SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly looks ready to go Lou Holtz on the college football world.
By that, I mean he's primed for a decade's worth of excellence, annual double-digit wins and continual acclaim for motivational and strategic genius. At the end, they can build the statue.
Is that too much hype too soon?
I don't think so because Kelly is one win away from the magical third-season national title, from an undefeated season and from being certified as Notre Dame's next legend in progress.
In his news conference Monday previewing the No.1 Fighting Irish's showdown with No.2 Alabama on Jan.7, Kelly came across as part coach, part entertainer, part salesman, part public relations director. That's a four-part plan first used by Holtz to restore Notre Dame to glory way back in the 1980s when restoration was then deemed impossible.
Kelly faced an even more skeptical national audience than Holtz did back when he picked up the pieces left by Gerry Faust. Kelly's predecessor, Charlie Weis, was a bit of a Faust in his own right, only less personable. Both loved Notre Dame. Both were over their heads.
Kelly proved this year he has the Notre Dame job down. History shows you have to get that Notre Dame job down by your third year or you're never going to do it.
That magical third year – a national title year for Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Holtz -- didn't start as a real possibility to Kelly. His team was unranked and unnoticed, to the extent a Notre Dame team can be unnoticed. He went with the freshman quarterback in Everett Golson, but didn't seem entirely confident in him at first.
That's where our assumptions were wrong. Kelly believed in Golson, but needed to mold him. And he believed in his team, from the rookie to the veterans Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert.
“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, not only for Notre Dame but for the seniors and everybody associated with the program.”
There were games Notre Dame could have lost, perhaps should have lost. Purdue and Pittsburgh comes to mind. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said he looks back at the Purdue win and says “it's mind-numbing how pathetic we were.” By the USC finale, he said, they didn't even look like the same team.
Notre Dame survived those rough patches. They kept winning while other teams dropped off.
In doing so, Kelly put to rest the nearly 20-year-old question about whether Notre Dame could challenge for a national title. The number of columns and features proclaiming Notre Dame's irrelevance on the national scene were virtually endless. They're all irrelevant now.
Why has Kelly been able to push the Irish to the verge of a national title when Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Weis were not? It's hard to quantify. He has that extra ability to get the most out of his players, to find ways to win without looking like a dominate team.
Through his guidance, and the staff he's put in place, he developed the type of atmosphere essential to success.
Maybe it's easy for everyone to be on the same page when you're winning, or maybe you're wining because everyone's on the same page.
“I think this team is 12-0 just because of our unity,” Golson said. “That really serves as the foundation of great teams for me. That's one thing you saw in this team earlier in the year – our togetherness and understanding what we've been through in the spring and summer, and taking that in.”
Not every coach can make that happen. Every Notre Dame coach since the beginning of the program has carried his share of arrogance about the program and why it's different. In their eyes, they believe it's special.
The problem is, only a select few are able to mold that arrogance into a more humble outward confidence that spreads through the program. Holtz's self-deprecation sometimes crossed into self-caricature. But, like Holtz, Kelly can walk into a recruit's home, sell Notre Dame with smooth sincerity and, now, with some tangible big-time winning.
They used to ask Kelly why Notre Dame had so much influence and connection to the Bowl Championship Series when it had been a mediocre program for so long. Now he can say he just needed the time to push the Irish into catching back up.
“Everything that led up to the season still made it clear Notre Dame had a seat at that table,” Kelly said. “After winning this year and showing we can win nationally against perennially great programs, we've secured our philosophy of being independent and a part of the national landscape.”
Kelly mentioned how he curtailed some of the ambassador-type functions of the Notre Dame head coach last summer to spend more time with his players, more time cultivating that elusive team concept.
Kelly looks like Notre Dame gear belongs on him. So did Holtz. Their personalities are quite different. Yet they share that single-minded focus and understanding of what it takes to make Notre Dame a power.
Finally, the Irish are back. Win or lose against Alabama, Kelly looks like he has them here to stay.