Back in January, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly realized he needed to turn over a new leaf. And his players are noticing.
NOTRE DAME — Meet Brian Kelly 2.0.
He’s an upgraded model of the Notre Dame head coach of the past two years.
In his own words, he’s more accessible, more involved. In his players’ words, he’s more muted, more personable and more trusting of senior leaders.
Kelly’s initiative to change came shortly after the end of his second year as head coach, which wrapped up with a loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Irish finished 8-5 for the second straight year.
Kelly realized if he wanted to see an improvement in his team, he needed to start with himself.
So he began meeting with players every Monday with an emphasis on spending more time with them, on getting to know each of them on an individual level rather than as a member of a certain unit.
“I just think my emphasis of spending more time with the players and getting to know them better, and letting them get to know me better than just sitting up in an office (like), ‘There’s where the head coach at Notre Dame sits,’” Kelly said Saturday. “I’ve never been that kind of coach and I felt myself sliding toward that in my first couple years (at Notre Dame).”
Two Irish seniors, Manti Te’o and Theo Riddick, are already noticing the changes.
“He’s here more often,” Riddick said of Kelly. “He’s more open. We get to joke and laugh with him. It’s more like a comfort thing. Everyone seems comfortable with him right now.”
Riddick joked that Kelly’s change may have stemmed from the coach’s back surgery in June.
“He’s a little more flexible now,” he said with a laugh.
In Te’o’s eyes, Kelly has given the team seniors more room to flex their leadership.
“Coach has tried to let the players run the team, the players run the players,” Te’o said. “I think it’s helped out. He’s allowed us to have more control of what’s going on.
“This is our team. This is my team. This is Braxston (Cave)’s team. This is Jamoris (Slaughter)’s team. And so when someone steps out of line, we don’t wait for coach to act. We act upon it. When the locker room is dirty, we are the ones who act upon it. We don’t wait for Coach to get to it.”
These might not seem like shocking changes, but Te’o said this style of managing the team is “way different” than the past.
It’s Year 3 of the Kelly era at Notre Dame, a year which typically measures a coach’s effectiveness with the program. If Kelly wants to pull the Irish away from yet another middling season, he seems to be off to a good start.
On the first day of pre-season practice, Kelly took the reins from offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and spent the first 20 minutes of practice with the quarterbacks.
He was immersed in their drills, coaching each quarterback individually and offering specific pointers on footwork drills.
“I just need to be involved,” Kelly said. “I need to coach. I need to be in the trenches. I need to be around our guys. I need to be the effective leader.
“Some (coaches) are better from sitting up on the tower and some are better being hands on, and I’m better (hands on). I need to be a better coach and that’s what my strengths are, so I’m going to them.”