-5, were thanking the Sun Bowl for their hospitality. This man is cool, calm and collected, and knows how to present a winning face. He didn’t gloat about a win that, in the long run, probably doesn’t mean that much. He didn’t talk about how good it must feel to finish the season with four straight wins and to quell much of the criticism he faced throughout the season. He thanked the Sun Bowl, and calmly talked about how his team came out ready to play.

Notre Dame should have beaten Miami. The Hurricanes were out a coach, playing in weather that nobody expected and just were not in a bowl-game-winning mindset. The Irish were on a winning streak, more used to the weather and came out ready to win a game. They knew that they were more ready to play than Miami, and they showed it. Superior talent was not the reason for the win — it was a superior attitude that led the Irish to victory, an attitude that comes straight from the top.

As the season progressed, you could tell that Kelly was getting frustrated. Losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford left the Irish at 1-3, and he was frustrated at the way his inaugural season had started.

This is a man that was not used to losing games. But frustration was not the only emotion that stood out. There was also determination.

That determination did not solve all of his problems, though. After solid victories over Boston College and Pittsburgh, the Irish were demoralized by Navy and lost unacceptably to a far-inferior Tulsa. Notre Dame was 4-5 heading in to the month of November, and spirits couldn’t have been lower.

But something changed. Something clicked, and despite the loss of its starting quarterback and running back for the rest of the season, Notre Dame clipped off three straight wins, including one over USC, to finish the season 7-5. The bowl win over Miami gave Notre Dame four straight wins, the most to end a season since 1992.

Sure, the defense played incredibly well. They gave up only four touchdowns in those last four wins, including two in what was basically garbage time against Miami. Freshman Tommy Rees played intelligently and orchestrated the offense well. Michael Floyd returned to form and played like the dominant, NFL-caliber receiver that he is. But one person kept the whole squad together, rolling along the path, knowing every step of the way that he had a plan, and that his plan would bring success eventually.

And it did.

In 2002 and 2005, Notre Dame went 10-3 and 9-3 respectively, played in January bowl games, and went into the next season with high expectations. But neither of those teams beat USC, neither of those teams won a bowl, and neither of those teams finished the season stronger than they started it. Is the 2010 squad just a replay of that same old story?

I don’t think so. There is an air of winning around this Notre Dame football program. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to win every game, or win a national championship every other year, or become the most dominant football program in the country. But because of one man, Notre Dame will win the games they should because they know that they should. And because of Brian Kelly, the list of teams that Notre Dame should beat is just going to continue to grow.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Eric Prister at eprister@nd.edu