Friends and Family Plan

It wasn't all football for the Irish players and coaches before they headed home for the Holidays.

Everybody needs a little time away

A brief respite from the daily grind of schoolwork and practice is rare for the modern Notre Dame football player. After a week of final exams, the Irish embarked on three days of solid football that were nearly professional in nature and intensity.

But those full days of practice and meetings were interrupted this week by evenings of enjoyment.

Monday the players, coaches, and coaches families enjoyed on a night of bowling and racing at Strikes and Spares in Mishawaka. The building was rented by the football program and a good time was apparently had by all.

"I'll tell you what – a 320 pound guy on a go-cart is a scary thing," Kelly noted in reference to the building's adjacent Go-Cart tracks.

"It was good just to be with our families who interacted with the players, and I think they really enjoyed it. For our football team, it was a way to get with (staff) family members and really enjoy ourselves.

The Irish followed that on Tuesday with a brief dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, followed by a team movie. All in the name of camaraderie and morale after a trying 2010 season.

"Darius Fleming beat us all again; Mr. Junior Olympics champ or something like that. Darius is pretty good," noted junior Ethan Johnson of his classmate and fellow front seven defender. (Johnson added that he improved after an admittedly rough start on the alleys.)

"Its team bonding but really its just going out there and having fun with your friends on the team and getting to know a few of the other guys better," Johnson continued. "Those that aren't necessarily in your class or your position. Your good friends with those guys (class/position) but it has to be built from there."

Kelly noted that while team-building exercises don't win football games, the breaks themselves and the relationships sometimes forged from them are integral to collegiate athletics.

"I think its part of the process of developing college-age students, that you have to do these things," Kelly said before jokingly adding, "Now, we're not going to have trust-falls every other weekend, but its important that we get out and enjoy – because we spend so much time together (in football), and they can see we have families as well, and I think it's a nice blend you want to have."

Christmas (shopping) comes last: Part of that blend of regular life with football is lost for college coaches who are regularly robbed of family time – throughout the season and nearly year-round due to the increased demands of the job.

Kelly felt those affects in 2010 and was looking forward to a three-day break from the game following a December 22 practice.

"I need to get out in shop in the greater South Bend/Michiana community and buy a lot of stuff. I haven't done any shopping yet," Kelly admitted.

As for what he looks forward to most over the next few days?

"I think just sitting down and having a meal. You never get an opportunity to sit down as a family and talk to your kids for more than sound bytes," he said. "It'll be nice to sit down and relax and not have to (catch the update), ‘What happened in your school day?' in about 20 seconds at 6:30 in the morning."

More personal time awaits

Notre Dame cancelled its regular December football banquet earlier this month. No reason was given, but its replacement event appears to be one both the attendees and honorees will enjoy.

"We wanted to get away from the sit-down banquet, the dais," Kelly said of the traditional season-end fare. "That can become long and…I've been through 20 years of them," he added with a knowing glance from most in the room that have attended anything of the sort.

"This will have a different feel too it. We've done some planning and we're going to take some risks and do things a little bit differently. It's something we're going to take a shot at putting this format together. It'll be more entertaining for those that attend.

Kelly added the awards ceremony would have an "ESPN Home Depot Gala look to it" in reference to the College Football Awards show earlier this month. "We just wanted it to be more interactive and give an in-depth, personal side to the award winners as well.

"We all kind of talked about as a staff and wanted to put something together that would be different and unique," he said before dryly adding, "You guys (the media) will certainly grade me on it so I'm excited to know how that'll come out.

Absolutely forbidden

When 70-plus college athletes visit a new town for a week over Christmas Break, mischief and revelry is bound to occur.

Winning is the primary goal, but part of the Bowl Game reward is the experience. It's a unique (some would argue maddening) aspect of FBS College Football.

"We want to make sure that they enjoy the experience," Kelly said. "To enjoy the experience you have to be well-prepared before you get there. If you're not, then it becomes a bit of a distraction (logistically).

"So we tried to create a very solid schedule for them and do a lot of the preparation work before we get there, because we want them to enjoy the bowl experience. If you know you have a lot of your work taken care of (prior to arrival), I think you can enjoy the game."

While Kelly wants his crew to enjoy El Paso and most of what the city has to offer, the city of Juarez, Mexico, just across the border, will be completely off limits…and he's taken measures to ensure that edict is followed.

Asked earlier this month about the Sun Bowl experience, Kelly offered that he'd collect the players' passports so temptation to cross the border would be taken out of their hands.

Hyperbole was not part of his statement.

"No, that's serious," he noted Tuesday.

And what has he heard about present-day Juarez?

"Don't go over the border or you may not come back.

"Now I know El Paso is the safest city in the country. But this is serious. It isn't, ‘Hey, let's jump in the car guys and give it a shot, and see what its like on a lark,'" he added.

"You can't go there, or nobody is going to be able to help you," he continued. "There's been too much turmoil and too many things that have happened there.

"If we take their passports, they can't get back. And these guys are smart enough to know that."

Kelly lightened the mood with the predicable, but well-delivered line to the media in attendance:

"Now for you guys…I don't know what your plans are. The shuttle starts at 5:15…"

(For those questioning the gravity of the situation, simply Google: "Juarez – Murder") Top Stories