(The Rock Report ) -“Every victory is won before the game is played.” ~ Lou Holtz
I was out having some drinks and ran into a player on the 1988 team who recounted the back story that led to the Irish’s inspirational thumping of Rodney Peete and the Trojans that year (pardon any lack of clarity here, we were a few pints deep.) A game that, to this day, remains one of my favorite Irish victories because the Irish simply beat the crap out of the Trojans.
To set the scene, USC was number two in the country, but still a favorite over the number one ranked Irish. Before the game Holtz asked the team to assemble, waited until the entire team had joined and then walked in. He announced that Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks had been continually late to meetings and that he could suspend them, but that it was up to the players to decide what to do with them (to suspend them or let them play.) Holtz walked out and put the decision in their hands.
A debate ensued and one of the players stood up and said that this was the game that would define their lifetimes, that they couldn’t let the opportunity slip away and that they should let Watters and Brooks play. But as the debate continued and while players agreed that it was too important an opportunity to lose… they also started thinking that if they believed enough, they didn’t need Watters and Brooks, that they could win without them.
They voted to leave them behind (Holtz later admitted he had made the decision already.)*
The result was a physical ass kicking of the Trojans that was the last real hurdle to the 1988 championship. Holtz found a way to turn a negative into a positive just as he had done when he led Arkansas to their memorable Orange Bowl demolition of the Sooners.
“Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated” ~ Lou Holtz
Every good coach has specific strengths, but the one thing all great coaches have is the ability to lead other coaches and players… and make them believe. Schematics are important. Recruiting is vitally important. Player management at the college level is critical. Coaching management at the highest level is equally critical.
What makes great coaches successful is not the just the ability to sell an idea but to lead their organizations through the tough times to get there. It's easy to forget that the criticism of Holtz was ear-splitting at times during his career, yet Holtz led through adversity and won.
“As a leader your attitude has a powerful impact on others. You have an obligation to develop a positive attitude, one that inspires the people around you to achieve the impossible” – Lou Holtz
What struck me about Brian Kelly at Cincinnati is that he had a horrible QB situation, actually worse than Notre Dame had in 2007, and he was able to work through it, make the players believe and turn in a very impressive BCS season for Cincinnati.
Was the quarterback situation a real and dire problem? They played five different quarterbacks during the season, of course it was real.
Just like talent was a real problem and coaching changes are problems. But Kelly was able to not just sell the idea that success was probable/inevitable, but lead them through the tough times. Kelly said,
"We lied and lied and lied… we tried to tell them everything was OK, and we'll be fine, but obviously, we were quite nervous because we didn't know how it was going to play out. A lot if it was just making certain the coaches showed a good front.”
Bearcat QB Tony Pike wasn’t even on the depth chart to start the season, but he said that Kelly made him believe he could and would win. His replacement at Grand Valley State described him this way:
"He's a salesman, is what he is," says Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin, who was Kelly's defensive coordinator at the school. "Whether it's Grand Valley State or Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he has kids believing they can move mountains. His No. 1 strength is offense. His No. 2 strength is how good he is politically at getting people to believe in his program. He sells it door to door, which not a lot of coaches will do. "I remember at Central Michigan, somebody asked him how long the rebuilding cycle would be. He said, 'About 10 seconds.'"
What many are forgetting about Cincinnati is that this was supposed to be down year for the Bearcats. They lost 10 defensive starters. For comparison, Pete Carroll lost nine defensive starters and USC stumbled to their worst season since Carroll's first.
Here's the story line on the two defenses:
USC 12 20.4 342.8 vs. Cincinnati 12 20.8 350.3
Not only did Cincinnati lose 10 defensive starters, Tony Pike, the Bearcats starting quarterback went down again this year. When Oklahoma lost Bradford, the Sooners went into their worst tailspin since Stoops' first year. Kelly plugged Zach Collaros in and he recorded a passing efficiency rating of 195 (for comparison Clausen finished with passing efficiency rating of 161.)
Only an idiot would argue that Kelly has is a better coach than Carroll or Stoops at this point, but facing some of the same challenges, Kelly improved his team's relative position from a predicted 3rd in the Big East and out of the Top 25 to first in the Big East and number 3 in the country. This comes against a much easier schedule. Still, the Bearcats own three victories over top 20 teams and their defense performed much better against Oregon State than did USC's.
