Allan Joseph and Andrew Owens | Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Up. Down. Bumpy. Smooth. Wins. Losses.
Irish coach Brian Kelly has seen it all at Notre Dame since he was hired almost exactly three years ago. But through it all, he’s stuck with one thing: The Process.
The Process has taken Notre Dame from the depths of mediocrity to the pinnacle of college football. And The Process is a very simple plan to do one thing: Win.
“I think it’s just being committed to winning. You know, you can’t win unless you eradicate all the things that go against it, and that is the process,” Kelly said Oct. 2. “It’s looking at all of the things that go into winning. … There are so many factors that you have to concentrate on and the details on a day-to-day basis that goes to winning.
“That’s what I think people mean when they talk about the process. Making sure you have your hand [on] those things that go directly to win it. Most of the time it’s eradicating those things that go to not winning more than anything else. So I think that’s the process.”
When Kelly first met with the media after he was officially announced as Notre Dame’s 29th head coach, he never once mentioned The Process – not by that name, at least. Yet from the very beginning of his tenure, he set about putting The Process into place.
The Process brought Kelly to Notre Dame. When Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick announced his decision to hire Kelly, he said as much, if not in so many words.
“At every step along the way, it kept taking me back to the same place. It kept taking me back to the conclusion that Brian Kelly was the right person to lead this program,” Swarbrick said during Kelly’s introductory press conference. “He has won at every level with every kind of team. He is a winner. And he’s a winner that at every stop along the way has done by doing it the right way.
“He was the right man at the right time for Notre Dame. And we are very fortunate to have him lead our program.”
Before his move to Notre Dame in 2010, Kelly already had a long track record of building winning programs, from Division II Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati. He described the Notre Dame program, with all of its unique opportunities and challenges, as a new task in many ways – but he said he would stick to his tried-and-true formula: The Process.
“First, this one is totally different than any of the other jobs that I’ve had. It’s unique in every facet,” he said on the first day of fall camp in 2010. “But the one consistency here are the players. The players are the same in terms of what they want to achieve under my leadership, and that is they want to be successful. So we’ve got the same thing we had at Cincinnati. We’ve got a bunch of kids that want to win. Now, we’re going to do the same things that we did. This job is different, but we’re going to do the same things behind the scenes we did everywhere along the way.”
His priority for installing The Process was simple.
“Well, the first thing is you’ve got to stop losing,” Kelly said in August 2010. “All the things that detract you from winning, you know, how do you live your life? … So I look for all those things that can keep you from winning because I know how to win and I know what the things are that needed to be put in place here.
“To me, that’s how you win. It’s not just about what the scoreboard says; it’s about how you go about doing your job seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”
From the first day of spring practice in 2010, Kelly emphasized The Process would be key to molding the Irish to his vision.
“We don’t have five years to put this thing together. We’ve got to do it right away,” he said March 26, 2010. “We give them some very basic parameters to start with. If they stick to those basic parameters, we can move them quickly through the process.”
By the time mid-August rolled around, Kelly said he had already noticed a change in his players.
“All of the players have done exactly what we’ve asked them to do,” he said on Media Day. “They knew there had to be a sense of urgency relative to their preparation. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired, too. They were 6-6. They felt that walking around campus. We got that buy-in from our guys immediately. Really what it’s been about is just a paradigm shift [of] different leadership styles.”
Although the groundwork had been laid during the previous offseason, it looked like the same old Irish during the first half of 2010. Mired by a three-game losing streak, capped by a 37-14 loss at home to Stanford, Notre Dame simply wasn’t physical enough to compete with elite teams like the Cardinal.
“[The players are] going to be back next week and they’re going to strap it back up and they’re going to fight and play as hard as they can,” said Kelly of continuing to build a physical mentality. “We’re going to build this program to where it needs to be.
“There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”
The Irish then won three consecutive games, but the short-term outlook hardly remained rosy with a blowout loss to Navy and a home defeat to lowly Tulsa to fall to 4-5. Kelly was heavily criticized for trying for a touchdown with freshman quarterback Tommy Rees when a field goal from David Ruffer (18-for-18 in his career at that point) would have given the Irish a win.
Kelly, though, stuck behind his vision and decision-making.
“Keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing,” he said. “To me this is how we play. We’re going to play aggressive. We’re going to play smart.”
Few could have foreseen it at the time, but the Tulsa loss marked the final defeat of the season for the Irish. In need of two wins in the final three games to become bowl-eligible, Notre Dame upset No. 14 Utah at home, beat Army at Yankee Stadium and concluded the regular season with a 20-16 win over USC, the program’s first win over the Trojans since 2001. A month later, Kelly became the first Irish coach to win a bowl game in his first season when Notre Dame dominated Miami 33-17 at the Sun Bowl.
