Must Win Situation

Brian Kelly has provided a light at the end of a 16-season tunnel for shell-shocked Irish fans.

For Irish fans that analyze the program's movements and dissect its head coach's every word, two themes have emerged since the conclusion of spring ball last April:

  1. Brian Kelly believes his team can win; now.
  2. He knows the group is far from championship material

The latter theme is a work in progress; one Kelly plans to rectify by September 4, and by meeting each challenge along the way.

Daily improvement, on and off the practice field, is step one toward turning around a middling program.

"Well the first thing is you have to stop losing," Kelly reiterated Tuesday. "(Examine) all of the things that detract you from winning; how you live your life: Are you a guy that likes to drink beer on Thursday night and think that you can be the best that you can be on Saturday?

"Are you somebody that likes to hide during practice and pick your spots when you're going to turn it on?

"I look at all of those things that can keep you from winning. Because I know how to win; and I know what things are that needed to be put in place here.

"Our players right now have cut out a lot of the losing things and to me that's how you win. It's not just about what the scoreboard says. It's how you go about doing your job 7 days a week; 24 hours a day."

The scoreboard hasn't regularly favored the Irish since November 18, 2006 – the starting point of a seven-game losing skid; a separate four-game slide and another in which the program dropped five of seven contests entering last season.

A 2009 rebirth and 6-2 mark was short-lived, with the now apparently requisite four-game losing streak rearing its head to end the season.

The last three seasons have included four separate, extended and debilitating streaks of losing football. A four-game and a three-game winning streak, both comprised of unranked opponents serve as the highlights intermixed.

10 consecutive losses to ranked teams. Yet Kelly exudes championship expectations.

"I'm very confident in my ability to get our football team ready to win," Kelly said.

"The difference between this situation is we have to accelerate that process. We have to act with a sense of urgency. We don't have time to let things come as they will. We have to force the issue a little bit.

"There's a sense of urgency here at Notre Dame that I haven't had at the other stops, but the plan is the same."

Identity Theft

With 28 practices now in the books and 12 to go before the staff's first official test, Kelly and his team are still without one necessary element for success: an identity.

"Not yet," Kelly offered when asked if he had found the 2010 squad's calling card. "And I don't want to force it. I don't want us to be something that we're not. However, I understand how I want them to practice. So coming to work every day has been a consistent theme relative to mental toughness; pushing through ‘oweies' and little ‘boo-boos' and all of those things people talk about relative to hurt and injured.

"We're hoping our identity becomes ‘tough-minded' The Fighting Irish. We talked about that before. We're not there yet but we're clearly being consistent with that message. So by osmosis, maybe we'll get consistent to that end."

Diffusion of the coach's personality aside, Kelly has seemingly provided one coaching point that previous Notre Dame teams lacked – an even hand.

"I think I try to get the best out of every single player: Michael Floyd to the walk-on player. I would hope that my players say I don't treat them differently. I still demand the same attention to detail and work ethic, and challenging them is what they want.

"Even if you're a ‘finished product' I think they want to be challenged as well."

Singular Focus

Notre Dame fans and alumni embrace the football program, in part, because we believe the Irish do things "the right way." The vast majority are athletes, students, solid citizens, football players...

But none of us would pay $70 a seat to watch Notre Dame chemistry students dominate an experiment for 12 Saturdays every fall.

Fans thrive on the challenge college football presents, and teams coached by Brian Kelly have answered the opponents' challenge for a bottom-line 18 consecutive regular season Saturdays.

Kelly hasn't experienced a road loss since late-October 2008 (nine consecutive wins) and finished a head-shaking 30-0 as a favorite during his three-season run at Cincinnati.

Just once in his tenure did Kelly's Bearcats lose consecutive games. (Of Note: Despite consistent success, the new staff will fit right in with the South Benders…either Kelly or members of his coaching staff have dropped two straight BCS bowl decisions.)

Further, his mark of 13 (and counting) consecutive home games without a loss would rank third at Notre Dame over the last six decades.

Kelly represents a stark (on-field) contrast to everything Notre Dame fans have grown accustomed over the last 16 seasons – he wins.

"We've only talked about winning," Kelly said yesterday of short and long terms goals for this team. "We haven't talked about specifics relative to what we have on our goal charts. My message has really been doing the things necessary to be a winner: how you practice; how you handle yourself off the field; attention to detail."

(Kelly offered the Xs and Os preparation for Purdue has begun.)

"They were sick and tired of being sick and tired, too," Kelly said of his sub-.500 squad.

"Really what it's been about is just a paradigm shift – different leadership styles. So the leadership style has been the one aspect of growing as a team."

The early results aren't promising, they're through the roof. Fan, player, coach, administrator and daily media expectations continue to rise.

"It's a great day to be the head coach," Kelly offered to the media before an informal post-practice meeting last week, then joked. "I haven't won a game…but I haven't lost one either."

I expect Kelly and the Irish to win, if not immediately, sooner than most observers are ready to concede.

More important, he has to win, because if this coach can't turn the program around, no one will.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories