(The Rock Report | Notre Dame Football News) – Whether or not Brian Kelly ever succeeds at a level that will validate his selection as Notre Dame’s latest football coach, he’s set in motion much needed changes directed at challenges that have hindered Notre Dame’s ability to play championship football. Many are small process steps, others are common sense ideas that just weren’t common at ND and some are progressive thinking.
Jack Swarbrick emphasized that Kelly was hired for his ability to run a football “program;” an implicit acknowledgment that, in his analysis of Notre Dame football, failure went far beyond Xs and Os. When Kelly took the job he was asked about recruiting, which fans were understandably worried about at the time, his answer took some aback, (paraphrasing) that he had far more important issues to fix internally first.
A year and change later, many of those changes have become evident. When diagnosing under-performance, the best companies look beyond skill and root cause “will” and “hill” issues that lead to under-performance. Many (if not most) issues are blamed on skill (i.e. “he just doesn’t have ‘it’”) when the real cause is lack of motivation or some unseen environmental factor that inhibits development or performance.
It’s always instructive to see people who were low performing under previous leaders become high performers when a leadership change is made. Likewise, when new football coaches take over, players who seemed to lack “it” suddenly find it. Watching Harrison Smith progress from a punch-line to team captain and likely early round draft pick has been heart-warming to see, but we saw a similar breakout year for Maurice Stovall under Weis. What distinguishes Kelly is that he has a track record and clearly articulated processes to achieve consistent development.
At the ND coaches clinic, Kelly & Kelly (okay and Urban who actually has won two NCs) all focused, not on Xs and Os, but on the importance of leadership and having a plan to build and structure a successful program.
Many of Kelly’s changes over the past year have been under the radar, targeting inadvertent hills; removing unseen barriers to success that have more to do with efficient process than game day decision making. And those issues are especially critical at Notre Dame which asks more of its student athletes than most schools, yet Notre Dame created barriers that made it more difficult to overcome those institutional obstacles (oft cited by the media as reasons Notre Dame would never return to greatness.)
Here’s what I’ve been able to cobble together.
Removing the Hills
- The Training Table initiative was already under way (covered in Let Them Eat Steak ), but Kelly advocated to have it in the “Gug” where players could be easily observed and they could use the meal to form more cohesive bonds. The word ‘brotherhood’ has been used by many recent recruits.
- Likewise Kelly moved study hall to the ‘Gug’ so players didn’t have to bicycle all over campus and back. A small move on the surface, but with all of the student and football demands on players, having them trek around campus created an unneeded hurdle. Many players complained that they didn’t even have time to eat right. Knowing this, Notre Dame’s annual late season swoon isn’t hard to understand.
- Kelly recently moved practice to 8am. “It allows our players to get in, get their work done and really be focused the entire day on their academics, come back here for dinner and then certainly it keeps us well below (the 20-hour limit) and allows our players to have a lot of energy as we get, as you know, later in the academic year.”
- The other major process change Kelly made was evening out recruiting responsibilities across the staff and putting a specific plan in place. Under Weis, a few coaches carried much of the recruiting load. Under Kelly, each assistant works a region, carries their own weight and supports the other coaches. Kelly also brought in a new video system to allow the coaches to evaluate player tape, recommend it to the position coaches, do base due diligence and get offers out. It’s not even April, but the staff has close to 100 offers out right now. Noticeably, there weren’t any gaping holes in recruiting this last cycle, a problem that has contributed to massive swings in on-the-field performance.
- Kelly works very hard at creating staff cohesion. First, he hired for it, but he also structures time for give and take within the staff to challenge each other and created specific steps of leadership for his coaches to follow. To enforce those steps he spends a lot of time coaching the coaches, something he acknowledged he did a poor job with last year (see more in Kelly and Leadership, Part II: Coaching the Coaches. ) The level of cooperation seems to be light years ahead of the dysfunction of the Weis regime.
Improving the Skill
- I’ve previously noted the integration of strength training at a coordinator level (covered in depth here.) From all reports there was little accountability under Weis and accordingly uneven development.
- Likewise, the interaction between Notre Dame’s medical staff and the team has long been a concern from those close to the program. Rob Hunt was brought in as the head football athletic trainer and his impact has already surfaced (albeit in a minor way) in player comments. Listening to Theo Riddick say “Rob, will tell me when I’m ready” indicated a new level of integration for the training staff, much as Kelly integrates Paul Longo into the coaching staff. As Kelly said, Rob “is already involved with our morning conditioning, getting a real handle on our players on a day to day basis. So excited to announce that, and from our standpoint, we’ll test him right away. He’s out there working with some of these guys immediately.”
