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Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly one game from permanent pedestal

Brian Kelly would joicons with national title his third seasND. | Getty Images

Brian Kelly would join the icons with a national title in his third season at ND. | Getty Images

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BCS NAtional championship


Time: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV: ESPN • Line: Alabama by 10

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:42AM

Ara Parseghian did it all wrong.

When he arrived in South Bend, Ind., in 1964, he was taking over a Notre Dame team that hadn’t had a winning season in six years. A team that was coming off a 2-7 season. A team that had nobody at quarterback and no hope of contending. Frank Leahy’s four national championships in the 1940s were becoming a fuzzy memory for the Fighting Irish faithful as they endured the mediocrity — an unthinkable ignominy for Old Notre Dame — of the Terry Brennan and Joe Kuharchik eras.

Yet in Parseghian’s first season after leaving Northwestern for Notre Dame, he guided the Irish to a 10-1 season. Parseghian plucked out of obscurity John Huarte, a senior quarterback who had never even lettered, and turned him into a Heisman Trophy winner. And he brought the Irish to within 93 seconds of a national championship, falling to USC in a gut-wrenching season finale.

And with that remarkable campaign, Parseghian blew it. The honeymoon was over, the leash was pulled tight. Notre Dame was back. And Parseghian had the unenviable task of keeping it there. It took two more years — a lifetime in Notre Dame circles — before he topped himself with a national title.

‘‘What I did was a mistake,’’ Parseghian said, only half-joking. ‘‘You become a victim of your success. Because the next year, you can’t get any better, hardly. You can only get worse. Brian did it right. He gradually worked his way up.’’

‘‘Brian,’’ of course, is Brian Kelly. And if his top-ranked Irish knock off Alabama on Jan. 7 in the BCS national championship game, ‘‘Brian’’ might be all he’ll need. The statue will be carved, the legacy will be secure. And while the odds clearly aren’t on Kelly’s side — the one-loss Crimson Tide are 10-point favorites, despite their No. 2 ranking — history certainly is.

Kelly is in the sweet spot of coaching at Notre Dame. Lou Holtz won a national title in his third season, 1988. Parseghian slaked Irish fans’ thirst with his first of two national titles in his third season, 1966. Dan Devine upheld Parseghian’s standards with a national title in his third season, 1977. Leahy won the first of his four national titles in his third season, 1943. Each has a statue outside Notre Dame Stadium. Each is an icon at an iconic institution.

And while the time demands are different now, the media exposure infinitely greater, and the landscape and competitiveness of college football drastically different than in the previous century, Parseghian and Holtz know exactly how difficult it was for Kelly to bring a dormant program back to life and to the brink of a national championship in Year 3.

They also know what lies ahead for Kelly, particularly if he wins.

‘‘Once you win a national championship at Notre Dame, your life is never the same again after that,’’ Holtz said. ‘‘What happens is when you win it, everybody puts you on a pedestal. And once you’re on a pedestal, no matter what you do, it ain’t good enough. We finished second in the country, and everybody called me an idiot. A guy finishes last at medical school, they call him ‘doctor.’ When you win, you didn’t win impressively enough, and you didn’t win big enough. You get nothing but criticism after that time.’’

For now, though, during the halcyon ride to the top, Kelly is getting nothing but praise.

The ‘process’ begins

When he arrived in South Bend in December 2009, fresh off a 12-0 regular season at Cincinnati, he was taking over a 6-6 team that had lost its last four games and indifferently passed up a bowl game after firing coach Charlie Weis. Kelly came in hot and said he wasn’t wasting any time. He wanted to build a national championship-caliber defense. He wanted to install his high-octane spread offense. He wanted to use Notre Dame’s still-recognizable name to recruit the kinds of players he had always dreamed of coaching. He wanted to build the Irish in his image. He said he didn’t have a five-year plan but rather a ‘‘five-minute plan.’’

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. As a more realistic Kelly has said ad nauseam throughout the magical 2012 campaign, there’s a ‘‘process.’’ That process involved installing his system and drilling it into his players’ heads. It involved recruiting players that fit that system. It involved adapting his own style of coaching to the demands and eccentricities of the Notre Dame job. It involved getting Weis recruits and his recruits on the same page, to buy in with the same level of commitment. And it involved developing some players and moving others.

Essentially, it involved changing the culture of the program.

‘‘It’s a process,’’ Kelly said, one more time. ‘‘[The players] would tell you from day one to today they were pretty clear on what the mission was what we wanted to accomplish. As you develop closer relationships with your players, they start to go, ‘Oh, I now know what you were talking about.’ I think we’re at that point now.’ ’’

Trust achieved in 1-2-3

Holtz and Parseghian? Been there. Done that.

When Holtz arrived in South Bend in 1986 after five middling seasons under Gerry Faust, he saw talent everywhere he looked. It was just in all the wrong places. He moved tight end Andy Heck to tackle, where he became an All-American. He moved fullback Frank Stams from fullback to defensive end, where he also became an All-American. He moved Pat Terrell from receiver to safety. Then, after two seasons, he made future Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez defensive coordinator in 1988 and changed the culture and tone of the defense.

He met plenty of resistance from players and fans alike. Until he won it all in 1988, of course.

‘‘Why the third year?’’ Holtz said. ‘‘Because by that time, you’re comfortable with it, the players have bought into your system, you’ve been able to recruit for your system, and you’ve been able to build a camaraderie and a trust between the players and the coaches. That isn’t there immediately — there’s never that trust.’’

Parseghian faced a culture problem, too. It was hard enough to recruit at Notre Dame at that time — high school boys were loathe to go to what was then an all-male school, black recruits were wary of going to an overwhelmingly white school, the lofty academic standards scared away plenty of talent, and the Irish’s refusal to play in bowl games made any loss a death knell to a season. Now, on top of all that, Parseghian had to deal with a diminishing brand.

‘‘It was difficult,’’ he said. “But there are so many things that stand out at Notre Dame — the academics, the great tradition, its association with religion. Anybody that has any sense of college football can tell you a great deal about Notre Dame. We used that.’’

Leahy and Devine are legends in their own right at Notre Dame, too. Their statues were earned, not given. But they took over the program when it was healthy and robust. Both Holtz and Parseghian share a particular kinship with Kelly, having all but resurrected the Irish, nursing perhaps college football’s proudest program back to health in three short years, having overcome Notre Dame’s strict academic standards and code of conduct, having blended two sets of recruits and two styles of play.

The process for Kelly is nearly complete. And Holtz — one of Notre Dame’s few early believers this season — fully expects him to finish the job.

Then will come the hard part: Do it again.

‘‘The story is the rise to the top,’’ Holtz said. ‘‘Once you’re on top, the only story then is coming down.’’

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