The third-year Fighting Irish coach has his team (12-0) set to play Alabama (12-1) in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami on Jan. 7 (8:30 p.m., ESPN) and nobody thought that was possible.
“I have not done a good job my entire career of listening to other people's expectations,” Kelly said. “I had set my own expectations for what we wanted to accomplish, and we went about it that way.”
Kelly was known for prolific offenses at Cincinnati, and much was made upon his hiring in South Bend of how this fast-paced attack was going to work. Then Kelly went about basing the success of the program on defense, first second, and third, before concentrating on the offense.
That latter unit is a pick-and-choose, play-it-safe group that is as liberal as Rush Limbaugh. Not exactly what Irish fans envisioned, but after a dozen weeks of never feeling down on a Sunday morning, no one is complaining a bit.
Notre Dame even gave Kelly a pass entering this season – something that very few coaches in his position ever fathomed having the luxury of enjoying. Fans, pollsters (the Irish weren't ranked in the preseason top 25) and even some Notre Dame higher-ups never thought this season was going to be one of great achievement.
“That was brought up to me,” Kelly said. “Those words were clearly in my ear.”
Again, Kelly didn't walk that path.
“I didn't believe nor did I want to use this year as a bridge year, a transition year,” Kelly said. “I wanted to win this year. I wanted to win not only for Notre Dame but for the seniors and everybody associated with the program.”
That is a nice preseason media day speech, but given the fact that his experienced quarterback (junior Tommy Rees) was turnover-prone and suspended (for the season opener), the Irish had lost their most dynamic athlete (Michael Floyd), and the defense was at first young, then decimated by injury, thoughts of grandeur weren't exactly realistic.
Except for Kelly.
Kelly took some of his best athletes and moved them from offense to the defensive secondary, decided to play the inexperienced quarterback (sophomore Everett Golson) who gave the team potential, and then professed a belief (beyond reason according to most) that this could be indeed a year of great things.
“We had two things going on there,” Kelly said. “We had, we're going to play a freshman quarterback, and we're not going to say, it's a transition year. We're going to give him experience, take our lumps, and move forward. I've just never operated that way.”
With thoughts of victories dancing in their heads, Kelly and his coaches formulated a conservative plan for that success, all of which was easier to design that actually implement.
“So with those two things coming together, you have to find a way to win those games, manage those games, limit possessions, hold on to the football,” Kelly said. “So because those were the two immediate factors, then you have to adapt to the way you run those games. That's how we came up with the formula this year to play the way we've played.”