It's Notre Dame's 2011 game against South Florida and the Irish, down 16-0 in the third quarter, have driven to the Bulls’ 5-yard line. On first-and-goal, quarterback Tommy Rees takes a snap out of the shotgun, steps up in the pocket and throws a dart from the 11-yard-line to TJ Jones, the Irish wide receiver who is slicing across the field parallel to the line of scrimmage. It is a fair guess that the first moment Jones is aware the pass has been thrown is when the ball collides with his right shoulder. He slows and finally turns toward the play, just in time to see a South Florida linebacker make a diving interception.
The NBC camera soon cuts to the Irish sideline, to coach Brian Kelly. His face, likely already reddened from a summer of training camps, appears ham-like. He explodes at Jones, his lips easy to read: "Are you fucking kidding me?" Kelly becomes obscured behind a few of his players, so the camera angle changes; now you see Kelly from above and behind Jones. The coach’s face is a furnace against the receiver’s facemask. Jones walks away. Kelly follows, twitching, the corners of his mouth turned down. Jones turns and faces the field, avoiding eye contact. (It might be noted that Jones’ 42-year-old father had died not three months prior.) Kelly sticks to him, pointing an index finger under Jones’s chin. You hear the announcer say, “And Kelly might be at an all-time overcooked state right now.”
Emotions between coach and player run deeper and in more directions than a camera can show. Perhaps Jones’ brain-fart somehow constituted a true transgression of mentor-student trust that warranted a tirade out of Marines basic training. But that didn't change the optics: a college football upstart from Tampa, Florida, was shutting out the No. 16 Irish, in the season opener, in South Bend, the kind of thing that puts a head coach under a lot of scrutiny. And knowing that the literal and figurative attention was all on him, Brian Kelly, full YouTube name Brian Kelly Meltdown, unloaded on a teenager. Is that the kind of guy you'd like to play for, or have your kid play for? Decency aside, is that the kind of guy who has the simple common sense judgment to be a successful high-level football coach? On opening day 2011, Jones's treatment at Kelly’s hands seemed a possible firing offense for the most public face of one of the most visible universities in the land. A National Review blogger even noted the event, adding that Kelly “was like this the entire game.”
But a little more than a year later, Brian Kelly, on the strength of several strong recruiting classes and a high-energy defense, not to mention an excellent season from TJ Jones, has the 12-0 Fighting Irish playing for a national championship. In an era where successful college coaches like Les Miles, Urban Meyer, and Lane Kiffin deploy their charming, larger-than-life personalities to recruit and motivate players (even the humorless Nick Saban is said to be a smooth operator behind the scenes), how does Kelly succeed with an angry, unforgiving demeanor?
Kelly has always had a rep as a fire-breather, from his time at Grand Valley State in Michigan (where he won two Division II national championships) to his rise through Central Michigan and Cincinnati on the way to Notre Dame. Players from his earlier stops have no problem admitting Kelly could be harsh, but they point out that his tirades can be useful. For one, they weed out anyone who's not fully committed to doing things the coach's way, an unpleasant process, but one that ends with a tight-knit group of players all working in the same direction. One of Kelly’s stars at Central Michigan was Dan Bazuin, a defensive end who became the 2006 MAC defensive player of the year and a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. Like many of Kelly’s players over the past decade, Bazuin wasn’t a Kelly recruit. He clicked with the new coach, but other holdovers from the previous regime were not so compatible. “They were just not willing to change,” Bazuin says. Kelly wouldn’t abide the resistance and “made examples of them,” in Bazuin’s words. “In the end,” he continues, “it ended up being a great decision. Everybody took him a little bit more seriously after that.”
Another upside of a coach without a filter: transparency. There are no mind games, and no playing favorites, when every single mistake is immediately noted at high volume. Kent Smith, who had been a quarterback at Central Michigan for two years when Kelly took over there in 2004, remembers the beginning of Kelly’s time with the team as a chance to know immediately where he stood: For all his histrionics, Kelly at least was upfront, if brutally so.
“Not only is he hard on the players, he demands a high excellence out of his coaching staff, training staff, and equipment staff,” Smith says. “So top-to-bottom he demanded a lot out of the people in his organization. Some people accepted it better than others.”
The harshness can be self-directed as well. Says Bazuin: “The one thing that stuck out for me was that he never pointed at another coach or another player when things weren’t going right. He always took responsibility. And when things were going well he always praised everybody else.”
Kelly was only 31 when he recruited Jeff Fox to play quarterback at Grand Valley State in the mid-90s. During Fox’s five years there, he came to know the coach as approachable off the field but focused to the point of irascibility at practice. “I don’t know what word to use, because I don’t like to use the word 'temper,'” Fox says. “But the high heat that he would bring was a level of intensity, and if you didn’t match it, he would let you hear about it.”
Fox also saw Kelly grow up a little. During a game against cross-state rival Saginaw Valley State in 1998, Fox’s senior season, Grand Valley State fell behind 26-0. “Things seemed like the ship was sinking,” Fox says. As Saginaw lined up to kick the ball off, Fox, on the sideline, looked over at Kelly. “He looked as calm as if he was up 26-0,” the quarterback says. (Fox skips this part of the story, but in 1998 Grand Valley State beat Saginaw Valley State 37-36, part of a 9-1 regular season. The patient approach apparently worked.)
Kelly’s gift as a coach, Fox says, is to honestly recognize the deficiencies of his own team and to patch them up, year by year, echoing Bazuin's point that Brian Kelly gets angry at Brian Kelly's failures too. His team’s record improved each season at Central Michigan, and each season at Cincinnati, and substantially at Notre Dame after consecutive 8-5 campaigns. When Kelly notices something amiss, he squints and tilts his head slightly. “I know exactly what that looks means after seeing it for so long,” Fox says. “That’s not the way that it’s supposed to be going down, that’s not the way that player’s supposed to perform.”
Kelly has been squinting, and screaming, less this season. In Notre Dame’s season opener against Navy, Fighting Irish quarterback Everett Golson threw an ugly pick. Kelly took him aside and without turning any shade of beet explained to him the error of his ways. The writers in the open-air press box at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium took notice. That day, the narrative shifted: Could this be the same coach? As rising tides lift all boats, undefeated seasons have a way of washing away a host of sins. Maybe Kelly has kept calm and carried on in 2012 because things have generally gone the way of the Irish. That Navy game, in which Golson threw the bad pick? Notre Dame won it walking away, 50-10. The Irish won five games before they so much as trailed in one. They won single-possession games against Purdue, then Michigan, then Stanford, then BYU, then Pittsburgh. They ran the ball well and defended superbly, catapulting their star linebacker Manti Te’o to seven postseason trophies and Kelly to a Home Depot Award as the national coach of the year. TJ Jones had 43 catches, 559 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Really, what could there to get mad about, when life is unfolding according to plan?
“Anybody could be one of his favorite players,” Bazuin says. “You just had to do the right thing all the time.”
With reporting by Kevin Lincoln.