With the 4-0 finish, the Irish used the momentum to finish the recruiting season with a bang, earning commitments from three four- or five-star defensive players in the final month of recruiting.
The Process was beginning to take hold.
2011: Sticking with it
All the positive momentum garnered from the end of Kelly’s inaugural season seemed to vanish in a thundercloud in the 2011 home opener. Between two weather delays, Notre Dame’s BCS hopes received a reality check in the season opener as South Florida topped the Irish 23-20.
Outside of the loss, the biggest story was Kelly’s handling of the quarterback situation, a theme that would persist throughout the season. Senior starting quarterback Dayne Crist was pulled at halftime with the Irish losing 16-0, and the job was Rees’ the remainder of the season.
“You can’t start winning until you stop losing, and the things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games,” said Kelly of his team’s error-laden performance. “You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose the football game because you have four personal foul penalties. The list is long.”
For three quarters of the following week’s contest at Michigan – the first-ever night game at the Big House – Notre Dame played its best football to date under Kelly. The offense clicked, the defense held Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in check and it looked like the season-opener was more an aberration than foreshadowing.
However, the Irish suffered a complete meltdown in the fourth quarter, surrendering 28 points in the stanza, the final seven of which transpired with two seconds remaining in the game.
For Kelly and the Irish, it was back to the drawing board and a commitment to trusting The Process.
“We’re shaping our team every single day,” Kelly said the day after the Michigan loss and 0-2 start. “Again, there are so many details to that. All you guys care about – and I understand that, and our fans – is that it equals wins, and we’re not doing that for them. I understand the frustration.
“But we’re building it the right way. We’ll get them there. We’re not there yet. I know this journey all too well. I’ve been on it before. It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing. It’s all those things. We’ll break through. There’s too many good things happening out there for us not to break through.”
The Irish sparked a four-game winning streak the following week with a 31-13 beat down of No. 15 Michigan State. It wasn’t a perfect contest, but it was the most convincing sign The Process was working and Kelly’s squad was on the rise in the national outlook.
“I know one thing is that they weren’t lacking confidence, but sooner or later you gotta get paid,” Kelly said. “You gotta be validated in what you do. And so it was a big win for us.”
Heading into the USC game with a four-game winning streak, the Trojans hampered by NCAA sanctions and the 2010 win at the Los Angeles Coliseum, it appeared the rivalry might be shifting in Notre Dame’s favor. USC emphatically put those thoughts to rest with a 31-17 victory in Notre Dame’s first home night game since 1990.
The following Thursday, Kelly created a controversy regarding players he recruited and ones Weis had recruited.
“You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are,” Kelly said. “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.”
A Twitter firestorm erupted as some players rushed to social media to let out their frustration. (Irish linebacker Manti Te’o tweeted, “Playin for my bros and that’s it!!!!”)
After Kelly apologized to the team, the Irish recorded a four-game winning streak for the second time in 2011. However, the Irish were no match physically for an elite Stanford squad in the regular-season finale; in the Champs Sports Bowl, Notre Dame blew a 14-0 second-half deficit and lost 18-14 to Florida State to finish 8-5 for the second consecutive season.
The Process was tested, and so was the team’s resolve. A quarterback battle ensued. A mediocre recruiting class enrolled. Two players transferred, including defensive end Aaron Lynch, who dazzled during his freshman season with five and a half sacks.
“The challenges are great here,” Kelly said. “If your head and heart is not in it, you just can’t be successful. Aaron and I talked about it and mutually agreed that the best decision for him is to leave the football team.
“I’ve been in it 25 years – people are going to quit all the time. It happens. It’s part of the process. … Why is it newsworthy? Because [Lynch] is a really good player.”
While Lynch and cornerback Tee Shepard left and a class of new players signed, the most important recruiting pitch Kelly had to make was to Te’o and tight end Tyler Eifert to return for their senior seasons.
Trusting The Process, both did so.
The Process guided Kelly as he prepared for a pivotal third year with a schedule harder than any other in the nation.
“Year one, it’s the typical learn the names of the players, begin to implement your schemes; year two, try to develop that depth in the units; and I think for me in year three it’s a comfortable feeling that I know my football team very well going into year three,” he said at the beginning of spring practice.
Kelly said The Process was more about preparing his team for the grueling slate mentally and physically.
“One part of the challenge to our football team is to get all of our players to play at a championship level on a consistent basis,” he said Sept. 11. “I think you build toughness in so many ways before you get to the season, and then when you get to the season you look to see it come together. … I think we are developing it, and I think it’s something that we continue to talk about every single day.”
After reeling off four wins to start the 2012 campaign, Kelly said The Process was finally starting to show results.
“Our guys have been committed to the process. It’s painstakingly slow, sometimes it’s quicker. But they’ve been committed to the process,” he said. “It’s taking that and translating it to Saturdays. And this group is translating it to Saturdays, at least for the first four weeks.
