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Notre Dame finally catches the rising star

- Associated Press - Monday, August 9, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - This is all you really need to know about new Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: His football teams win.

They win far more than they lose. They win more than they did before he arrived. They win championships.

The secret, if there is one, is this: Kelly is a smart and charismatic leader with an almost mystical ability to make any quarterback he touches play like an All-American.

But why get bogged down in the details? What truly separates Kelly from the last three Notre Dame coaches (four, if you count George O'Leary) is this number: .747. That's Kelly's winning percentage in 19 seasons as a college football coach.

For all those who have reveled in Notre Dame's misery as the Fighting Irish suffered through 13 mostly mediocre seasons under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, the party just might be over.

It looks as if Notre Dame got it right this time.

"We need to start holding up our end," Kelly said in an interview with the AP just a few hours before Notre Dame's first preseason practice. "I kind of empathize with the sentiment out there that, you know what, there is no reason why Notre Dame football can't be among the elite programs. We have all the things we need. Let's go do it."

Not since Lou Holtz replaced Gerry Faust in 1986 have the Fighting Irish hired a coach as accomplished as Kelly. And history shows some of Notre Dame's best runs have come with coaches who were proven winners before they got to South Bend.

"When Notre Dame hires a successful college coach, national championships follow," Holtz said recently in a phone interview. "When you go look at Frank Leahy at Boston College. Ara Parseghian at Northwestern. Dan Devine at Missouri. Myself at Arkansas and NC State, Minnesota and other places.

"It can't be your first job, because of the complexities of it and the pressure of it."

Neither Davie nor Weis had been a head coach before taking over at Notre Dame. As for Willingham, he had three losing seasons in seven years at Stanford before becoming the head man at Notre Dame in 2002. Willingham's best records on the Farm were 9-3 and 8-4.

Kelly has had one losing season as a head coach (4-7 in 2004, his first season at Central Michigan). He won two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State. Central Michigan had won 12 games in four seasons before he arrived. It took Kelly three seasons to win the Mid-American Conference with the Chippewas.

Then it was off to Cincinnati. With the Bearcats, Kelly went 34-6 in three seasons with two Big East titles and two BCS appearances. If he can turn Cincinnati, with its disinterested fans and rundown stadium, into a national title contender, just think what Kelly can do when he's got Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome on his side.

"What Notre Dame needed was a program changer and a coach who had a proven resume of doing such," said former Fighting Irish offensive lineman Aaron Taylor, who works as an analyst for CBS College Sports Network.

"Brian Kelly is on par with the Nick Sabans and the Urban Meyers of the world: A proven program builder at every level he has been at."

Notre Dame tried to get Meyer when Willingham was dismissed in 2004, but had to settle for Weis when Meyer decided it was easier to scoop up blue-chippers in his backyard at Florida than try to lure them to South Bend.

This time the Irish caught the rising star, a coach capable of ending an era of errors.

In the last 13 years, Notre Dame is 91-67. Purdue went 92-69 during that same period. Essentially, the only thing separating the Fighting Irish and a middling Big Ten program has been a network television deal.

Taylor said Notre Dame has suffered from a lack of leadership more than a lack of talent.

"(Kelly) has identified the sense of entitlement that had encroached the Notre Dame program," he said. "It became OK to be a me guy."

Kelly had no problem with Taylor's assessment.

"Self-inflicted wounds," Kelly said when asked what has gone wrong with Notre Dame. "Not everybody rolling in the right direction."

Kelly knows he needs to get the Irish rolling in a hurry _ a "five-minute plan" he has called it.

He's accelerated the learning process with this team mentally and physically.

"It put a lot of pressure on guys to spend the time away from here to learn the offense, to learn the scheme, but there was never an issue of buying in or not buying in with these guys," new starting quarterback Dayne Crist said.

Notre Dame's first practice _ which began under a blue-gray sky if you're looking for positive omens, Irish fans _ could be summed up in three words: fast and loud. The players run to where they need to be and when coaches need to get a point across, it's often shouted from afar _ no time to walk across the field to correct a mistake.

"I need to get to Year 2 in Year 1," Kelly said.

The Notre Dame brand still opens doors, but as Kelly out it, "the clock is ticking."

"Up to this point, I can get in the game with the players I need throughout the country that can make us a championship football team," he said. "But we got to win."

The table is set for Kelly to do just that.

For all the talk about how Notre Dame's academic standards and location have stacked the deck against an Irish return to glory, Holtz believes Notre Dame is in better position to compete for championships now than during his years.

Back then, Notre Dame's facilities were woeful compared to other top programs. Now they are on par.

Notre Dame is also playing a schedule more in line with what national powers do. The 2010 slate is indicative of what a typical Notre Dame schedule will look like from now on: seven home games, one neutral site game and some, let's say manageable, nontraditional opponents (Tulsa and Western Michigan).

"It's very doable," said Holtz, whose 1988 team won Notre Dame's last national championship. "The changes that Notre Dame made were made so that they could be very competitive."

Kelly could also benefit from his rivals problems.

Michigan has spent two years foundering under Rich Rodriguez and NCAA sanctions could be coming the Wolverines way, too. Who knows when Michigan will be Michigan again?

Then there is Southern California, Notre Dame's No. 1 rival. The Trojans have dominated the Irish in recent years, winning eight straight meetings and providing an annual reminder of just how far away Notre Dame is from being an elite team.

Well, the dynasty days are over at USC. Pete Carroll is gone, Lane Kiffin is in and the NCAA hammer has dealt a potentially devastating blow to the Trojans. Suddenly, those USC games don't look quite so daunting for the Irish.

The ramifications of Notre Dame renaissance reach beyond South Bend.

If Notre Dame is routinely winning 10 games, the Irish can bank on a BCS bid (worth $4.5 million). Their current NBC deal runs through 2015 and makes Notre Dame an estimated $15 million per year. More Notre Dame wins generally equals higher ratings for NBC, which leads to more money in the Irish coffers.

All that talk about Notre Dame giving up its football independence and joining a conference could go away if the Irish are playing as they did in the good ol' days.

Kelly has been lauded by Taylor and other former Fighting Irish coaches and players for trying to reconnect the current Notre Dame players with the school's glorious past.

Kelly showed his players a highlight reel filled with former Notre Dame greats and flipped out when he found out one of his guys could not identify Jerome Bettis.

"We did some history lessons," Kelly said. "Nobody knew some of the real traditions of Notre Dame football.

"When there's respect, there's not entitlement," he said. "In this locker room, many have come before you. There needs to be that respect for it."

Of course, Weis brought back "Rudy" to speak at the pep rally and what good did that do in the end?

There's only one tradition that really matters at Notre Dame, and Kelly's track record shows he is capable of restoring it.

"I've got to bring the winning back."

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