In the time that has passed since Brian Kelly’s hiring Notre Dame fans have been closely watching and documenting his every move. I am obviously no exception.
We all seem to be struggling to answer the impossible. Will this transition succeed? Is it really different than the last few? It appears that many fans think so. There have been a slew of mainstream media articles, blog posts and message board discussions on the subject in the last few weeks.
As far as I can tell the consensus amongst the vocal minority that take the time to write articles, posts etc. seems to be that Brian Kelly is "changing the culture" and taking the Irish "back to their roots." He works on "winning every day" and player development. Perhaps he has the formula for the "secret sauce." At the end of the day are those just catchphrases or do they really mean something? Are any of those really any different than "return to glory," "dive right in" or any of the other slogans that have slowly floated by the last few years?
I get the point you have to call it something and at the end of the day everyone is searching for a way to say the same thing. In short we all know the Irish have been trying to get back to playing championship caliber football for a long time now. We like to think of it in terms of when not if. But at this point are we foolish to consider it a when? Is Kelly the one?
I have been kicking this around for a few weeks now as I tried to discern the method behind the madness that has been "Camp Kelley" and the start of spring football. Then the familiarity of it just sort of hit me. What Kelly is doing appears to be somewhat similar to Marine Corps Recruit Training. If that’s the case it just might work. Let me explain.
As a general rule I try to avoid military analogies. Comparing college football to something as serious as Marine Corps Recruit Training can be a slippery slope. Think Kellen Winslow and "Ima’ Soldier!" No you are not. It doesn’t come across well especially when the stakes are so drastically different. That said I am a product of my environment. I grew up a coach’s kid and went on to serve in the military. Hence, the perspective. Now that we know the context…
As I sit here watching Brian Kelly trying to mentally make over the Irish I can’t help but think about the Marine Corps. In my opinion no other organization in the world does a better job of taking young people (predominately 18-22 year old men) from all walks of life and rapidly transforming them into the most feared conventional military force in the world. So how do they do it? Can any of it translate to a football program? Is Kelly trying to do something similar?
Marine Corps Recruit Training (Cliff’s Notes Version) Good 30 minute video HERE
Phase I- Transforming civilians into recruits. Recruits are made to be uniform in every respect. Individuality is not allowed and the vertical pronoun is forbidden. Who you were matters much less than who you are going to be. The recruits are convinced that becoming Marines is the best thing for them yet their surroundings are made as stressful and chaotic as possible. Physical exhaustion, stress, lack of time to accomplish tasks and a steep learning curve quickly force the recruits to start depending upon one another to survive. Everyone has to perform yet no one can succeed on their own.
Phase II- Start bringing the recruits into the fold. The training accelerates and the recruits start to catch on. They are beginning to learn and do Marine things. They go to the rifle range and learn to fire their weapons. The language is no longer as foreign. They begin to develop confidence and rapidly grow. They have become even more adept at working together. They all begin to realize they are only as strong as their weakest link. Those that cannot catch on begin the attrition.
Phase III- The recruits become Marines. Ten weeks prior they probably all questioned whether or not they had what it takes. Now they know and their confidence is high. No challenge will ever seem insurmountable again. They still have much to learn before they hit the Fleet Marine Force but the basic foundation is set. They are also well aware that they just completed a life changing experience and they find themselves closer to some of their fellow Marines than they do to family and friends back home. This will not change but will eventually be rivaled by the relationships they develop with other Marines in combat.
The reputation of the Marine Corps precedes it. The history and tradition rival that of any other active organization in the world. Many opinions exist on what makes the Corps but in my opinion it is the Marines themselves. The level of commitment to one another is unmatched and the end result is a group of people that are willing to do whatever it takes for the greater good of the whole. It is about contributing to something that is much bigger than you. All success is shared. It is an unprecedented level of commitment borne of shared hardship that begins in basic training.
So has Coach Kelly created a similar environment? Can he possibly achieve a similar result? For a guy with no military experience he interestingly appears to be trying to do just that.
Phase I- Kelly posted locker diagrams and the players were expected to conform without exception. This instantly established a level of uniformity, attention to detail and removed a layer of individualism. Name tapes on the helmets say I don’t even know your name, which translates to I don’t care what you did before. The same can be said for the comments about Te’o and Floyd needing to improve etc. He is making all of them start from scratch even the stars. It pushes them and everyone else. The first few practices were at a crazy tempo and the kids struggled to keep up. See stress, chaos, physical exhaustion, steep learning curve. Sound familiar?
Phase II- Things start to click and it should go exactly as described above. From my perspective this phase is starting right now. They are learning the language and things are coming together. I suspect behind the scenes there is plenty of talk about history and "the way we do things." If we see any attrition it will come from those that are unable or unwilling to catch on in this phase.
Phase III- Full transformation. They have all bought in and play in a way that exceeds even their own expectations. From there it has the potential to snowball. If this happens it will not be completely evident until we see it on the field next fall. The ultimate test will then become its longevity. By year three we have all the answers.
Am I saying that Brian Kelly is making Marines? Of course not, the comparison is far from literal. But I do think there is a lot of utility in utilizing some of the same teaching tools and Kelly appears to be doing just that. Whether it is coincidence or deliberate intent we will likely never know. But he learned it somewhere and he obviously expects that it will be effective.
I have always felt that coaches like Holtz had a distinct advantage in dealing with players because of their military experience. We will continue to see less military experience in the coaching ranks as we get further into the age of the all volunteer force. While Kelly has no military experience he does seem to have picked up on some of the concepts somewhere along the way. Will it work? You can never say for certain but I like the approach. At the end of the day I think this will work out well for the program. What do you think?