SOUTH BEND — From play calling and game planning, to lineup and adjustments, once a football season derails, no theory is off limits to explain why.
So as Brian Kelly tries to keep the zipper from completely popping off this season and somehow reach bowl eligibility, the sideline demeanor of the Irish head coach is again a popular topic of contention.
After a week-long firestorm surrounding his blame-game approach to handling players and coaches, Kelly took the high road Saturday after a 17-10 loss to the Cardinal.
"Their attitude is incredible, their commitment is incredible," Kelly said of his players. "I love coaching this group. I can coach them hard and hold them to high standards, and that's what they want."
Hearing Kelly support his team and program after a fourth loss in the last five games was a change of course from what we've seen throughout this season.
Following the loss to Michigan State, Kelly was criticized for his sideline scolding of then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
After the loss to Duke, Kelly indicated that his team lacked any urgency, going as far as calling out star quarterback DeShone Kizer as one of the players most in need of an attitude adjustment.
And after a loss last weekend to North Carolina State in very difficult weather conditions, Kelly was again criticized after he verbally undressed Sam Mustipher on the sideline for the junior center's "atrocious" work snapping the wet and slippery football.
When asked last week about deflecting blame after losses, Kelly bristled up and lashed out.
"I've got a great relationship with my players," he explained. "I'm just coaching. I'm being Brian Kelly. So if people have a problem with that, then they're not going to be friends or fans of Notre Dame football."
This isn't the first time Kelly's fiery coaching style has come under fire.
After a 1-3 start in 2010, Kelly's demeanor was blamed for the slow start because his players weren't responding to the coach's animated approach. The same explanation gained traction in 2011 after a full-Irish-roster upset loss to South Florida in the season opener sent starting quarterback Dayne Crist to the bench.
"I don't feel like I'm crossing a line," Kelly explained of his coaching style. "I think I'm being who I am. I'm being direct. I'm handling the situation as it hits me."
Just last season, Kelly was caught on camera during the Temple game shoving assistant strength coach David Grimes on the sideline. Kelly explained afterward he was trying to keep Grimes from arguing with the referees. Not much was made of the incident because Notre Dame improved to 7-1 after that game and went onto a 10-win season.
"It's my office. If it were your office, they'd probably see your interactions with your employees too," Kelly accurately explained of his very public sideline work. "It's not personal. It's about getting it right, and again, it's my office."
Kelly's point is well-made. Big-time college football isn't about group hugs and s'mores. And given the direction of this season, could anyone imagine the criticism Kelly would face for being anything other than ticked off?
"It's high stress," said Irish senior captain James Onwualu, "especially in a situation we're in now,"
But of course, in 2012, when Kelly was leading his team to an undefeated regular season and a trip to the national title game, his coaching methods were considered impeccable and his style a perfect fit for Notre Dame.
And remember Lou Holtz? He was the hard-nosed, no-nonsense, player-grabbing perfectionist while coaching the Irish to 10 or more wins a season through the early 1990s … until he became "overly intense" when his team slipped to 6-5 in 1994.
For Kelly, it's an inability to win the close games – five losses by an average of 5.6 points per game – that is hurting more than his demeanor during the worst season here since the Irish went 3-9 in 2007.
"It's a tough spot we're in right now," Kelly said after his fourth loss in six tries against Stanford. "But they're committed. Coaches are committed. We'll find a way. We'll get through this rough spot."
Promises aside, until Kelly turns around program momentum, he'll face the occupational hazard of having every coaching move he makes both analyzed, and of course, criticized.
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer who covers University of Notre Dame sports.