“But they’ve done a nice job of preparing and doing the things we’ve asked them to do. We think we’re close to being consistent in that approach.”
Part of the Process-based approach involved keeping the Irish focused on the game ahead – with the grind of week-in, week-out competition, a single glance at the final goal could mean the season would be derailed. When his squad improved to 5-0 and a No. 7 national ranking, Kelly had to make it clear to his players that attention to detail mattered more than ever, especially with a titanic home date with Stanford looming days ahead.
“We don’t talk from that level from 30,000 feet because it doesn’t do us any good. All we can focus on is what we can control on a day-to-day basis,” he said before the matchup with the Cardinal. “Among us, it’s about today and what we do today.”
Yet with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in South Bend for the first time in seven years and hype building around Notre Dame’s rise in the polls, The Process was beginning to deliver results that would only draw more attention to the big picture.
“I’ve worked this plan for a number of years. I’ve had great success with it,” Kelly said. “If [the players] choose to continue to follow it they’re going to continue to have success. It’s the trust element of staying focused on what we can handle and what we need to handle and we will be fine.”
If the players didn’t embrace it, The Process would consist only of words from the head coach, and they would not translate to the field.
“I’ve always felt that teams in November have a distinct advantage if they’re enjoying the process, if they really come over here and feel good about practice,” Kelly said before facing Oklahoma. “I think you really have to enjoy the process and enjoy winning in particular.
“I’ve had teams that have really enjoyed the process. And this group does.”
The Process, which had been in place since Kelly’s arrival, led the then-No. 5 Irish to a dominating 30-13 victory over the then-No. 8 Sooners, a win a long time in the making.
“I think it’s a process of not just this year,” Kelly said after the win. “These wins happen over periods of time, not just one-year cycles. This has been a group that has had to take some lumps and learn along the way. It’s got great leadership. I think it’s a cumulative effect that this football team is now positioning itself to win these kinds of games because of what they’ve gone through the last two years.”
As his team continued to win games and rise up the rankings, with a shot at the national crown becoming ever more tangible, Kelly said he could feel The Process had firmly taken root in his program.
“It’s a process, that when you’re so involved in it
that you don’t know there is a particular day, but you do know that things are being done the way you want them on a day‑to‑day basis. You sense and feel it,” he said Nov. 13. “I don’t know that there was one particular day. I think the last couple years our players really understood preparation. They understood how to prepare. They were learning how to play the game.
“I think we’ve learned how to play the game on Saturdays a lot better over the last year and a half.”
And when his team finally lit up the sign atop Grace Hall, needing only to vanquish rival USC to earn a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, Kelly emphasized The Process once more.
“We’re operating on, ‘You better have a good day today in practice because you just watched film, and we saw the things you did wrong yesterday,’ he said Nov. 20 before the Irish traveled to Los Angeles. “We keep them away from the big picture, because they don’t see it that way. They don’t come to work that way on a day-to-day basis.”
Finally, in the aftermath of a raucous celebration in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Notre Dame’s ticket to Miami punched, Kelly said The Process had been vindicated.
“Here’s what I know: We set out this season to build our program and get it back into the national discussion when you’re talking about championship programs, and we’re in that discussion,” he said.
The Process brought the Irish back to the top.
2013 and beyond
Even with tangible proof of the validity of The Process, don’t expect Kelly to abandon the message, regardless of the result of the BCS National Championship Game.
“When you go in that locker room and you’re around the guys I’m around, you’re not surprised because what they’ve done, the commitment they’ve made, they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do,” said Kelly after the season-concluding win at USC. “Everything. So it doesn’t surprise me anymore because of the guys that we’re around.”
Twenty-two high school prospects have committed to Notre Dame so far in the 2013 recruiting cycle, good enough for a No. 2 ranking nationally on Rivals.com.
Kelly will continue to stress defense on the recruiting trail and in the locker room, and offensively the next step for the Irish is to build around sophomore quarterback Everett Golson.
Former Irish coach Ara Parseghian, who led the program to national championships in 1966 and 1973, said he has witnessed The Process while observing the program.
“He’s done a good job recruiting, he’s well organized,” Parseghian said. “He can motivate. I’ve gone out to practice a few times and talked to him and what he’s been able to do – and this is important for coaches – is place the personnel where they best function for the team.
“He would just spend so many hours between the end of one game and the beginning of the next. Time is at a premium, so any wasted period wasted on something not important is thrown right out the window. I think he does a great job of that.”
Kelly’s next challenge is to sustain the program’s success on a consistent basis. Past coaches have noted the stress of working long-term at Notre Dame, even when they are successful. If Kelly can stick to The Process, there’s no telling how long he might last.