Kelly Sure to Be the Next ND Legend
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He isn't afraid of the ghosts.
So is this: he doesn't wish to push the Golden Dome and the rest of those Notre Dame things into the nearby St. Joe River.
He also can coach, which is why he may have to rent warehouse space in town to house his growing list of Coach of the Year honors. So he'll win around here. He'll win big, and he'll do so in a hurry. He'll do so the right way, too, with as much of an emphasis on the "student" as the "athlete," especially since the suits and the collars in charge at the University of Notre Dame won't settle for less.
This is such a brilliant choice for what ails the Fighting Irish in search of old glory that he even resembles Knute Rockne. No, not Brian Kelly, their next football coach of significance, but his father, Paul, who joins his son as somebody who has spent a lifetime with the Notre Dame Victory March dancing in his soul.
There was Paul's 50th birthday, for instance. The father's gift from his son was a trip with his wife Regina to Notre Dame. They received seats at the 50-yard-line for an Irish game against Stanford. "Walking around the campus, I just was in awe, and I couldn't believe that kind of atmosphere, because I was used to a bunch of local stuff," said Paul Kelly, now 72, who joins his son as straight from central casting for Notre Dame.
They have pronounced Irish Catholic accents from their native Massachusetts, and when they bleed, their blood is blue when it isn't gold.
To understand the son, you have to know the father -- a charismatic former politician from the Boston area, with splendid people skills and a soft spot for anything close to Touchdown Jesus. The father spoke on Friday afternoon, with the hint of moisture in his eyes inside Notre Dame's massive football auditorium. Moments earlier, his son was introduced as the Irish's new leader. Said the father, studying the son doing interviews across the way, "First time I've been back (in 22 years)."
Then the father paused, maybe trying to get the Leprechaun-sized lump out of his throat, before saying, "I can't believe I'm here today listening to the head coach." The father's reference was to his 48-year-old son. Just so you know, Brian Kelly is the first Notre Dame head coach since Lou Holtz to understand the ghosts, the shadows and the traditions of the place and not try to fight them.
It showed during Kelly's first public appearance as Notre Dame coach before a packed house and nearly 73,000 folks watching on the ND athletic department's web site. He was a mixture of fire, jokes and optimism. He'll be all of that in tears after Notre Dame opens its season at home in September against in-state rival Purdue. "I'll be crying all over the place, I'm sure, singing the alma mater after the game," Kelly said. "I just know it's going to be a great feeling to walk out of that locker room."
What refreshing words for the Irish Nation. There haven't been such words from a Notre Dame coach since -- yep, Holtz was around exactly five head coaches and a bunch of wretched seasons ago.
You can blame the Irish's slide from national prominence from Holtz to whatever they were under Bob Davie, George O'Leary, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis on several things. Here's one of them: Excluding O'Leary, who only was around for a matter of days until he was fired after it was discovered he fudged his resume, none of those post-Holtz coaches were accomplished head coaches over a number of years (Kelly has 18 winning seasons out of his 19 as a head coach). In fact, neither Davie nor Weis was a head coach before their Notre Dame careers.
Here's a bigger thing: That ghost thing.
The Gipper, The Four Horsemen, Frank Leahy, etc.
There also is that shadow thing, featuring living Notre Dame legends ranging from Ara Parseghian to Joe Montana to Raghib "Rocket" Ismail.
Then you have the tradition thing -- the pep rally and public luncheon on the Friday before every home game, the praying on game days at the Bascilica of the Sacred Heart in the middle of campus, the lighting of candles at the Grotto, the move toward adding more national championships (11) and Heisman Trophy winners (7).
Davie talked a good game, but he didn't believe in those things. He even claimed that Notre Dame never could recruit again with the big boys. The same went for Willingham, but to his credit, he didn't pretend that he even cared about those things. He wanted to do what you can't do at Notre Dame -- just coach, and given the slew of blowout losses for his Irish teams, he didn't do that too well.
Weis sort of understood those things as a Notre Dame graduate. It's just that he was so overmatched in other ways -- no defense, lack of tact (ask Pete Carroll), brutal game management, ego issues -- while finishing 16-21 during the last three of his five years with the Irish that he had to go.
As for Kelly, he gets it, and this goes beyond the obvious. He just left a Cincinnati team that continued its three-year miracle under his leadership by finishing 12-0 in the regular season. Not only that, the Bearcats are headed to the Sugar Bowl, and they are ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings. He also took a nothing Central Michigan program to a Mid-American Conference title in three seasons. That was after his stint with Grand Valley State featured a couple of Division II titles.
Those weren't Kelly's dream jobs, though. As a result, those weren't schools that inspired Kelly to wear their paraphernalia more often than not as a youth in Chelsea, Mass., with his Notre Dame-rooting father around. "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I definitely wore a bunch of Notre Dame stuff back then, and that continued over the years," said Kelly, smiling, before telling FanHouse, "I think back at Grand Valley State, my wife will tell you, that when we first dated, I had a Notre Dame sweater on."
Kelly's three children also know about his Notre Dame obsession. When he first told them during the last few days that the family was leaving southern Ohio for northern Indiana, his nine-year-old daughter, Grace, said she preferred to stay in Cincinnati, but she would give her blessings for the move to South Bend since they were following daddy's heart.
"And I kissed her, and I said, 'You know what? That is what's so magical about this,' " Kelly said. "My kids know that this was a dream for me."
The dream had Kelly watching the legendary Lindsey Nelson doing nationally televised replays of Notre Dame football games on Sundays. The dream had Kelly thinking of the Irish only here and there before Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick approached him about taking over the Irish after Cincinnati completed its perfect regular season last Saturday by beating Pitt.
The dream had Kelly reminiscing on Friday about those ghosts, shadows and traditions, but only to a point. For instance: He knows Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship in 21 years, it's longest such drought in its history.
"When we talk about history and tradition, you just need to visit this campus, and you're reminded of it immediately," said Kelly, telling the truth of a university that does a splendid job of weaving its treasured old with its considerable new. "So when you come on this campus, when you visit Notre Dame, you know about the history. You know about Touchdown Jesus. You know about the Golden Dome.
"You've got to get them here. And if you get them on campus here at the University of Notre Dame, they can't help but see the history."
The question is, can they see the history and the victories?
The answer is, with Kelly, they will.
He has a father to satisfy.