“Yes, I know that you feel you are not strong enough. That's what the enemy thinks too. But we're gonna fool them.” – Knute Rockne
Urban Meyer is an asshole. Some of his players hated him even at Notre Dame, but he gets them to play at a high level. Charlie can be an asshole too, but his secret sauce didn’t worked with either his assistants or the players. In 2006, his second year, we had players dogging it on the field in what was supposed to be a possible National Championship run.
One of our posters talked to a former CMU player about Kelly, who seems more Meyer than Weis:
"Kelly was demanding beyond belief, obsessive about winning, and extremely hard on both players and assistants. He grew up a die-hard Michigan fan and remains one. He hates Notre Dame. He told me this news was his "worst nightmare." He is convinced Kelly will win a national title at Notre Dame. He said Kelly is a "winning is everything" type of coach, and he'd do what it takes -- from adjusting schemes to treating players like shit -- to win.] He thinks Kelly will recruit very well at ND. He said Kelly is a politician, not afraid of anyone, and tireless."
That, to me, sums up many of the major building blocks of success of college coaches. Looking at Kelly's own playing career, you have to like that he was an undersized, less talented player who became a two-time captain. That’s work ethic and a little Holtz, IMO.
“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you’re willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.” ~ Lou Holtz
To be successful, you have be able to make everyone around you believe and that’s not a trait normally found in nature. A top level college coach needs that leadership intangible. Some guys are brought up that way in their families, others have an intuitive sense and pick it up, some have mentors and still others work at it and eventually get it or are thrust into circumstances that somehow draw it out of them. Charlie had a mentor in Bill Belichick, but I’m not sure Belichick would win in college and Charlie doesn’t have that innate ability. Kelly, by all accounts to date, does.
Here’s a clip of Kelly on motivation (ignore the sleeping guy.)
He’s also a perfectionist. Here's how one poster who's followed Kelly described him:
”He puts his players in a position to succeed every single play, every single game, every single season, on both sides of the ball.Now his methods of doing so are very tough on his players, as he uses fear to motivate. If you have a single mis-step in practice, he'll basically tell you that you're the worst player who ever played the game, in no uncertain terms. And if you do it again, you'll hear it again. He's a tyrant, but what he does is make practice a mental grind, but it serves to make everyone a believer in him, and the games on Saturday are a piece of cake compared to practice."
Here's another player:
“I think he would win a National Title. I played for him at GVSU and he was a tough, demanding, no excuses kind of guy that gets the most out of his players and coaches or they are out.’
Micah Staley played for two years under Kelly and told eTruth this:
"He was a great coach and I really liked him, but he scares the piss out of you, that's for sure," Staley said, adding, "You played just so you didn't get yelled at. It was a good thing, because everyone would step up to the level that he expected because of his expectations… I was walking back to the locker room and he passed me and he grabs me by the shirt and kind of pulls me up to him so we were eye to eye, and he said, 'Staley, I want you to remember one thing.' He goes, 'You have four touchdowns. You could have 10 if I wanted you to.' And then he walked away. "I was like, 'What the heck?' He wanted to make sure that every player knew he was in control. That's really what it comes down to. And everybody knew that and everybody had respect for him and he was a phenomenal coach."
Now, like at a funeral, everyone says nice things about you at this point, but the difference between Kelly and Weis is obvious when you listen to Demetrius Jones, a bit of a problem player at ND. Kelly told Jones he had a simple choice, you can move to linebacker or play another sport. Jones bought into it:
“You can definitely tell that he’s a politician...It’s a no-brainer. He’s like a motivational speaker.”
Here’s another story from USA Today as recounted by his offensive coordinator, Jeff Quinn:
In Cincinnati’s final practice before Christmas break, Kelly stopped a scrimmage on a fourth-and-3 play. He screamed for Terrill Byrd, the 290-pound nose guard, to switch to the offensive side of the ball.
“I want you to run the inside zone,” Kelly screamed at Byrd, essentially giving a play designed for a shifty tailback to a lumbering lineman.
“Guess what?” said Jeff Quinn, the team’s offensive coordinator. “He got the first down. The team was just going bonkers. It was awesome. Those are the things you want to do with a team. The kids loved it.”
Kelly ended practice on that emotional high, and Quinn said the moment epitomized his magnetism.
