SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The "new" version of Brian Kelly is fitter, more connected to his team, less connected to his offense, not as likely to unload on a player at practice and — for the first time in his career — entering a season in real danger of losing his job.
Notre Dame football broke in 2016, a dysfunctional 4-8 meltdown . Kelly knows as well as anybody that another season like that in 2017 could very well be his last as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
Faced with that reality, Kelly has essentially relaunched his program, overhauling his staff, redefining his role and implementing a new culture that almost makes it feel as if there was already a head coaching change in South Bend.
It can be argued that no seat in college football gets hotter than the one on which the head coach of Notre Dame sits. But no one believes in Kelly's ability fix the Fighting Irish and deal with the weekly referendum that will be this football season more than ... Brian Kelly.
"I use the analogy, if you're a really good hitter and you're in the major leagues and you have one year when you fall below, you make a couple of adjustments, you take some BP, you have a good offseason and you start hitting again," Kelly said in an interview with The Associated Press the day before spring practice ended for the Fighting Irish last month. "I'm going to hit again. I know how to coach."
Kelly has reason to feel good about betting on himself. Last season was just the second in 27 years as a head coach in which he had a losing record. The other came in his first season rebuilding Central Michigan. In his previous six seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly was 55-23 with an appearance in the national championship game — a season that has now been vacated by the NCAA for rules violations . That's a long way from Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, but there is no denying Kelly has been the most successful Notre Dame head coach since Lou Holtz left after the 1996 season.
After winning 10 games in 2015, Kelly was rewarded with a six-year contract extension. The Fighting Irish started the 2016 season ranked No. 10 with one of the best quarterback prospects in the country.
Then everything went wrong.
Kelly performed a post-season autopsy that included meeting for the first time in his career with every one of his players. Their message to him: "We (the coaches) weren't hard enough on them. We weren't demanding enough," Kelly said. A lack of consistent leadership that started at the top left Notre Dame with a team that wilted when facing adversity and lost seven games decided in the fourth quarter.
In remaking his staff — a process that started last September when defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired four games into the season — Kelly parted ways with some coaches who had worked with him going back to his first head coaching job at Division II Grand Valley.
Between on-field coaches, strength and conditioning coaches and support staff, Kelly made 14 offseason hires.
"How many times will (the administration) allow you to have three and a half million dollars in contracts after a 4-8 season?" Kelly said. "I think that was a pretty good referendum on how they feel I'm the right guy for the job."
Kelly hired Mike Elko away from Wake Forest to be defensive coordinator and 33-year-old Chip Long from Memphis to coordinate the offense and call the plays, a job that Kelly has been reluctant to relinquish during his tenure at Notre Dame.
It is a new approach for Kelly that allows him to satisfy another of his players' requests. They wanted him around more and involved in all aspects of the team. This winter, for the first time, Kelly attended the players' 6 a.m. strength and conditioning workouts, and made a point to eat more meals at the training table.
"When you change your own role you have different relationship with the players," Kelly said. "Whereas I was maybe more of the hammer, if you will, when it came to our players, I have set that up within our program where the level of accountability is being shared by everybody. And so I don't have to be that guy that is the heavy on every single player.
"So it allows the guys to feel that they can come to me and I'm approachable and they can play for Brian Kelly on Saturdays. 'I want to play for Coach. Coach really cares about me.'"
Kelly, who also has lost about 20 pounds since the end of the season, is not claiming a personal transformation. It's not so much a new Kelly as it is a new role for Kelly.
"Coach Kelly certainly hasn't changed who he is," team captain and star offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. "We've all known who he is. He's a straight shooter with us and we've been straightforward with him since the season has ended."
Hearing Kelly yell at receiver Equanimeous St. Brown — "Do you want to play!" — from across the field for going to the sideline without explanation during the last open practice of the spring, it was clear that Kelly has not totally given up the hammer. But the players say they are seeing a different side of him.
"He said to us early in the winter, 'You know I love you guys by getting things done for you guys.' That was kind of like a business man approach," said senior safety Drue Tranquill. "I've seen him kind of (taper) off that a little bit and become more of a personal guy. Whereas younger guys were like, you know, 'I haven't really had a conversation with Coach Kelly.' Now guys are starting to feel that. And guys are starting to want to put their necks out on the table and play for him."
Coaches talk all the time about ignoring the noise and eliminating distractions. Kelly's biggest challenge this season could be insulating his team from any speculation about him, especially if early season games against Georgia and Michigan State do not go well. Kelly said he has told his players to stick to the process and no matter the record, the season will be a success.
Kelly knows that same standard will not be applied to him.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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