(The Rock Report) – One of the key building blocks behind Brian Kelly’s success (despite not having a recruiting class finish in the top 50 in the country at Cincinnati ) is his emphasis and structured approach to developing players physically and mentally. It’s a philosophy that goes back to his days at Grand Valley State where he not only coached offense and defense at different stages, but oversaw the Strength and Conditioning program.
When you’re starting out with less raw material than other teams, you have to be better than your competition at developing the players you do have and Cincinnati had less talent than all but two teams on their schedule this past year.
Think about all of the talent on USC’s defense, but the Bearcats played better defense against Oregon State than USC did. You can only do that through effective player development, but Kelly’s focus, taking a page from Holtz, is on developing the mind as well as the body. When I was evaluating Kelly as a candidate, the thing that stood out (besides his success on the field) was his ability to develop and motivate players to push beyond their limits.
Said Kelly, “You can move them to a level that they can’t get to by themselves. That’s player development. That’s at the core of what I mean, to get people to do things that they normally wouldn’t do on their own. “
And that’s exactly where ND has failed recently. Only Michigan, among traditional powers, has done less with the talent they’ve had. If you look at where Notre Dame’s talent level was (and this is based on stars so it’s just a relative assessment), Notre Dame had more recruited talent than Michigan this year and even more than Florida did when they won the national championship (Florida is that orange line on the left, ND is the blue line.)
What was missing was player development. Kelly spoke at the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association clinic last February and outlined his holistic approach to development, of mind, body and skill. Kelly’s philosophy is to develop players along five parameters:
* Intellectual Development
* Spiritual Development
* Social Development
* Skill Development
* Physical Development
Does anyone think Weis even had a philosophy for developing players? Kelly has put together a systematic approach that Kelly describes as going far beyond what fans normally think of as development. “It’s not just about being bigger, faster, stronger, it’s getting your players to trust. It’s getting your players to be accountable on a day to day basis. It’s developing them as young men, and you have to do that through relationships…”
Kelly’s philosophy centers around the coaches getting to know his players intimately and transforming them across all five development areas. When people say he sounds like Lou, it’s because Kelly’s literally taken a page out of Lou’s book. In “Winning Every Day”, Lou states that he every player needs to know the answers to three questions about his coaches and his peers: 1. Can I trust you? 2. Are you committed to excellence? 3. Do you care about me?
That’s Lou, here’s Kelly describing his success (see a parallel?), “We did it by working on winning every single day. If I wait till Saturday to work on winning we’d win as many as we lose. The very first day we worked on winning… and what do you now know about winning you can’t start winning until you stop losing (getting rid of bad habits) and you can build that every single day… our kids cared about each other, they trusted each other, they were committed.”
Trust, commitment to excellence and caring. The reason people see a lot of Holtz in Kelly, is because they share not only the same philosophy, but the same words to describe it.
Here’s Kelly describing his philosophy in a little more depth, “I want those that understand how important it is to be committed, how important it is to trust how important it is to respect others… and if those sound like traditional values they are… and they can be espoused on a day to day basis… and working on winning every day allows you to do that and it creates the atmosphere that you’re not just punching the clock. When you start caring about each… and I’m not saying you have to sing Kumbaya at 5 o’clock before you go home or have campfires together. But ya got to care about each other, that you’re all in it for the same reason. that you all want to work on winning every single day… and guess what happens, one of the greatest things starts to rise to the top… it’s called pride in what you do.”
Here are the two coaches talking about their philosophies:
They also share two other attributes in their styles, attention to detail and a focus on accountability. When Holtz first walked into the Notre Dame locker room, he kicked a player’s feet off a chair and sent the entire team a clear message that things would be different. Kelly walked into the locker room and immediately noticed what a mess the lockers were in. He thought that sent a terrible signal to the team about attention to detail and respect and gave every player a diagram showing them how their lockers should look. That’s signal value. Now, every day when a player arrives for practice his locker will remind him about attention to detail.
In his pres
s conference, Kelly talked about what attention to detail and being purposeful means on a practical level:
“Eating at Burger King at 3:00 in the morning is not going to make you the best for your 8:00 workouts. Not being on time, not paying attention to detail, not being purposeful in what you do on a day to day basis. Attention to detail is absolutely crucial in this process of winning, and so when I talk about working on winning, I mean you do that from the first day you step on this campus if you want to win. You don’t win on Saturdays with Xs and Os. You win on Saturdays because you’ve been working on it all week, and so it’s that attention to detail. It’s morale, it’s camaraderie, it’s one voice. ”
The final thing they both focus on is accountability. As Lou says, “you can’t have ten people be outstanding and have one person foul up.” Kelly says, “you can’t do it unless everyone in the organization understands they’re an important piece of the puzzle.”
What impresses me about both coaches is their ability to motivate their players to play above their own expectations. Former Grand Valley State player Spencer Calhoun described it this way,”He really challenges you to perform… he encourages you enough, but at the same time, he’s challenging you to step your game up to the level that he sees the potential at, and the coaching staff saw the potential in you to play. I think I was (a better player), and I think more importantly, I was a much better person… I think he really helped complete me as a man, with being a tough-minded individual. That’s one thing he always talked about, was mental toughness and being able to see things and not get down after one little mistake or one bad play.”
