From the hot seat to Notre Dame's final challenge: Brian Kelly intent on catching Clemson, Alabama

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Two seasons ago, Brian Kelly sat in his office in the days before spring practice and explained the thorough overhaul both he and the Notre Dame program had undergone in the offseason. Coming off a 4-8 season, Kelly’s name was constantly preceded by “embattled” and he found himself on enough hot-seat lists that he seemingly needed padded drawers.

Kelly shook up his staff with three new coordinators, jettisoned his longtime strength coach and tailored his own daily coaching schedule to be more engaged with the players and divorced from the day-to-day workings of the offense. “I’m going to be sure that never happens again,” Kelly told me just two winters ago. “We failed and I failed.”

Last week, the conversation with Kelly in a wide-ranging interview in his office tackled distinctly different themes. The Irish have gone 22-4 the past two seasons, with six wins over programs ranked in the top 16 and an undefeated regular season in 2018. Kelly struck a relaxed tone, chatting freely about his desire to retire at Notre Dame, his coaching profile emerging alongside some of the school’s legends and why he’s crossed the NFL off his list of career ambitions. “There’s less drama, less noise than probably at any other time,” Kelly said of this offseason. “It comes with consistency and winning, but you have to do it every year.”

Kelly’s career arc has seen Notre Dame revive its national relevance after he started in 2010 shrouded by questions about whether the Irish could sustain independence and remain a factor in the sport’s postseason conversation. Notre Dame played for the Bowl Championship Series title after the 2012 season, eventually slid back to necessitate the overhaul and reached its first College Football Playoff in 2018.

After a semifinal blowout loss to Clemson in December, Kelly faces a drastically different tension than when he arrived. Now he’s figuring out the final step to push his program from Top 5 to a national-title winner. In other words, the Irish are trying to figure out how to leapfrog Clemson and Alabama. “The big picture, no question, is the championships,” he said. “Yeah, I'm in it to win a national championship for Notre Dame, but what really drives me is the relationships with the players.”

Brian Kelly has led Notre Dame to a 22-4 record the past two seasons. (Getty Images)
Brian Kelly has led Notre Dame to a 22-4 record the past two seasons. (Getty Images)

Kelly, 57, plans on sticking around South Bend to figure it out. He told Yahoo Sports that he plans to coach out the remaining three years on his contract. “I may look to see if we can add two more years,” Kelly said, reluctant to offer a specific retirement date but acknowledging the end is closer than the beginning. He’s flirted with the NFL in the past – most significantly with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. He says he’s moved on from that curiosity because “of the way it’s set up,” as he prefers the more “coach-centric” college model with full roster control. “I think if I'm fortunate enough to go five more years here, I would be very happy,” he said.

Entering Year 10, Kelly finds himself just one season behind three Notre Dame legends – Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz – who all coached for 11 years in South Bend. Kelly’s 81-34 record means he’ll be expected to pass Leahy (87-11-9) this season for No. 4 on the school’s all-time victory list. (Kelly’s total doesn’t factor in the 21 victories redacted by the NCAA for impermissible academic help.)

Kelly is just 24 victories behind Knute Rocke, who ranks No. 1 in both victories (105) and total tenure (13 seasons). That leaves Kelly three eight-win seasons from catching Rockne in victories and four seasons – including this upcoming one – from Rockne’s mark for longevity.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick points out that the three coaches Kelly is a year away from tying in tenure – Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz – struggled with the demands of the job. “It just ate 'em up,” Swarbrick said. “I think Brian's personal approach to the job – his ability to self-reflect, his balance – positions him for a longer run.”

Prior to Kelly’s arrival, the Notre Dame job churned through Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, George O’Leary and Charlie Weis, as Kelly’s 10th season will be double the longest tenures among them. (Davie and Weis lasted five years.) As he distances Notre Dame from two decades of inconsistency and dysfunction, Kelly finds himself walking statistically alongside the program’s iconic giants. “Up until this year, I never even thought about those guys and Brian Kelly,” Kelly said of the four coaches ahead of him in total wins. “I still don't put myself in the same category because they won national championships, though I am proud that we went undefeated twice at Notre Dame. It's a little bit different … that's a different club.”

Kelly has remained physically healthy through consistent Vinyasa yoga sessions and recently became a Peloton owner. But his trick to longevity at Notre Dame – which he admits he fought for a while – has centered around understanding and embracing the confines of the school. He credits Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey for figuring them out two decades ago and figuring out a way to win. “We tried to, in so many ways, to apologize for Notre Dame, and make allowances for it,” Kelly said. “Instead of embracing it and saying, 'This is how we're going to do it,' and not apologizing for it.”

That has resulted in the recent uptick, one that’s launched Kelly in the conversation among the program’s all-time greats and afforded the opportunity to pass them in the record book. “He has built a foundation that allows the program to be regularly successful,” Swarbrick said. “But perhaps most significantly, he has found that way to do that within the ethos of this place. And that's what's really different.”

Kelly does admit that he’s recently reflected on his legacy. When he arrived after the disastrous tenure of Weis – the Irish were 16-21 the prior three seasons – Kelly’s first task was to turn it into a college program. He brought in pool tables, figured out more efficient player schedules and drastically upgraded nutrition. Next came the physical upgrades, which included a half-billion in stadium renovations, a locker-room overhaul and a new indoor facility that’s on the way.

Notre Dame and quarterback Ian Book were dominated by Clemson and defensive end Austin Bryant in December. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame and quarterback Ian Book were dominated by Clemson and defensive end Austin Bryant in December. (Getty Images)

While Kelly covets a national title to cap his career, he’s pleased if his legacy is viewed through the prism of how he’s helped upgrade the program for the players. “Look, you want to win a national championship, but if I walk away from here after the next five years and [people say], ‘That stadium, that locker room, those indoor facilities have been built for the student-athletes that allow them to compete for championships,’ I'm good with that,” he said. “If that's my legacy, that Coach Kelly helped get the resources for the student-athletes to win a national championship, I'm OK with that.”

Just how far away are Kelly and Notre Dame from winning a national title? Kelly said after Notre Dame’s 4-8 season in 2016 that the program was closer to a title than in the 2012 season when Alabama blew them out – and off the ball on nearly every down – in the BCS title game. The remark drew some eyebrow raises. But with rising junior quarterback Ian Book returning after a season that saw him finish in the top 10 in completion percentage and efficiency, the Irish appear to have the program’s first defining face at quarterback since Brady Quinn. Recruiting has hummed along, and the Irish return talented coordinators in Chip Long, who was a Broyles finalist, and Clark Lea.

Kelly said that he had a drastically different takeaway from the 30-3 loss to Clemson last season than the 42-14 loss to Alabama. The Alabama loss resulted in an eventual overhaul of training and nutrition, and Kelly said the Irish didn’t get knocked off the ball against Clemson. “There still is a bit of a gap in the outside skill players,” Kelly said, comparing the Irish to Clemson. “Their wide receivers are so talented. It just might be that way for anyone in the country. We've got to get [former star receivers] Michael Floyd and Will Fuller on the field at the same time. We've got to get so much better at the running back position. We're getting there, we're developing linemen, we need to continue to grow at the skill positions, and that's a lot easier to do [compared to] getting knocked off the ball.”

That’s the challenge of Brian Kelly’s finishing kick at Notre Dame, which is a far cry from the task he took on a decade ago.

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