Kelly grew up Irish-Catholic in suburban Boston, which meant automatic Notre Dame devotion. But he really more identified with the Irish than followed them.
“I didn't know their scores and championships and things of that nature,” Kelly said. “But as an Irish Catholic, it was my team.”
Kelly says he didn't even follow Notre Dame's travails in the post-Holtz era. Too focused on building programs at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan and Cincinnati to worry about the Irish's obstacles.
“I think you have to be at an institution to really get to know what those are, because some of them are perceived and some of them are real,” Kelly said. “So I didn't really know Notre Dame until I got to Notre Dame.”
What he discovered is what most of us feel when we walk around the place. There's something special and something unique about this university. And it's not just football, though it's certainly that, too. When Kelly walks into the Guglielmino football complex each day, he's greeted by a large sculpture of the Four Horsemen. Auburn, this isn't.
But it goes past gridiron ghosts.
“There's a spirit here that's real,” Kelly said. “Can't really give you a rational or defined reason why. But there is a spirit here that you get when you're on this campus. Maybe it's the Basilica, maybe it's the Grotto, maybe it's the tradition, maybe it's the history, maybe it's the faith-based education. Maybe it's all of that.
“There's a great quote that Lou Holtz has used so many times. ‘For those that know Notre Dame, no explanation is necessary. For those that don't, no explanation will suffice.'”
Kelly is here at a good time. College football, which for going on a century has operated with a virtual class system, has shown some fundamental shifting. Stanford has become a national player. Northwestern has become a Big Ten force. Vanderbilt has as many SEC wins the last five years as does Tennessee.
In that environment, why can't Notre Dame excel?
“The game of football still has its basic tenants,” Kelly said. “Tough-minded kids. Certainly have to have the athleticism.
“But times have changed. There's social media and there's great transparency in what's going on. Everybody is now in the recruiting process looking at not just a full stadium but what can my degree get me 40 years down the road. I think the timing is such that there's a place for those schools that can talk about all the things your degree can get you.
“The Northwesterns and the Stanfords and the Notre Dames, there's still some work to be done to say that that has flipped. But there's definitely a move in that direction.”
And Notre Dame is part of that move. Should the Irish be what they used to be? Maybe not. It's no longer the 20th century. But with a coach who knows what he's doing, and Brian Kelly does, Notre Dame football can be what it wants to be.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.