Just three years after taking over a 6-6 team with ancient expectations annually dwarfed by the modern realities of competing at a Catholic school in frigid northern Indiana with tough academic standards, Kelly has put the Irish back on top.
“One of the things I really wanted in a coach was somebody who … would be a CEO coach,” said Swarbrick, who hired Kelly to replace Weis. “I think what you're seeing in this third year is the maturation of that staff into a really cohesive unit.”
And though he's still one win shy of ultimate success, Kelly did it in his third year — the same season in which Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Holtz all won national titles during their tenures at Notre Dame.
“It's easy to say, `Well, yeah, I'm surprised,“' Kelly said. “But when you go in that locker room and are around the guys I'm around, you're not surprised. The commitment they've made — they've done everything I've asked them to do. It doesn't surprise me anymore.”
Thousands of Irish fans turned up at the Coliseum for the regular-season finale, demonstrating the wide reach of Notre Dame's appeal. The Irish have embraced their status as an international program in recent years, playing everywhere from Yankee Stadium to Dublin, Ireland, while Kelly put the ingredients in place for this season's success.
Swarbrick acknowledges he expected the Irish to need maybe one more year to contend at an elite level.
“I knew we were much, much better, but frankly I thought the schedule might mask the progress,” he said.
Although Notre Dame's defense was clearly tough, nobody could have expected such success from an offense now led by the likes of quarterback Everett Golson, who redshirted last year, and tailback Theo Riddick, who was a slot receiver last season.
The Irish were nobody's favorite, but they've ended up on top. The 84-year-old Brennan, who was just 25 when he took over the Irish program in 1954, knows all about the importance of seizing the moment.
“Grab it when you can,” he said. “Next year you might have injuries, and the ball bounces the other way.”
The Irish returned home Sunday knowing they've still got a bit of work to do — and if their season to date is any indication, they're still hungry.
Notre Dame is likely to be an underdog to an opponent from the Southeastern Conference in the BCS title game. The Irish will rely on the experience of their unbeaten season, the history of past champions wearing their uniforms, and the support of untold millions who love what the team once represented — and what it means again.
Te'o, who turns 22 in January, hadn't been born the last time Notre Dame won a national title. He still knows the date of the last Irish national championship by heart, thanks to the sign at the end of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium where he steps on that hallowed field each game day.
“I'm just hoping that we can add our year to it,” Te'o said. “But it's going to take a lot of work.”