When Notre Dame boarded the plane in Los Angeles to return from a 45-27 loss at USC Thanksgiving weekend – it’s eighth loss in 12 games – a traveling party of approximately 200 players, coaches, administrators and family knew which direction that aircraft would be flying, if not the football program itself.
Notre Dame football was broken. Notre Dame football was lost.
“We say play like a champion today, but I don’t think anyone really bought into that last year,” said senior captain Drue Tranquill.
“When you’re going 4-8, there wasn’t the expectation to lose, but there was an uncertainty of what the outcome would be.”
Seven times the Irish lost by a total of 32 points. By the time the football team reached Los Angeles to take on the resurgent Trojans, the season couldn’t come to a close fast enough.
Their spirits had been broken and their dreams shattered during a 1-3 start, a loss in a hurricane, a blown 10-point halftime lead at home against rival Stanford, a one-point loss to Navy, and finally, a fourth home loss to Virginia Tech before the inevitable death march to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
It wasn’t just a need for change; it was a need to blow it up and start all over again.
Six new assistant coaches arrived. So did a Director of Football Performance who would change the way bodies would be built and how the minds would approach that transformation.
It started with the head coach, whose program had gone from the cusp of a playoff bid in 2015 to disaster in one year.
“After USC and your eighth loss of the season, you know something is going to change,” said fifth-year senior captain Mike McGlinchey. “We didn’t know what was coming but we trusted Coach Kelly and the guys that he’s put into place and the way he’s gone about taking back control of this football team have been tremendous.”
Kelly’s had lost control of the program, or at least the blueprint to success. Negligence is a strong word, but accurate nonetheless. When winning is a hope and a prayer with nothing concrete to back it up, even one of the most storied football programs in the history of intercollegiate athletics can crumble.
“Obviously we knew things needed to change,” said senior captain Greer Martini. “We put our faith in Coach Kelly and those changes have been positive with our strength program and on the field as well.”
Positive? More like completely different than anything that took place in 2016.
“It’s a complete 180,” McGlinchey said. “It’s absolutely different. Everything about it. The way we work. The preparation we’re putting in. The detail (by which) we go about our business. The way we train. Everything has changed and we all believe it’s for the better.
“We feel as though we’re on a great track. We have goals in sight and we have the confidence now that we feel can finally meet those goals.
“It’s been a great feeling going through winter training and spring ball, and having the success that we’ve been having and seeing it across the board.”
True success cannot be reached for another five months. Massive change and significant upgrades will be mere blather if Notre Dame doesn’t at least flip that 4-8 record and show true, legitimate, long-lasting progress.
January 17 was when the true change began. That’s when the players first convened with new Director of Football Performance, Matt Balis.
“We’re so excited to have the opportunity that we’ve had starting Jan. 17 with Coach Balis, and then as we started spring ball, we hit the ground running,” McGlinchey said. “Guys are excited, guys are working, guys are playing at a level that we haven’t seen before.”
“Anyone would (change) when you go 4-8,” Tranquill said. “You’re at a place with such a tradition of excellence.
“When we sat down with Coach Kelly at the end of the season, (we discussed) our mission and values of the team moving forward. We realized as a team that it aligns with the mission here at this University, and that’s a tradition of excellence.
“We want to be excellent, we want to graduate all of our players and we want to win national championships. So we knew going into winter break that Coach Kelly was going to make the changes necessary to achieve that and I think he did. We’ve seen incredible value added to our staff.”
Even with a modicum of success in 2016, change would have been in order. Kelly had surrounded himself with his people. That’s always been his comfort zone. The familiar felt right. The familiar felt like continuity.
Continuity, instead, had become status quo. Worse than status quo.
“I think Notre Dame would have fixed it,” said Martini when asked what would have happened had there not been massive change. “Ultimately, I think we would have come back strong, but who knows? I really couldn’t see it.”
“It’s hard to imagine it staying status quo and it turning back,” McGlinchey said. “We certainly wouldn’t be in the place we are now if the changes hadn’t been made.”
“It never is one thing with an organization of 200 people on our flights going to away games,” Tranquill said. “There are a lot of roles and all it takes is for one or two of those to get out of place and the whole organization starts falling down.”
And so the overhaul began.
“It’s totally different because you feel defeated after a 4-8 season,” Martini said. “Now you have some positive energy and you have high hopes for the season. That transition and now this opportunity to prove ourselves has given us energy.”
The older players have seen the change in the younger players who don’t know success at Notre Dame.
“When you go 4-8 and you have a lot of young guys playing, a lot of those guys are (wondering), ‘What does it look like to win here?’” Tranquill said. “We’re finally getting back to what it looks like to win at Notre Dame. What it means to be a champion in everything that you do.
“If we were to step on the field now, I think our mentality would be totally to win and expect to win every game.”
“The young guys are improving faster,” McGlinchey said. “Guys like me that have been here for five years are going through some dramatic changes as well.
“Coach Kelly and the staff have done an incredible job with our football team in understanding where we needed to change and how we needed to change it. It’s been a huge success for us so far.”
With two weeks of spring practice remaining, it’s been a long time since Notre Dame has needed a greater sense of urgency than May-June-July of 2017.
“We have to have a growth mindset,” said Martini of the upcoming months. “Every day we have to attack it with the idea that we’re going to get better as a team. Ultimately that will lead to success during the season.”
“Now it’s just sticking to the process we have outlined,” McGlinchey said. “We’ve distinctly outlined the process that Coach Kelly and the staff want us to have. Now it’s about trusting that process and going through the long haul of the off-season.
“As we keep maintaining the storm and the level of intensity that we’ve been at since we’ve gotten back here, I think things are going to look a lot different come Saturdays in the fall.”
Tranquill tips his cap to Kelly and the changes that he’s made, not only within the organization, but with himself.
“I just want to commend Coach Kelly because as the overseer of that huge organization, he’s done nothing but work his tale off since the end of last season,” Tranquill said.
“Some people might say, ‘Well yeah, his job is in (jeopardy).’ But he genuinely cares for each one of us and he’s done an incredible job of putting an incredible staff in place.”
A former head coach on the staff gave Tranquill and the team a perspective to carry into the off-season.
“Coach (Brian) Polian said, ‘You know what makes the difference between a good and a great team? A team that loves one another,’” Tranquill said.
“I think I’m finally seeing that here at Notre Dame.”