Notre Dame’s faith in Kelly re­warded with 12-0 sea­son

The Catoosa County News - - SPORTS - By Joe Reedy AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, Notre Dame left the L.A. Me­mo­rial Coli­seum with its pro­gram at a cross­roads fol­low­ing a 4-8 sea­son. Even though most thought Coach Brian Kelly was on the hot seat, ath­letic di­rec­tor Jack Swar­brick had con­fi­dence that Kelly could turn things around.

Swar­brick’s con­fi­dence was re­warded on that same field on Satur­day. The third-ranked Fight­ing Ir­ish wrapped up an un­beaten reg­u­lar sea­son with a 24-17 vic­tory over USC and all but as­sured them­selves a spot in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

“It’s that 24-month cy­cle. From ev­ery­one in that room say­ing we were go­ing to get it fixed to it hap­pen­ing. It feels good,” Swar­brick said out­side the locker room af­ter the game.

It is the third time in pro­gram his­tory Notre Dame has been 12-0, join­ing the 1988 na­tional cham­pi­onship team and 2012 squad that made it to the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries fi­nal be­fore los­ing to Alabama.

While many were clam­or­ing for Kelly’s ouster two years ago, Swar­brick said that mid­sea­son there wasn’t go­ing to be a change. What both did do at the end of the sea­son was ex­am­ine ev­ery­thing about the pro­gram, from coaches to prac­tice meth­ods to nu­tri­tion.

Kelly hired new co­or­di­na­tors for of­fense, de­fense and spe­cial teams as well as a new strength coach. The re­sult has been 22 vic­to­ries in the past 25 games.

“We made changes, but we still had a core and a foun­da­tion,” Kelly said. “It still had to do with player de­vel­op­ment. We got our play­ers to play at a higher level with bet­ter ex­e­cu­tion. Be­hind the scenes we did make some tweaks, but we won on the backs of play­ers mak­ing plays.”

Se­nior line­backer Drue Tran­quill said it was a spe­cial mo­ment for the up­per­class­men who were able to turn things around af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment of two years ago.

“I came to Notre Dame for the tra­di­tion of ex­cel­lence, the tra­di­tion of foot­ball, and for a while there, we weren’t build­ing that tra­di­tion,” Tran­quill said. “We weren’t keep­ing that legacy go­ing. We stared our­selves in the mir­ror two years ago and made a choice and said, ‘We’re go­ing to de­cide where this ship goes.’ And I’m just so proud of all the guys in the locker room. It’s just a spe­cial mo­ment, man.”

Notre Dame started last sea­son 8-1 and was in the play­off con­ver­sa­tion be­fore drop­ping two of its last three. It went into the off­sea­son with some mo­men­tum af­ter a 21-17 vic­tory over LSU in the Cit­rus Bowl, which in­cluded quar­ter­back Ian Book com­ing off the bench to rally the Fight­ing Ir­ish.

Swar­brick said last sea­son’s start as well as the Cit­rus Bowl vic­tory helped serve as the spring­board to this year. He also said this is the first sea­son he can re­mem­ber in his 11 years that a player hasn’t been on aca­demic pro­ba­tion or sub­ject to off-field dis­ci­pline.

“There is a con­sis­tency and cul­ture that is self-sus­tain­ing. This is the best foun­da­tion we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said. “Brian is as com­fort­able in his own skin as some­one who I have been around. He is re­ally bal­anced. We all have highs and lows but he is de­lib­er­ate, sets a path and fol­lows it.”

Kelly — who led the Ir­ish to a 12-0 reg­u­lar sea­son in 2012 — put him­self in the pan­theon of elite Notre Dame coaches with Satur­day’s win. He is the first coach to go un­de­feated and un­tied twice since Frank Leahy and the first to go un­de­feated twice since Ara Parseghian.

Swar­brick also noted that Kelly has al­ready ac­com­plished some­thing that Leahy, Parseghian, Knute Rockne or Lou Holtz didn’t do — coach the pro­gram at 60.

Kelly wasn’t ready to be philo­soph­i­cal fol­low­ing his third un­de­feated sea­son as a head coach, but he did ac­knowl­edge that this one was more dif­fi­cult than it was in 2012 and 2009 at Cincin­nati. Kelly led the Bearcats to a 12-0 reg­u­lar sea­son but ac­cepted the Notre Dame job be­fore the Sugar Bowl.

“They’re all dif­fi­cult be­cause you deal with dis­trac­tions. There is so much in so­cial me­dia and so much that can dis­tract you from the process on a day-to-day ba­sis. It just makes it hard,” Kelly said. “Our kids did a great job of stick­ing with it and not get­ting out­side of that. This was the hard­est of the three.”

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