- Both Kellys run up tempo practices which, over the course of a season, gives them a significant advantage in development time. If you can squeeze 25% more into a practice,over the course of week, you’ve engineered an extra full practice of repetitions. That amounts to five extra days of practice time during the spring alone. Both Kellys employ relatively simple offenses and use high tempo practices to get more repetitions to hone execution. In a time constrained practice environment, they can get more repetitions in the same amount of time. The other key payoff of that philosophy is that the high tempo practice helps condition the team. According to Brian, Chip shares his emphasis on efficiency, “One of things he commented on and that I’d like to bring up is he takes great pride on the efficiency of his practice and what he saw out here that blew him away was our manager program here, how efficient all of our managers are. He goes, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.”
- Kelly’s focus on consistent messaging ensures the staff speaks in the same voice. Last year you heard the word accountability parroted across the team, this year the clear message is execution and focusing on the little things. Diaco mentioned that the coaches are developing catch phrases to keep the kids on point. He did a great job explaining that “knowing” vs. “thinking” can be the difference between being three yards away and diving for a tackle and driving through the ball carrier. He observed that many times what we think is poor tackling is actually the result of a poor player decision leaving him out of position and grasping. Overall, it’s fair to say that last year the team achieved some level of conscious competence. This year the goal will be unconscious competence, where the end state is to not think, just do. Many of the players have mentioned this in interviews.
- Kelly has also embraced technology. Quarterbacks are able to simulate game day decisions on software, they alternately wear helmet cameras so the staff can see what they see and the new practice video system (part of Declan Sullivan’s legacy) will allow the coaches to see many angles post practice.
- It would be great if college kids were self-motivating, but the fact is they have to be constantly motivated. As Lou said, “We should have turned this thing around a lot quicker than we did, because we had talent in ’86. They didn’t buy into it as quickly as needed, but each week we got more converts.” It remains to be seen if Kelly will be as successful, but Kelly cribbed Holtz’s focus on the three key building blocks of caring, commitment and trust. Here’s a little Lou if you’re missing him.
- The staff is now focused on finding the right combination of motivational tools for each player. Kelly said that at this time last year the staff just didn’t have the time to bring motivation down the individual player level across the team as they were working on putting in the big pieces of the program. This year Kelly is emphasizing trying to find the right motivation buttons that work for each player. Research shows that sales managers who excel at adapting to the “developee” get 3x the performance out of their salespeople. It’s an obvious point, but one that isn’t usually approached systematically.
- Kelly and Longo turned weight training into an incentive system. Players who perform well in the weight room are given a better shot on the field. Likewise, under-performance in the weight room is immediately noted and triggers staff intervention to “re-motivate” the player (hopefully before it shows up on the field.) Players who continue to put forth a poor effort will see practice reps diminished.
- Kelly uses every occasion to create team commitment. Kelly explained his theory behind the infamous 5am Camp Kelly, “it won’t make anyone a better player, but it will make them a more committed player.” Kelly’s attempting to breed toughness and commitment, things that have been lacking since Lou. Kelly was noticeably pleased by the recent shoving match in this weekend’s practice. Chris Watt recently shared that the 3 on 3 drill started before the Utah game had a noticeable effect on team toughness.
- This final point will make some cringe, but Kelly has brought ESPN hype to the program. The highlight video and the effects and the framework for the banquet were all “ESPNized” presumably in an effort to make the program more fun and appealing without losing tradition. Kelly’s also attempted to breathe life into the “on life support” pep rally as well. Whether it’s working or not, change is happening. If you’re wondering what that looks like you can judge for yourself: Watch the Highlights | Watch the Awards Show
None of this ensures excellence, but in total these changes (and just that Kelly’s aware of them) provide a very strong foundation for success. Xs and Os are only important if the rest of the program is functioning well. Kelly’s goal is to develop players who play harder, longer and execute better (play with unconscious competence) to ultimately win games and he laid out a plan for the football program to support that goal. The Weis vision of nasty was really an unfunded mandate. You can’t be nasty if you’re not strong enough, aren’t playing hard and aren’t executing at a high level against an overly complicated game plan that changes weekly.
Questions about on the field decision making, assistants, offensive game-plan and ultimate success (national championships) aside, many of Notre Dame’s self-inflicted problems have been fixed, which fits in well with Kelly’s philosophy of “you can’t start winning until you stop losing.”