It’s difficult for the winningest active coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision — entering his 27th year as head coach — to divorce himself from the idea that he has to control everything in order to be successful.
But that’s exactly what Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly needs to do if he intends to return the team to its winning ways.
Here’s three ways Brian Kelly can be a better coach in 2017:
Trust is earned; it is not given indiscriminately.
The eight new assistants on Kelly’s staff - as well as those who retained their jobs - must feel that their boss trusts them to do their jobs properly. Kelly needs to allow his coaches to have the autonomy to develop schemes and methods that players can easily grasp.
The players must trust that the instruction they’re given and the decisions being made above them will allow them to perform at a higher level.
I’ve spent 25 years coaching and playing football and found one universal truth: A football team will always adopt the personality of its head coach. If the players see a coach who trusts his staff, the players will follow those assistants more willingly.
Brian Kelly has to be a more visible presence. He is the guy who sets expectations and he’ll need to be present to figure out which coaches, players and support staff aren’t meeting his demands.
At the same time, the head coach needs to remove doubt and uncertainty from this program. That may require him to...
BE UNAFRAID TO CHANGE THE WAY IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE
Ego is a powerful trait, but also a dangerous one.
When a successful coach is suddenly struggling, it’s not always easy for him to admit that things aren’t so good. You have to be able to adjust your thinking, especially at the point where you think you have it all figured out.
Here’s a story that’s stuck with me.
Mal Moore — or Coach Moore, as I called him — was a great source of information on the game and a good man, and I respected him more than probably any person in our profession.
Moore coached at two historically successful programs, with Notre Dame and with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Although they were opponents in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, Coach Moore had gotten to know Ara Parseghian quite well.
As Coach told it, the pair were reminiscing about the game and Moore asked: “Ara, what did y’all do different in getting ready for us? Of all the games we ever lost, that’s the one I still haven’t understood how we lost it.”
A smile would creep over Moore’s face as he recounted Parseghian’s reply: “We didn’t really do anything different. We just weren’t afraid of you.”
Coach told me this conversation happened around the time of the Irish’s game against the South Carolina Gamecocks in 1984. Notre Dame was mired in a three-game losing streak and heading down to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers.
“I went to Gerry (Faust, Notre Dame’s head coach) and told him: ‘We need to coach these kids not to be afraid of losing,’” I recall Coach saying. “We have to get it across to ’em that it’s OK to hate it, but not to play in fear all the dang time.”
As experienced as a coach Moore was, he was explaining to me that he could learn something from his former opponents. The Irish went on to win the LSU game and the next three games.
FIGHT THE URGE TO STEP BACK IN
Kelly will need to fight the temptation to take over roles he’s already delegated and try and perfect them. That will create a confusion, where no one has a clear idea of who is empowered to do what. The key to a healthy organization is, unsurprisingly, respecting the organizational structure you’ve created.
To be successful, Kelly can’t make offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Mike Elko run their schemes through his eyes. These are both smart coaches, perhaps even smarter than Kelly. The head coach needs to incorporate their ideas and then reap the rewards.
Letting go of control is scary. But, in Brian Kelly’s case, it may be the one thing that allows him to become a better head coach.