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Pressure might be making Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly more explosive

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees gets an earful from coach Brian Kelly last season. | Tony Ding~AP

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees gets an earful from coach Brian Kelly last season. | Tony Ding~AP

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Updated: November 10, 2011 10:23AM

His face turned pink, then purple. The veins on his forehead bulged until it appeared they might burst. Expletives flew from a mouth twisted by rage.

Some were so appalled by Brian Kelly’s behavior on the sideline during a season-opening loss to South Florida that they demanded Notre Dame fire its second-year coach. Others considered it an example of the fire required to turn around a storied program that has gone 24-26 since 2007.

A handful of others watched his meltdown and grew nostalgic.

“I watched that game and saw his face and thought, ‘That was a pretty common sight for me for about three years,’ ” said Brian Brunner, who played quarterback for Kelly at Central Michigan.

We’ve seen the many faces of Brian Kelly during his brief time at Notre Dame. He’s a poised politician while addressing the media, fans and alums. He’s a portrait of the man in charge, confidently making decisions and offering instruction at practices. When his team is underperforming, that face can turn into a Halloween mask, raising a question often asked in recent weeks:

Is this who he always has been or is it a product of the pressure of coaching at Notre Dame?

“It’s a little bit of both,” said Curt Anes, a record-setting quarterback for Kelly at Grand Valley State. “Coach Kelly is a fiery coach. He’s an in-your-face guy. He’s very passionate and football is an emotional game, and sometimes when you have the outside pressure of being the head coach of Notre Dame, it adds to that.”

Last week, Kelly responded to a question about his sideline behavior by saying he must do a better job of understanding when TV cameras are on him, which is like a lineman penalized for holding saying he shouldn’t hold when officials are watching. In subsequent interviews, Kelly acknowledged the need to curb his emotions to prevent the side story created when the National Catholic Register asked whether he should be fired in the wake of the South Florida game, but the issue is more complicated than that.

Notre Dame is the country’s pre-eminent Catholic university. Religious statues and artwork adorn the campus. Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to expect the coach to hold himself to a higher standard.

“Being the leader of that football program, should he be using the language he used with some of his players?” Anes asked. “Yeah, he needs to manage that. But at the same time, I don’t know if we’re having this conversation if he’s 2-0. If they win that South Florida game, are we having this conversation?”

Kelly is still adjusting to his high-profile role at Notre Dame, where the Golden Dome often seems to be made of glass. Whenever he tries to take his kids on an outing, it turns into an autograph session, for example. Everything he says and does is scrutinized like never before.

“There’s no job like Notre Dame,” he said during training camp. “I wouldn’t say Notre Dame is the best job in the country. There’s just no other job like it. No matter where you go from coast to coast, it’s not regional. [Oklahoma coach] Bob Stoops would probably be recognized anywhere because of the notoriety [of his top-ranked Sooners], but I don’t know if anyone is going to know him in Manhattan. I’m in Manhattan, and people recognize me. I’m in Orange County, and people recognize me. I don’t know if it’s like that anywhere else.”

There are more practical reasons why Kelly needs to tone it down. College football coaches are always recruiting, and some prospects and/or parents could be turned off by his expletive-laden, foot-stomping style.

He has said he wants to convey his intensity and sense of urgency to his players, but not everybody responds positively to such outbursts.

“You either fold under his coaching style or you get better,” Anes said. “There’s no in between. It’s all about how it’s perceived and how you receive it. I’m a fiery guy myself. He made me better. I was a better quarterback because of Brian Kelly, hands down, without question. If my son is fortunate enough to go to the next level, I would in a heartbeat let him play for coach Kelly. He’s that good.”

Coaching is about adjustments, even when it comes to the image portrayed on a sideline. Kelly vowed to control his emotions after the season opener, then faced the ultimate test during a 35-31 loss to Michigan that ranks among the most inexplicable in team history.

But those who know him best won’t be surprised if the purple face they remember rears its ugly head.

“The ND job is a job he has had his eye on ever since he got into coaching in the ’80s,” Brunner said. “There’s always pressure to succeed, but I don’t know if that pressure is magnified because he’s at Notre Dame. He’s an incredibly driven guy. He puts a lot of pressure on himself regardless.”

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