If FBS-level college football is truly a “what have you done for me lately?” business, then what are we to make of Brian Kelly’s recent 4-8 campaign from a big picture perspective? Has Kelly’s “business model” (i.e. coaching philosophy/program management) ultimately failed him? Can it be fixed? Those are some pertinent questions to ponder as we officially look toward the 2017 season.
Given the recent staff additions (Elko, Long, Polian, Rees, Alexander, Lea, Balis, Ballou), it would appear that Kelly, himself, believed that changes were need to quickly reverse the course trajectory from the 4-8 Weis-ish implosion that was the 2016 football season and return ND back into the CFP discussion on a consistent basis.
Speaking of consistency, let’s talk about Mike Brey.
Brey has arguably been one of the best (and most underrated) college basketball coaches in the country over the past five years or so. He’s guided the Irish to consecutive Elite 8 appearances in the NCAA tournament, which included winning the ACC tournament title in 2015, and he has done so in an incredibly competitive conference without, by and large, elite recruits at his disposal. The two things that really stand out to me with Brey’s program: 1) he surrounds himself with assistants that are great teachers/player developers and 2) he constructs his schemes, both offensive and defensive, to best fit the skill sets of the players he has. Brey truly excels in bringing out the best in his team through crafting game plans with his staff that highlights his players’ respective strengths, putting them in a position to succeed at a high level. It never seems like his teams are ever unprepared or wholly outclassed in a game. They may lose, it may be ugly, but it always looks like they’re playing to their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.
Ultimately, Brey, much like any successful CEO in the corporate world, understands that for your business to be profitable, you must lead your team in a manner where their strengths coalesce to collectively mask their individual weaknesses.
That brings me back to Kelly.
At times over the course of his tenure at ND, it has appeared that Kelly has been too focused on one unit: the offense. Admittedly, Kelly’s reputation as a dynamic offensive mind and crafty play caller prior to arriving at ND was well earned. However, his insistence on being so involved in the offense left other areas of his program in desperate need of management. Throw in his sometimes baffling offensive game plans (35 pass attempts in a literal hurricane?), the hiring of VanGorder (arguably his biggest mistake at ND), as well as an apparent lack of focus in the strength/conditioning program (which could account for some of the 2nd half struggles in both the ’15 and ’16 seasons), and you have the recipe for a failed business model in big-time college football.
Perhaps, reflecting on the fact that his program needed a huge course correction, Kelly stated at his recent signing day press conference that his players told him they wanted him more personally involved with the defense. That statement would seem to explain why he decided to bring in Chip Long (a coach who shares his general offensive philosophy, albeit with much more emphasis on 2 TE, power football) and, also, tell the public in the press release announcing the hiring that Long would be calling plays (cue skeptic Irish fans everywhere).
All that being said, I’ve always thought Brian Kelly could go from being a good coach to a great coach if he could assume the role of CEO and hire assistant coaches that could effectively teach the game, develop players, and implement game plans (with his oversight/input) which best suited the talents of his players (while also recognizing the intense academic workloads each player has on his plate at ND). By all accounts, it would appear that Kelly’s recent staff hires look great- particularly with regard to relative culture fit, schemes, and recruiting ability.
Will the changes result in renewed success for Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program? Have the underlying issues plaguing the program been remedied? Will Kelly become a successful CEO of the program again? Only time will tell. If he needs any pointers though, I hear there’s a guy doing some pretty great things at Purcell Pavilion he could speak with.