How Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly won over ‘the Weis guys’
BY MARK LAZERUS email@example.com December 11, 2012 10:56PM
FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center left, talks to his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago. About the only thing the Irish havent done yet this season is rally from behind to win. The Irish have been able to ignore what coach Kelly refers to as the noise so far, but it keeps getting louder with every victory.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
BCS NAtional championship
NOTRE DAME vs. ALABAMA
Time: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7, 2013, at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV: ESPN • Line: Alabama by 91/2.
Updated: December 12, 2012 1:20PM
Sure, Ara Parseghian was impressed by Notre Dame’s lockdown defense. Yes, he was encouraged by linebacker Manti Te’o’s inspirational
leadership. Absolutely, he saw plenty of promise in young
quarterback Everett Golson.
But it was a Ping-Pong ball — more specifically, a bunch of players hooting and hollering in the locker room as they tried to ricochet a Ping-Pong ball off one another’s heads and into a small cup of water — that convinced Notre Dame’s legendary former coach the Irish were capable of a legendary season.
‘‘[NBC] did a documentary before the Miami game, and when I saw the chemistry in that locker room, I had a good feeling,’’ Parseghian said. ‘‘That chemistry is what you need to have a winning football team, and that’s something you don’t always get.’’
And it’s not something Notre Dame had during coach Brian Kelly’s first two seasons.
Kelly was aloof, usually holed up in the ivory tower of his office, away from his players except for meetings and practices. The roster was disjointed, with players splitting into position-based cliques and scattering after workouts. And in the days after a late-October home loss to USC last season, Kelly fractured the locker room by going in front of the cameras and essentially saying the guys he recruited were being held back by the leftovers from the forgettable Charlie Weis era.
‘‘You can see the players that I have recruited; you know who they are,’’ Kelly said that day. ‘‘We’ve had one class of kids that we’ve recruited that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it’s a process.’’
The Weis guys immediately — and angrily — took to Twitter. Center Braxston Cave said he was ‘‘disgusted.’’ Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said it was ‘‘awful.’’ And Te’o famously tweeted, ‘‘Playin for my bros, and that’s it!!!’’ before listing several of his veteran teammates whom he deemed ‘‘the originals.’’
But the low point of Kelly’s tenure turned out to be the turning point. Kelly cleared the air and apologized the next day in what players have called a cathartic moment for a tense locker room. During the offseason, Kelly rededicated himself to becoming more accessible, more hands-on in practice, more involved in the lives of his players. He held weekly team meetings to sit around, shoot the breeze and watch old football clips as fans, not as analysts. He asked players about how their classes were going and how their girlfriends were doing.
But more than anything else that came from that uncomfortable team meeting last October, the Irish realized they all shared a common goal, no matter how they ended up in South Bend. They all wanted to be the ones to wake up the echoes and shake down the thunder — the kind that hadn’t been heard in South Bend in decades.
‘‘That week was big for us as a team,’’ senior safety Zeke Motta said. ‘‘It had a lot to do with our offseason training and the way we prepared. We all kind of share the same mentality now, and our team’s come together and formed a real tight group. We realized what it takes to play at that level, and we play for each other now.’’
The more player-friendly climate manifested itself in small ways — player-chosen music during pre-practice warmups in training camp, for example. But it made for a happier and much closer locker room.
A camp excursion to nearby Diamond Lake was all the proof Kelly needed his locker room wasn’t only healed but was thriving.
‘‘Guys who didn’t play golf played golf because their buddies were playing golf,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘Guys that don’t swim were swimming. Guys were playing cards under the tent. When your guys care about each other in the locker room, you’ve got a really good chance.’’
Now players linger after workouts to play video games. They run out and grab lunch together in big groups. In the words of Te’o, Lewis-Moore, linebacker Carlo Calabrese, running back Theo Riddick and so many others, they’re ‘‘brothers’’ now, not just teammates.
Throughout this undefeated season, players cited that closeness as a factor in how the Irish handled adversity — how they pulled out so many close games, how they pulled through a seemingly never-ending quarterback controversy and how they pulled together for Te’o as he coped with tragedy back home in Hawaii.
Sure, it helps to have a roster loaded with four- and five-star recruits. Yes, it makes a difference when there are a handful of sure-fire NFL draft picks on defense. Absolutely, a deep and talented backfield doesn’t hurt.
But Notre Dame had all of those things in Kelly’s first two seasons, too. What it didn’t have was something less tangible but every bit as important, particularly at this level.
In college, chemistry counts.
‘‘Coach basically spent time with each of his players,’’ Te’o said. ‘‘He took time out of his busy schedule to meet with us, to get to know us. We had our bumps and bruises along the way. But at the end of the day, he’s created a feel around Notre Dame that is very strong, a brotherhood, a family feel. And you have to have that in order to be 12-0.’’