(The Rock Report) – Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham both had strong first years at Notre Dame; as it turns out both were mirages that masked mismanagement underneath. Sustainable success involves a long-term commitment to doing all of the small things right on a consistent basis, which is why Kelly’s mantra “you can’t start winning until you stop losing” is so important.
But to do those small things well, you have to think about the pieces, which pieces are the most important, what’s most important about the piece and then how they all work together. For instance, it doesn’t make sense to have a great training table if player’s schedules don’t allow them to use it. That may not sound like a “coach’s job” but it’s a vitally important part of program building. Miss that piece of the puzzle and your 300 pound lineman shrinks to 270 by November, gets blown off the line and all of the fan talk about what play was called when becomes irrelevant.
Notre Dame was riddled with such inefficiencies when Kelly took over, which is why he said his first order of business wasn’t recruiting, but fixing the inefficiencies. I covered many of them here in Fixing Notre Dame Football . Kelly’s plan was always focused on “the process”.
Kelly’s focus on day-to-day (or as he says it “deh-ta-deh”) improvement in mental and physical development is really the only way to get players to reach their highest level of success on a consistent basis. Even as Notre Dame stumbled to 4-3 last year, Kelly was adamant that the team was making the same progress at the same point as his other stops.
I think I’ve probably worn this out, but we’re in the same process that I’ve been in at every job that I’ve had. We’re doing the same things. I’m seeing the same kinds of results. They don’t always equal wins, but we’re clearly moving in the right direction with our football players and our football program, and sometimes it’s, you know, disappointing and painful, but I would tell you that this is a very similar feeling that I’ve had before.
That of course doesn’t sit well with fans who may question how the on the field product relates to the process, but, like changing a golf swing, the middle of the process is rarely clean nor pretty. But Kelly wasn’t after short term results, he said he was after what Oklahoma had.
Coach has done what we’re looking to do here, and that’s build a program on consistency. And that is the charge that we’re under right now in our development of a football program, is to do this week in and week out.
To gain long term success you have to change player’s mental and physical makeup which, as Nick Saban noted, usually takes years. Here’s a decent summation of Saban’s “Process”. What we’re seeing now is the result of almost three years of sustained, committed effort by many people to the process. What does Kelly’s process look like? Five important pieces of it are: Defensive Recruiting, Coaching Chemistry, Physical and Mental Development, Demanding Excellence and Execution.
Because Kelly gained attention for his offense, most don’t know that Kelly’s defenses have out-performed his offenses 5 out of the last 6 years. It’s not by coincidence.
While some have been surprised at the performance of the defense, it’s something Kelly targeted. Kelly recognized out of the box that winning takes great defense and noted that it was behind the success of his 2008 Bearcat team. His focus on player development, motivation and getting kids to play harder longer was an important piece of the puzzle, but so too was his focus on defense. Notre Dame battled tooth and nail for every defensive lineman recruit in his first full class, but it wasn’t a choice according to Kelly when talking about his recruiting focus on year one.
You can’t fake it on defense. You can fake it a little bit on offense. But defensively, you know, you gotta win the one on one match ups. You’ve got to win those match ups. Sometimes you cannot block the defensive end and option him. Sometimes you can do things with misdirection. But on defense, it’s about players making plays, and you can’t hide there. And so the recruiting efforts start with the defensive line, and they work out from there. And you can’t fake it on defense.
Kelly’s recognition that great defenses are recruited and his willingness to move offensive players to defense was a marked departure from Weis who continually brought in great offensive players, but seemed leave holes on defense (we do have to give Weis his just due for recruiting Manti.)
Another one of Kelly’s foundational principles is that any coach he hires has to fit well with the staff or as Kelly says, he tries to “eliminate dysfunction,” which is why relationships were so important for him in hiring a coach like Bob Elliott. Some have noted that this approach eliminates many proven coaches and even tabbed it “cronyism”, but Kelly’s making a clear choice that chemistry is simply not optional.
We wanted the make‑up of that staff, we were looking for a veteran coach who wanted to come in and not be the guy. Not be the coordinator, but be an asset with a great deal of experience. Of course, they also have strong personal relationships. It’s a very dynamic staff. It’s the best group of guys that I’ve ever had in terms of how they work together on a day‑to‑day basis.
Or as Kelly likes to say, “coaches will screw it up far before the players do.” I covered this in-depth in Coaching the Coaches.
