It’s an old story by now.
And yet it’s never been more pertinent nor alive.
It was written dozens of times in 2017 as head coach Brian Kelly and his University of Notre Dame football program raised themselves up by the bootstraps from the messy ashes of a 4-8 campaign the previous fall to win 10 games, capped by a Citrus Bowl comeback against LSU to close out 2017.
The changes were well-documented:
- New coordinators on offense, defense and special teams.
- More new assistant coaches.
- A new boss in the weight room (21st century jargon calls him the director of football performance).
In some ways, it was a prickly, painful offseason because all Kelly could do was field all the questions lobbed his way — and it was going to be as many as eight months before his football team could do anything about providing answers on the football field.
Assuredly, Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick played a big role in those tough December days when the Irish coaches and players had to hear and read and watch as dozens of other teams played in postseason bowl games.
Both Kelly and Swarbrick have been loathe to reveal many specifics — and both downplay the symbolism of the time they spent together.
But understand this much: This was all about fixing, refurbishing and recharging the Irish program. There was no finger-pointing — only the question of, “What do we have to do to get back where we want to be?”
Maybe no one will know just how many private conversations ensued that neither Kelly nor Swarbrick nor anyone else could catalog. They were player to player, coach to coach, player to coach and every other combination imaginable. They happened in quiet corners of the locker room, in casual groups on campus and in Guglielmino Athletics Complex offices. They happened at dawn and in the late hours of the night. They happened between the best players on the team down to the very last walk-on.
The questions likely were much the same: “What happened? Where did it go wrong? What do we have to do to get better? And what happens next?”
Those conversations were based in pride to a great extent — because none of the players in that locker room after a season-ending defeat at USC wanted to go through anything close to that again.
And so they all set about creating their own “change committee.”
It was a corporate approach and a culture change all in one.
It was Kelly taking a hard look at himself, what he needed to do, where he needed to be and the tone he needed to set — with Swarbrick, in those December days, attempting to keep the conversation guided and on track.
In its own way, this is what coaches do. They create game plans week to week — and they create big-picture forward-looking plans for what they want to accomplish in years to come. And then they are measured mostly by the numbers in the win-loss column.
And yet this has been different.
It bears a resemblance to the early turnarounds created when Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz took over as Irish head coach in 1964 and 1986, respectively. Yet, from a sheer numbers standpoint, never in Notre Dame history have the Irish come back from a losing season to win 22 combined games over the next two campaigns.
Notre Dame recruiting coordinator and special teams coordinator Brian Polian boasts a unique perspective.
He spent four years at Notre Dame (2006-09) on Charlie Weis’ staff and then was the head coach at Nevada from 2013-16. He returned to Notre Dame after the 2016 season, so he has been on the ground floor of the current Irish turnaround. In fact, he recalls officially starting on the same day as new staff members Mike Elko and Chip Long.
“I understood completely the gravity of coming out of 4-8 and what that meant to the program in general, to the University community and to the fan base to some degree,” says Polian.
And Polian recalls many a late night in the second-floor defensive staff room in the southeast corner of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex where he, Kelly and other assistant coaches took hard looks at where the Irish were and what they needed to do.
“The first thing we talked about openly in recruiting was getting back to guys that fit here. A lot of conversations about that. We did a deeper dive on players we were recruiting — a lot of time up there at night during the dead period on who would fit and why.
“A guy may have everything you’re looking for athletically, but if he does not fit at Notre Dame, is that a good bet? Because if they are not succeeding away from the football field the chance they will be successful between the lines is not great.
“We looked at guys we played against at different schools. Why are these three-star guys at these other schools ending up draft picks? We identified the characteristics and traits that were most important and we got back to that. The reemphasis on fit, you saw it at the end of the class even after 4-8.
“Despite the world of Twitter and the internet, we decided we were going to be less concerned about what the outside world thought about a guy and more about what we thought. Where do they fit on the offense or the defense and do they fit Notre Dame?
“If we feel good about that and a given recruiting class ends up ranked whatever, then who cares? I think we’ve proven that we’ve done a better job that way.”
Polian has been around football his entire life — his father Bill was the longtime general manager of the NFL Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts. And Polian thinks he has witnessed something in South Bend the last two years he has never seen in football.
“Everybody has talked about Coach Kelly’s ability to hit the reset button completely after 2016,” Polian says. “I’ve never seen someone willing to do that — to show some humility and say, ‘I’m going to adjust and reinvent myself because things have changed and the kids we’re coaching have changed.’
“The change of culture in the weight room? This is the single best strength staff I’ve seen. And we’ve just continued on with the same message, the same standard. We spend a lot of time talking about fit, how guys can succeed here. And that’s been good.”
In another situation, all the progress the Irish might have made in 2017 could have hit a major roadblock when Elko left for Texas A&M (and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand departed to join the Chicago Bears staff).
“In my mind, Brian Kelly deserves a ton of credit for how he handled that,” says Polian. “His conviction was that we’ve installed the defensive system, we’ve significantly improved and Clark Lea knows it inside and out. Still, to hire a first-time defensive coordinator here took some courage, I assume. We went through a transition without having to completely start over — and there’s no doubt in my mind that has been good for our players. It was about Coach Kelly sticking to his convictions of what was best for the program no matter what the perception was. And we kept growing.
“From 30,000 feet we’re healthy in terms of the direction, the culture, how we are recruiting. We are back to where this thing is sustainable at a high level. That’s why it’s so exciting to be a part of this.”
