Notre Dame’s Kelly hopes more player-friendly approach pays off
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org August 4, 2012 3:34PM
For frequent updates from ND training camp, visit blogs.suntimes.com/notredame
Updated: September 6, 2012 6:34AM
SOUTH BEND — The soothing (and deafening) sounds of Chiddy Bang pierced the silence of a sleepy Saturday morning on the stoic campus of Notre Dame on the first day of training camp, yielding anachronistic echoes off the stately brick-walled buildings surrounding the Irish practice field.
Of course, it’s hardly unusual to hear music blaring while players stretch before a football practice.
Unless you’re at Notre Dame.
It was just one small example of the more player-friendly world Irish coach Brian Kelly is trying to create in his third year at the helm.
“It wasn’t necessarily a request,” senior linebacker Manti Te’o said of the soundtrack. “But Coach understands now. He’s taken the time to get to know us, and he understands what makes us go. He understands what helps us to perform. It’s just a simple thing.”
One of many. And Kelly hopes they all add up to a happier team, a more cohesive team, and ultimately, a more successful team than his eight-win squads of the past two seasons.
“When there’s not the kind of results that you’re looking for, you’ve got to look at yourself first,” Kelly said. And that’s where I looked.”
What he saw was an increasingly aloof, distant program leader — not the hands-on, back-slapping coach he felt he’s always been. So back in January, following Notre Dame’s 18-14 come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl — a disappointing conclusion to a disappointing season in a disappointing venue — Kelly decided to change the way he runs things.
He began what he called “The A Team.” It was a simple premise — a casual meeting every Monday, an hour or 90 minutes or so, in which Kelly (and only Kelly) would meet with the entire roster. Sometimes they talked about football, sometimes they talked about campus life, sometimes they talked about relationships, sometimes they just watched old football clips.
Nothing serious — just a bunch of guys hanging out.
“Just an emphasis on spending more time with the players,” Kelly said. “Getting to know them better and letting them get to know me better, rather than just sitting up in an office — ‘Well, there’s where the head coach of Notre Dame sits.’ I’ve never been that kind of coach. And I felt myself sliding toward that in my first couple of years.”
The familiarity quickly bred trust, and the trust led to a different atmosphere on and off the field — one that gave the players more autonomy, more responsibility, and the ability to police themselves a bit.
“Coach has tried to let the players run the team, let the players run the players,” Te’o said. “I think it’s helped. It’s allowed us to have more control over what’s going on. Coach just has to worry about being the head coach. This is our team, this is my team, this is Braxton (Cave’s) team, this is Jamoris (Slaughter’s) team. When someone steps out of line, we don’t wait for Coach to act, we act upon it. When the locker room’s dirty, we’re the ones who act on it. We don’t have to let Coach get to it. It’s way different now.”
Kelly’s demeanor is different on the field now, too. After giving a rousing speech before practice, he spent the first portion of Saturday’s opening session working hands-on — literally — with his five quarterbacks, three of whom are jockeying for the starting spot against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, on Sept. 1. He grabbed sophomore Everett Golson and demonstrated how to raise his left knee higher in “hip-openers,” a dropback drill. And he was in all five of their faces — positively, but forcefully — as they went through a pocket-mobility drill.
He’s out of his ivory tower and back where he wants to be, and where he feels his players need him to be.
“I just need to be involved,” Kelly said. “I need to be in the trenches.”
Whether the culture change makes a difference on the scoreboard remains to be seen. But it’s already made a difference in his players’ mindset.
“He’s a lot more relaxed, I think,” said senior wideout John Goodman. “This is his third year at Notre Dame, and he’s gotten better. … He’s doing anything he can do to help us get better, and we’re following his lead. And if we follow his lead, the young guys will follow our lead, and it’s a domino effect.”