Without the entire staff focused in the same direction, it would be impossible to push the entire team forward (note Kiffin at USC or Weis at ND.) The whole coaching staff has to be focused on the same messages to achieve at the highest level. When you have that alignment on the staff, you can push players consistently to a higher degree of mental and physical play because they’re surrounded by it and see their teammates doing the same. Something Kelly’s just starting to see with Davaris Daniels for example.
I think you really hit the right word. He competed. That’s what we look for from DD is competing every single play. He’s a young guy starting to figure it out. You’ve got to compete at the highest level every single play. We’re demanding that from him. I think in terms of competing, you’re right on. He competed against Oklahoma. Now the challenge is to compete the same way against Pittsburgh.
Across the board, we’re starting to see players reach their highest level, whether it’s Matthias Farley stepping in at safety, Keivarae Russell at corner or Danny Spond covering the slot receiver from his linebacker position. That was happening last year, but not consistently. A great example was the performance against USC when twittergate sent fans a titter and Kelly called out his team publicly.
Losing stinks. For me, it’s hard for me to put a stink meter on losing. They all stink. You know what, I’m disappointed in? This is the first time that I’ve leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room. I was not happy. Because we are better than that…I’m not going to tolerate it. It’s not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we’ll tackle every day, because they know how I feel about the way we played.
While some fans thought that was a coach throwing his players under the bus, it struck me as a coach who simply wouldn’t accept mediocrity. Maybe it was a bit crass or not “fan-friendly”, but it’s demanding excellence and accountability that allows a coach to instill pride and focus in his team.
When Kelly talks about poise, he’s talking about a mental toughness in failure and in victory. When Notre Dame was struggling, Kelly noted the lack of poise.
We had some guys that didn’t play with poise that need to play with poise. Championship football teams play with competitive grace, which means that when the stakes are high and the stage is great, they raise their game. Today, in that same situation, some of our players didn’t raise their level of play. That to me is poise, and we are still building that. That’s a hard thing to dig at. But we are still building that.
Poise to me is the ability to raise your level of concentration when it’s most needed. That you can’t talk about. You have to go demonstrate that. Confidence is the trust in your teammates that they’re going to do their job so you don’t have to do theirs… if you look at the Michigan game, we didn’t trust in what we were doing in the end, and consequently, we didn’t do the job necessary to win that football game.
And then what it looks like after success against Oklahoma where that toughness manifested itself as focused mental effort.
It was in the four areas that we’ve asked our kids to play this game, it was on point. We wanted to be smart, disciplined physically, and mentally we wanted to be tougher than our opponent, and we hit all four of those. As it relates to what the message was and what we wanted to accomplish, it hit all four points for us.
I covered the Physical development in depth in “Developing Players from the Inside Out’
Kelly’s goal is to make players play harder and longer than the competition while executing at a high level. As I’ve noted before, Kelly’s practices allow Notre Dame to get in more repetitions than they had under Weis. For instance, the big pass completion from Golson to Brown wasn’t just the result of just a good play call, it was the result of constant practice.
“It’s just you’re waiting for that opportunity. You can’t call it for the first time. That’s a play we’ve run, 50, 60, 70 times over the past eight weeks of repping that particular play. So it’s not for us as coaches as much of a gamble as you would think putting a true freshman up there because we’ve repped it so much. “
Making it a Habit
Will Kelly’s blueprint lead to a national championship? It’s still too early to say. I argued in late 2009 that it created a very good base (or floor) to reach the BCS, but the pinnacle involves a little bit of coaching magic and I think the jury’s still out there. Notre Dame does seem to have reached a critical base level, where the team is exhibiting a sustained high level of play. But success is something a coach has to constantly push forward by pushing the right buttons, because kids will, inevitably, slip. And Kelly noted that the team did slide before the Oklahoma game as well and he had to refocus them.
I think they knew what was necessary. We didn’t get it all the time. It’s my job to find out why that doesn’t occur. It’s my job to lean on our team when it’s not occurring. They understand how to do it. They’ve proved that they could do it. We just haven’t been able to get it week in and week out. We’re making really good progress in that respect.
So there was a great knowledge base in terms of what they needed to do. Sometimes — it’s like anything else; you have to stay on them. They knew what to do, but we have to continue to stay on them to get this to be habit forming.
Beating Oklahoma and rising to #3 in the rankings helps turn “the process” into the “habit of winning,” which is something Notre Dame fans haven’t seen since 1993. Kelly hates the word culture, but the end result is a culture of winning where players and coaches all do the small things on a day-to-day basis that reinforce each other to ensure success. The process may not have looked pretty in year two, but after an 8-0 run against the 10th hardest schedule in the country, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t worth the wait.