Longtime college football writer Pat Forde this week echoed Polian’s points in a piece on the Yahoo Sports site:
“Going undefeated and crashing the playoff without a single top-10 recruiting class says one of two things: 1) Notre Dame is finding some underrated gems. 2) Notre Dame is developing its players better than others once they arrive on campus. Or, most likely, a combination of both. ‘At the core of it,’ said head coach Brian Kelly, ‘you have to identify the players that will stay here that you can develop. You want young men who fit Notre Dame and will be here to grow. It’s got to start there.'”
Since Knute Rockne took over as head football coach at Notre Dame a century ago in 1918, the Irish have had only a dozen losing seasons. Here is how Notre Dame has bounced back from those losing campaigns, with the current two-year, 22-win total rankings atop the list in terms of responses:
|Losing Season||Record||Next Two Seasons||Two-Year Win Total|
|2016||4-8||10-3 in 2017, 12-0 in 2018||22|
|1986||5-6||8-4 in 1987, 12-0 in 1988||20|
|1986-87-88 were Lou Holtz’s first three seasons as head coach|
|1963||2-7||9-1 in 1964, 7-2-1 in 1965||16|
|1964-65 were Ara Parseghian’s first two years as head coach|
|2003||5-7||6-6 in 2004, 9-3 in 2005||15|
|2005 was Charlie Weis’ first year as head coach|
|2001||5-6||10-3 in 2002, 5-7 in 2003||15|
|2002-03 were Tyrone Willingham’s first two years as head coach|
|1999||5-7||9-3 in 2000, 5-6 in 2001||14|
|2007||3-9||7-6 in 2008, 6-6 in 2009||13|
|1985||5-6||5-6 in 1986, 8-4 in 1987||13|
|1986-87 were Holtz’s first two years as head coach|
|1981||5-6||6-4-1 in 1982, 7-5 in 1983||13|
|1981-82-83 were Gerry Faust’s first three years as head coach|
|1956||2-8||7-3 in 1957, 6-4 in 1958||13|
|1956-57-58 were Terry Brennan’s final three years as head coach|
|1933||3-5-1||7-1-1 in 1934, 6-2-1 in 1935||13|
|1934-35 were Elmer Layden’s first two years as head coach|
|1960||2-8||5-5 in 1961, 5-5 in 1962||10|
Here are the numbers from comparable two-year turnarounds at three other major programs:
|Losing Season||Record||Next Two Seasons||Two-Year Win Total|
|1984||5-6||9-2-1 in ’85, 10-3 in ’86||19|
|1984-85-86 were Ray Perkins’ final three years as head coach|
|2006||6-7||7-6 in 2007, 12-2 in 2008||19|
|2007-08 were Nick Saban’s first two years as head coach|
|Season||Record||Next Two Seasons||Two-Year Win Total|
|2001||6-6||11-2 in 2002, 12-1 in 2003||23|
|2001-02-03 were Pete Carroll’s first three years as head coach|
|Losing season||Record||Next Two Seasons||Two-Year Win Total|
|2011||6-7||12-0 in 2012, 12-2 in 2013||24|
|2012-13 were Urban Meyer’s first two years as head coach|
Another interesting perspective comes from Irish director of player development Hunter Bivin. He played offensive guard for the Irish from 2014-17 and then moved to the second floor of the Gug in 2018 — so he’s been able to view all this from multiple levels.
Bivin has not forgotten a continued emphasis that his former offensive line coach used to make.
“Coach (Harry) Hiestand always made the point that the harder you work at something, whatever it is, the harder it is to give up that something that you worked so hard on,” says Bivin.
“Ratcheting up that process in 2017 — the training, the practices, the accountability — made us realize what it truly was that we were doing here. We were playing football at the University of Notre Dame. As hard as we worked in the offseason and then with Chip Long and Mike Elko, it made what we were doing that much more important. It’s hard to describe how important the offseason workouts were in 2017 in transforming the program to what it is. And making our process that much more difficult made our approach that much more serious.
“We were better prepared going into the games. But the fact that we had gone through so much and put so much effort and time and sacrifice into playing football made it that much more important to us on the field. It was a shift in attitude and a shift in demands and accountability. It set the standard of excellence. It was all set to challenge you to be the best you could be. It made it all that much more important to put the product on the field.
“And when you go through adversity, you know who the real leaders are, who the foxhole guys are. Who’s going to have your back in a tight squeeze? We’d been put through so much we knew who we could lean on when our back was against the wall. We knew who we were, we knew our identity and we were confident in our identity. It led to a more confident approach.
Bivin says the frustrations of 2016 prompted lots of conversation among players.
“The most frustrating part was that we were not getting blown out — we were right there,” he says. “And so that made it that much harder to wrap your head around it. Why is this happening? Why can’t we take that next step? But, after that next offseason and camp, we realized what was required.
“We could feel that it was significant and it was real. We could sense that. The narrative matched up with what we were going through. In 2017 the rubber hit the road and we understood how to use the tools — when to be gritty, when to be laser-focused.”
Kelly, Polian, Bivin and the Irish all understand that, for most outside observers, a football team is only as good as its most recent success.
“Ultimately the only thing people care about is getting good kids and winning on the field,” says Polian.
And so, if the next assignment for Notre Dame is Saturday against a 13-0 Clemson squad, that will be yet another measuring stick.
What Kelly also understands is that, if his Irish continue to play at their current level, it’s no longer simply a feel-good story.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.