The University of Notre Dame???s head football coach Brian Kelly took criticism for finishing 2016 with his first losing season in the past 12 years of leading Division 1 teams but he is benefiting big time from an eight-and-a-half hour off-season meeting with the school???s Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.
Swarbrick hosted the meeting at his home and agreed with Kelly on big changes that have included bringing in 17 new football staff members to pursue a rapid and dramatic rebound. Despite calls for Kelly???s dismissal coming from parts of the fan base seeking a national championship contender, the big changes may explain how the Fighting Irish have started the season with a 3-1 record to improve upon last year???s 4-8 team.
Notre Dame???s best win so far in 2017 occurred in a nationally televised game on Fox Saturday night, Sept. 23, when it used a ball-hawking defense and a productive offense to avenge last year???s home loss to Michigan State University with a convincing 38-18 victory on the road against the Spartans. The win carried enlarged significance for Notre Dame in the first football game between the two Midwestern rivals since the Aug. 2 death of legendary Fighting Irish football coach Ara Parseghian, who 51 years ago in 1966 led the elite Catholic university to a 10-10 tie in a contest with Michigan State that the media at the time called the ???Game of the Century.???
The tie helped Notre Dame stay No. 1 and kept Michigan State No. 2 to lift Parseghian to his first of two national championships. As for Kelly, he led Notre Dame to the national title game in 2013 during his third season at the helm. Michigan State, which reached the national semifinals two seasons ago under its head coach Mark Dantonio, also finished last year with an uncharacteristic losing record amid injuries to key players and frustratingly close losses.
Swarbrick showed loyalty and respect for his coach during the off-season at a time when alumni at many universities organize social media campaigns and pursue other methods to advocate a change at the helm. Kelly understood that Notre Dame lost its traditional winning edge last season when seven of its eight losses came by one score.
The perennially high expectations of Notre Dame???s fan base caused grumbling about whether Kelly could steer the team back to its winning tradition but the early results this season show he is doing so, with a well-played one-point loss against the No. 7-ranked University of Georgia as the only blemish on the won-loss record of the Fighting Irish. Rather than succumb to the pressure of those seeking a new head coach, Swarbrick chose to support Kelly with a goal of restoring championship-caliber play.
Kelly acknowledged before the start of this season that he had become too focused on production and wanted to take a positive approach that sets clear expectations for players and coaches, while motivating the team to perform at its best. He admitted to lapses in the team???s mental toughness, physical conditioning and accountability last season that he tried to fix with bold off-season changes.
Big changes for 2017 include new offensive and defensive coordinators. Also new are the special teams coach and the strength coach.
Notre Dame???s changes produced a 20-point margin of victory against Michigan State on Sept. 23 in a game that would have been more lopsided without the host Spartans scoring a late touchdown and a two-point conversion. Thousands of the home team???s fans began to leave the stadium midway through the second half.
Those who remained watched the Fighting Irish celebrate victory with high spirits and the exaltation continued in the caverns of the football stadium as Notre Dame players reveled loudly enough that the sounds carried out of the visitors??? locker room nearby to where members of the media gathered for Kelly???s post-game interview. The players may have been capturing the spirit of Parseghian-coached teams that resolved to have ???no breaking point,??? while pushing opponents to their breaking points.
The win demonstrated that the kind of progress Swarbrick and Kelly envisioned for the team is occurring quickly, especially since the Spartans won last year???s game, 36-28. The fiery and sometimes testy football coach conveyed a calm confidence during his post-game press briefing as he responded to questions from the media and even interjected praise without prompting for Dantonio???s team as ???hardworking and tough.???
???You can see where they are going to be in a year or so,??? said Kelly, as if he fully sympathized with his counterpart who needed to implement off-season changes of his own that included dismissing four players from last year???s team who were charged with crimes.
Kelly, who took up yoga during the off-season, started eating a healthier diet and lost 15 pounds, said he could see his team ???coming together??? with back-to-back triumphs on the road against Michigan State and Boston College. Both are part of the so-called ???Power 5??? athletic conferences.
Swarbrick already is seeing a return on his investment during the off-season in Kelly???s football staff. In fact, Swarbrick is not just assisting Kelly.
As I left Spartan stadium after Kelly???s media briefing, I walked about 100 yards and asked a well-dressed gentleman for directions. As he showed me a map on his mobile phone, I spotted where I needed to go and then noticed the helpful fellow guiding me was none other than Swarbrick.
Much the way Swarbrick aided me in finding my way, he did so for Kelly in the off-season by providing him with the resources and counsel to get back on course. I asked Swarbrick for his impressions after the decisive win against Michigan State.
???It???s a long ride home when you lose,??? Swarbrick said about the 154-mile journey between East Lansing and Notre Dame???s campus that takes about three hours in normal traffic.
Based on Notre Dame???s impressive victory against Michigan State and other early-season success, the team???s athletic director and head football coach seem to have restored their storied program to its winning ways.
Paul Dykewicz is the editorial director of Eagle Financial Publications, editor of StockInvestor.com and DividendInvestor, a columnist for Townhall and Townhall Finance, a commentator and the author of an inspirational book, ???Holy Smokes! Golden Guidance from Notre Dame???s Championship Chaplain,??? with a foreword by legendary football coach Lou Holtz. Visit Paul???s website at www.holysmokesbook.com and follow him on Twitter @PaulDykewicz.