So it was that a coach previously perceived as an “offensive guru,” as Swarbrick put it, spent 70 percent of his time in their interviews talking about defense.
So it is that Notre Dame went from 16-10 in his first two seasons and unranked at the start of this one to 12-0 and No. 1 entering the Jan. 7 BCS title game against Alabama (12-1) largely by virtue of the defensive emphasis of Kelly, 51, winner of multiple national coach of the year awards.
Led by Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, the Fighting Irish lead the nation in scoring defense (10.33 points a game; Alabama is second at 10.69) and are fourth in rushing defense and total defense — categories in which ‘Bama leads.
For context, consider that Notre Dame gave up more points in Weis' last four games there (128) than it has the entire 2012 season to date (124).
“That's why Coach Kelly is the best head football coach in America — because Coach Kelly will do what's necessary to try to be sure that we have one more point at the end of the game than our opponent,” Diaco said. “So he'll talk to who he needs to talk to. He'll change what he needs to change. He'll tweak what he needs to tweak. (And) he listens about it every day. It's one of his greatest, greatest assets.”
Time and again, people point to those communication skills as vital to his success.
Asked about his relationship with Kelly, Diaco said, “It's Batman-Robin. Obviously, he's Batman. It's the best. I know what he's thinking before he's thinking it. I'm on it. He doesn't have to come talk to me, (but) he does and he can and he knows I'm not going to be sensitive about it.”
Notre Dame's offense also became an asset after a sluggish start, in great measure because of the improvement of redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
“We had two things going on there: We had, ‘We're going to play a freshman quarterback,' and ‘We're not going to say it's a transition year,'” Kelly said at his news conference Dec. 19. “We're going to give him experience, take our lumps and move forward. .
”So with those two things coming together, you have to find a way to win those games, manage those games, limit possessions, hold on to the football.
“So because those were the two immediate factors, then you have to adapt to the way you run those games. That's how we came up with the formula this year to play the way we've played.”
The formula, enhanced by some blend of grit and fortune considering five wins came by seven points or fewer, was just another derivative of what brought Kelly this far.
“All of those experiences have made me who I am today, good and bad,” he said. “I mean, there's learning on the job at Grand Valley at 28 years old. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I really didn't. I was kind of learning as I went. .
”Being able to put staffs together along the way. Getting out in the community in Cincinnati and trying to build momentum for a football program.
“All of those experiences helped me get where I was here at Notre Dame. And then, there is no job like Notre Dame. No amount of preparation gets you ready for the job at Notre Dame.”
Not even his past in politics, including campaigning for his father, an alderman in Chelsea, Mass., and working for Gary Hart's 1984 presidential run.
Asked if he might consider a run for governor if the Irish beat Alabama, Kelly joked, “Yeah — governor of South Bend. Is there a governor of South Bend?”
With a smile, he added, “I was driving up to a location just north and at a muffler place (a sign) said, ‘Long live Brian Kelly.' So I think I got one vote from the guy from the muffler place.”
If Notre Dame loses, of course, that could change. And even if it wins, Kelly will create an entirely new challenge: sustaining.
“The expectations become different,” Holtz said. “You're supposed to be infallible, you're supposed to never make a mistake, your team is always supposed to have everything perfect.
”And I think (legendary Texas coach) Darrell Royal summed it up best, and this is what happened: When you win, it's a relief; when you lose, it's a catastrophe, and it's not much fun anymore.“
At least for another few days, though, there is nothing but fun for the Fighting Irish and their fans — who after nearly a generation without a title might momentarily appreciate that there was nothing inevitable about being back on the pedestal.
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