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They’re here for Notre Dame’

Matt Gamber | Thursday, April 22, 2010

When Brian Kelly was first introduced as Notre Dame’s football coach on Dec. 11, he said he wanted “tough gentlemen” who would represent the University on and off the field. Irish players in need of an example should look no further than their head coach.

In his first four months on campus, Kelly has made a noticeable effort to increase his program’s visibility within the Notre Dame and South Bend communities. To do so, he’s spoken at a variety of campus events, ranging from home basketball games to the Junior Parents Weekend Closing Brunch to a student government meeting earlier this week.

Kelly said his program will be “a part of what makes Notre Dame special,” something he said may not have entirely been the case before he arrived. So he’s made an effort to be “approachable” and has emphasized that his players will be true student-athletes and members of the University community.

That’s the gentleman: Always in a suit, looking and sounding more like a polished, personable politician than a hard-nosed coaching veteran charged with resurrecting the country’s most storied football program.

Walk toward the LaBar Practice Complex, though, and by the time you reach the Jordan Hall of Science, you’ll start to hear that gentleman barking orders as he demands the furious tempo and attention to detail he knows are vital to success after 20 years as a head coach. For those who have worked with Kelly, there’s no doubt he’s got the “tough” part down, too.

“If you were going to a street fight, you’d ask Coach to come with you, because he’s a rugged guy. That’s who he is,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Put the ball down, ‘mano y mano,’ let’s go. Separate the men from the boys, so to speak, and let’s just see who’s tougher and who’s ready to knock a guy off the ball. That’s really who he is, in his core.”

And on the field, that’s what Kelly demands from his players — and it permeates through every aspect of his program, beginning with recruiting and ending with the finished product on Saturdays in the fall.

“There are tenants that must be followed for you to win, and the easiest way to describe what those are would be mental and physical toughness,” Kelly told The Observer in an exclusive interview April 15. “If you don’t have mental and physical toughness, then you probably won’t be a guy I can count on.”

Finding the ‘RKG’
There were once questions about whether the University’s tough academic standards inhibited Notre Dame’s ability to attract top-flight talent, but former coach Charlie Weis dismissed those by consistently reigning in highly touted players from around the nation.
Still, Kelly said he hears other schools “negative-recruit” his program by telling high school players they’ll have to work too hard to stay academically eligible at Notre Dame.

“If we’re going to lose kids that way, I’m glad we’re losing them,” Kelly said. “I want guys that understand if you come here, you’re going to get a powerful brand in Notre Dame on your degree. But on the flip side, you’ve got to work for it. That’s the kind of guy I want: somebody who recognizes the value of what makes this unique, and that’s academics and athletics.”

While those academic demands do trim the list of players the Irish can target, Kelly and his staff have cast a much wider net than the previous regime, in terms of offering scholarships to high school prospects. With a limited number of available scholarships — roughly 20 per year — it remains to be seen whether this strategy will prove successful, but it’s clear the new staff is putting in the work necessary to recruit effectively.

Kelly said that effort, coupled with Notre Dame’s national recognition, will enable the staff to recruit coast to coast to find players with “the right kind of intrinsic values we need.”

“Notre Dame is not meant for everybody, and when they rate high school students, they don’t give you four or five stars because you fit the model of Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Somebody’s got to have more than four or five stars to impress us because we want more than that.”

To assess those attributes, Kelly said his staff must develop a relationship with not only the recruit himself, but also with his family and coaches, through campus visits and consistent correspondence. Kelly’s assistants get to know a player before assessing him within a standardized ranking system (detailed in the graphic at bottom left), and before Kelly will sign an official scholarship offer to a player, the position coach, the coordinator and the lead recruiter for the player’s geographical location must all approve.

So, for a running back from Chicago, running backs coach Tim Hinton, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar and lead Chicago recruiter Chuck Martin would all have to approve based on “a detailed profile players must pass to even get to my desk,” Kelly said.

“It’d be easy to just look at film, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” he said. “Character, academics — those things are part of it. All the things that I believe, in my 20 years of being a head coach, is the right kind of guy. And that’s a guy I know I can coach, I know I can develop, and I know I can get to play championship football.”

‘Notre Dame, first and foremost’
The future success of the Irish program will largely depend on the new staff’s ability recruit, but Kelly and his assistants are also hard at work developing their current players in preparation for the 2010 season. While the physical element of the equation is certainly important, Kelly said there was an attitude adjustment that needed to be made as well.

“We need to care about Our Lady. We need to care about Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When I got here, our guys thought about themselves first, then their family, then their teammates, then Notre Dame. I want them to flip that. They’re here for Notre Dame, first and foremost, and that’s really the paradigm shift for our players. They’ve got to care about each other and understand why they’re here.”

That means both on and off the field. Kelly said that beginning next fall, the entire team will attend every pep rally and “be involved with them.” When his players have free time, Kelly said they will participate in campus programs and community service events while also becoming “more involved in church and chapel.”

That same concept of demanding more has extended to the practice field this spring. Though Kelly has at times been publicly tough on his team, he said the players have begun to grasp not only the new offensive and defensive schemes, but also the attitude they are expected to take with them every day.

“I’d call it conscious competence where we are now. They know what we’re asking, they’re trying to do it every day, but it’s really hard,” Kelly said. “We want to get to unconscious competence, where it’s habit and they don’t have to think about it. They know what to expect when they go on the field, they know how I want them to practice and how I want them to compete.”

That learning process hasn’t always been comfortable for the players. Kelly said junior center Braxston Cave, for example, struggled with his shotgun snaps during the first week of practice.

“Every time he had a bad snap, I made sure he heard me. It got to the point where we just pulled him out,” Kelly said. “We were hard on him, but we haven’t had a bad snap since.”
Kelly said he made it clear during his first several team meetings that he’d be tough on all his players, but he also knows there’s a line — he even invoked the old “beating a dead horse” cliché.

“You’ve got to be careful about what you’re getting on a guy for, and you’ve got to know that what you’re demanding is going to help them be a better football player,” Kelly said. “I don’t need to hear, ‘well, he doesn’t handle criticism.’ I’m not talking about criticism, I’m talking about doing it the right way.

“We’re talking about attention to detail and skill development. It cuts across all. If you’re thin-skinned, you’re either going to get tougher skin or you’re probably not going to make it.”

‘Enthusiastic, collegiate’
Hope springs eternal, and that’s seemingly never been as accurate as it’s been over the past few weeks near the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, where excitement for the 2010 season has already begun to build.

“Enthusiastic, collegiate. Play their tails off for four quarters and at the end of the day, we’ll figure out what the scoreboard says,” Kelly said of what fans will see out of the Irish next fall. “You won’t come to a game and see our guys play flat or uninspired. They’ll be passionate about what they’re doing or they won’t be out on the field.

“At the end of the day, if the person that sits in those stands can see their team, their colleague, their buddy, their dorm mate go out and play his heart out for Notre Dame, I’ve done my job.”

Those in attendance Saturday won’t necessarily see a sophisticated game plan, a bevy of bone-crunching collisions or an array of over-the-top emotion. But, in a way, there might be no better venue to see the kind of “tough gentlemen” Kelly has begun to mold in his first four months at Notre Dame.

“I’m a real believer that there’s some things you won’t do against your own teammates that you may do in a game against Purdue,” Kelly said with a smile. “That means we would pull back a little bit of that emotion because we don’t want to be showing up one of our own teammates. But guys will be competing. It’ll be fun.”