"When did everything click?"
Few coaches offer anything substantive when asked if they could point to "one moment" or a certain game in which their team evolved from college football participants to potential champion. So imagine the media's surprise when Notre Dame head man Brian Kelly, a renowned program builder married to "the process," was able to pinpoint such a moment.
"If there was one singular moment, it probably would have been in camp when we took some time off to go to Diamond Lake," Kelly offered. "Generally that thing turns into the swimmers and the non-swimmers (divided).
"This was a team that you could tell enjoyed being around each other. Guys that didn't (normally) play golf, played golf. Guys that don't (usually) swim were swimming. Guys (joined others) that played cards under the tent -- you could just sense there was a group of guys that really enjoyed being around. And I've always said, when you're guys care about each other in the locker room, you have a really good chance."
Patience in the ProcessA two-time champion at Grand Valley State, Kelly's third and final year at Central Michigan (2006) produced a MAC Championship. Likewise, his third and final season in the Queen City yielded a 12-0 regular season mark before he departed for South Bend.
With a win over Alabama on January 7, Kelly can match past program greats Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz with a championship season in his third year at the helm for Notre Dame.
"I think first you have to set a bar. You have to challenge your players to reach and exceed that bar," said Kelly of his program-building plan. "That requires a consistency. A clear, concise communication of what the goals and objectives are on a day-to-day basis, and that you're not going to settle for anything less.
"I think there also has to be an environment where your players really enjoy the process. The process of getting to where we're trying to get to. Of wanting to come in here and improve on a day-to-day basis. Having the energy and enthusiasm to be the best they can be."
While that desire to improve comes from within, it can be coached as well.
"Its not in a gatorade bottle," Kelly said, noting there was no quick fix formula. "It's something that takes time and it takes a commitment from everybody in the room, and I think those are some things you can't put your finger on as much as you develop over time. I think that's what we're seeing happen here."
The 2012 seniors will be credited heavily in the program's improvement. So too will be the three classes below, most of which Kelly recruited. But the latter noted that the players he inherited and since moved on were part of the process as well.
"The guys that were sitting in these chairs the first two years, they did everything we asked as well," said Kelly. "We just didn't play that way yet. We didn't play the right way on Saturdays. But they were committed, they did everything we asked them to do, but it was a process."
Its a process that's ongoing, though with a singular focus in sight.
"I think it was just a maturation and a development of our football team to get bigger, faster, stronger; and then have a will," said Kelly of their continued development. "You saw Alabama exert their will in the second half of the SEC Championship Game. You have to have that mind of mental toughness in a football team, as well. That's been the process for us at Notre Dame."
Included was the need to win close and late, a college football reality for most, but something the programed had struggled with over its last three years dating back to the Charlie Weis era.
"That's how we prepared," said backup quarterback Tommy Rees of the team's approach. "We had some close games but every team that gets to go 12-0 has some games they need to grind out and some things they need to overcome. Its just part of the process. I'm extremely proud of this team and the kind of character and fortitude we showed this year."
Rees might not have seen the team come together that day at Diamond Lake as did his head coach, but he echoed Kelly's comments regarding the internal machinations of the 2012 group.
"Besides the talent we have and the closeness that this team has shown from Day One, I think there's a true caring about one another," he said. We have extremely talented guys on both sides of the ball but I think it takes a lot more than just talent to get to this point."