Kelly believes in mental development, but he’s also put a premium on physical development and has given Strength and Conditioning coach Paul Longo coordinator level influence. Longo is intimately involved in player development, which he calls half art and half science, but you can’t practice the art if you don’t constantly evaluate players, and not just watching them in the gym, but watching them them practice and play. From many accounts Notre Dame’s players were allowed to cakewalk through workouts under Weis. That won’t be the case with Longo. It’s a philosophy Kelly developed years ago, “At Grand Valley State I understood the absolute necessity to be involved as the head coach with strength training and conditioning. So I did it. It was part of my hat that I wore.”
I read Lou Somogyi’s recent column, Conditioned to Hear the Same Rhetoric, on how we hear the same thing every coaching change, but I think Lou’s missing the fact that Kelly has a fundamentally different approach to Strength and Conditioning that has been tested over years. This isn’t “words” (rhetoric,) but deeds. (I do think Lou is the best writer covering ND football and has been for a long time.)
Here’s how Kelly thinks of Strength and Conditioning from a development perspective, “ The third leadership position I want to talk about is our strength and conditioning coach, Paul Longo. And is absolutely crucial to the development of our student athletes here. I think we all have heard the need for student development and player development. Paul has already hit the ground running. We began our workouts yesterday and we are in the process now of implementing our off-season conditioning program, which is absolutely crucial to our success. Though it’s not just about offense and defense and special teams, it’s about developing your players. And those are three key leadership positions within the program. Paul Longo has been an integral part of the success we’ve experienced over the last six seasons… He has done an incredible job of not only developing our players and getting them ready to play championship football in our program, but also helping prepare them for the NFL. Paul joins our offensive and defensive coordinators as leaders of this program. He cuts across the traditional strength and conditioning coach mold because he builds relationships with all players and coaches and serves as a leader, not just in the weight room, but throughout the program. Paul is a critical addition to our program because, arguably, no coach will have more contact with our players throughout the whole year than our strength and conditioning coach. Based on his track record and what I have personally witnessed, I can’t wait to see how he’ll make our team better moving forward.”
Here’s how Longo describes their unique player development model:
”I believe the biggest key has been Coach Kelly’s philosophy for how I fit into the program. I call it the third coordinator model. Too often, the strength coach is seen as a member of the support staff — an athletic department employee like the sports information director or equipment manager. But in reality, every strength coach knows we actually play a much larger role than that. Football player development, especially at the NCAA Division I level, is a year-round process, and the football coaching staff has only limited access to the players in the off-season. Strength coaches spend far more hours with the football team than anyone else throughout the year. I take a special leadership role in our football players’ development. Under Coach Kelly’s direction, they see me right next to the offensive and defensive coordinators on our program’s totem pole. What does this really mean? On a daily basis, it means I’m not just a guy in the weight room who tells them how to lift. I follow the football team closely and build personal relationships with the players, so I fully understand the team dynamics and the buttons to push to get individual players motivated. I know who the team leaders are, and the players know that I communicate regularly with the coaching staff about their performance during our strength and conditioning sessions. For instance, if a second stringer works his tail off in the weight room because he wants to challenge for a starting spot, he knows he’s not toiling in obscurity. And if a player is slacking off, he knows I have the authority to hold him accountable. I see who our hardest workers are, and my input to Coach Kelly and his assistants is reflected in playing time decisions. Everything we do in our football strength program is colored by that approach. Because the players see me as a leader and not just a lifting coach, they buy into every activity I put them through and understand that my primary goal is the same as theirs: to win football games. Coach Kelly’s third coordinator model gives me the credibility I need, and our success on the field speaks for itself.”
One of Longo’s success stories is Joe Staley, a first round pick. “NFL scouts said he gave the best workout of any offensive tackle they had ever seen. He went from 235 his first year to 265 his second year to 285 as a junior to 305 last year. It didn’t happen over night, bu
t he developed in the program. Ross Verba was just like that at Iowa. He was a 235 pound average, slow tight end that liked to catch balls, but he ended up having a good career in the pros after we moved him to tackle. He’s the only rookie left tackle to start in the Super Bowl.”
In the end, Longo says it’s about developing every player on the team.
“We want to raise the average not just the guys that end up being drafted into the NFL. You have to develop the rank and file, and the way they get better is through my department. I think Coach Kelly and this staff have a great feel for where a kid can develop.”
All of this focus on development of the mind and the body is about winning, but winning in a Kelly program depends on a program commitment to developing every player on the team. Ultimately, all of that work came down a simple equation to Kelly, “we played harder and longer than every team we played.”
The open question for Notre Dame fans is whether Kelly will recruit enough raw material to beat the best teams in the country. Development is key, but if Florida is successfully developing five-stars and Kelly is successfully developing three-stars, who would you put your money on?
In Meyer’s mind it ultimately it comes down to the Jimmy and the Joes, “If you know me, you know I think any offense can work if you have the right personnel back. Offenses are overrated. People are not… Again, it’s based on people. I keep going back to that, but if you have really good players, it’s really easy. If you don’t, it’s really hard. Is the West Coast offense easy to teach? If Joe Montana is throwing to Jerry Rice, yeah, Daffy Duck can teach it. I don’t want to de-value teaching. It’s absolutely critical, but I’m still going to go back to personnel.”
In part II, I’m going to focus on Kelly’s unique approach to building a coaching staff to support this development. As Kelly said, he’s looking for, “ great teachers, great educators, great communicators. So I think I put a premium on that first and foremost.”