“He’s a special person,” Quinn said. “That’s why there’s only so many that walk this beautiful earth that have the ability to do the things that we’ve been able to do over the last few years, like winning a couple of national championships.
“People always ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ Well, you do it every day. You work on winning every day. But that’s the thing Brian does best, get those kids ready.”
Brandon Underwood, a Packers defensive back who played for Kelly at Cincinnati said he had a close relationship with Tressel, whom he characterized as a players’ coach. But he said he marveled at Kelly’s ability to connect.
"He's a great politician. He could sell you water when it's raining. It could be a monsoon out there, but he could make you believe this water that he's selling, you have to have it."
After his USA Today article, Underwood had a polite request.
“Could you mention that I’d like to thank Coach Kelly for giving me the opportunity to be part of the team?” Underwood said. “I’m very grateful. I’ve been blessed to be put in this situation. I just want to say thank you. He made a believer out of me.”
Former Concord running back Spencer Calhoun, who arrived at Grand Valley in 1991 -- the same year Kelly did -- agreed.
"You want him to be up front and honest with you, no matter what the circumstances are," Calhoun said. "You'll appreciate that when it's all said and done, regardless of whatever happens, because you know you can count on someone always telling you the truth whether you like to hear it or not."
"He really challenges you to perform," Calhoun added. "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," Calhoun said.
"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, anything like that.
"You could always tell, deep down in his veins, that he was going to turn out to be a good coach -- or a great coach, which is what he's turning out to be."
Central Michigan athletic director Dave Heeke on Kelly turning around a moribund Chippewas program:
"He did that with some magic dust and with some smoke and mirrors, and some good coaching as well."
Jeff Genyk, former head coach at Eastern Michigan:
"Here's Brian's secret: He gets his players able to execute at a high level in Tuesday and Wednesday practice, and in their mind, it's just like the fourth quarter of the game. He gets his teams to be unconsciously competent. What that means, to me, is to be able to execute at a high level when pressure and adversity comes."
Grand Valley State athletic director Tim Selgo:
"You're going to get a highly intelligent head coach who is great at dealing with people. When you have that, along with someone who has proven he can win football games and get his players to compete at a high level, it's a pretty good mix. A friend of mine commented a couple of weeks ago while the regular season was going on that Brian's players play like they're on fire. They're going at a fast, high level. That's something you can expect out of his teams… Brian has a great personality. I think that would serve him very well. The last three head coaches they've had since Lou Holtz have not exactly been charismatic personalities. In my humble opinion, I think they need that now for recruiting purposes."
One of the most persuasive arguments for Kelly’s success, outside of his motivational ability, is his philosophy of execution over schemes. Here’s what Dr. Saturday said about him:
“Ultimately, this is basic stuff -- the Bearcats have added plenty of rollouts and play-action looks for the shorter, nimbler Collaros -- and the focus on Kelly (as with just about all other coaches) shouldn't be on whether he's a genius who has a chalkboard answer for everything you draw up, but instead on whether he gets the most from their players. Just about every guy who has lined up for Kelly in recent years has had success, and his teams have won consistently... and while he's a bright guy when it comes to Xs and Os, it has more to do with his ability to coach players and prepare teams in the details.”
Kelly, at least, has the building blocks for success:
- He focuses on motivating the kids.
- He focuses on execution.
- He focuses on out-working the opponent.
- He focuses on getting kids to play above their perceptions.
- He focuses on getting everyone to buy in.
- He focuses on putting kids in the right positions.
- He focuses on playing harder/longer (the viagra theory)
- He wins.
When we were evaluating coaches... seemed those are the things that all great coaches focus on. I realize Kelly has significant risk.
The key questions about Kelly are:
- Will he emphasize controlling the line of scrimmage?
- Will his pass first offense fly against a higher level of competition?
- Can he handle the pressure cooker of Notre Dame without turning defensive?
- Will his assistants be up to the task?
- Can he recruit?
- Will he be able to motivate prima donnas?
- Can he have as much success when he’s the target every week?
It is the greatest and hardest job in sports.
I’m not guaranteeing Kelly will take a seat in the pantheon of great Irish coaches, I do feel we’ve taken a big step beyond Charlie and Davieham. I doubt you will see teams dogging it on the field or in the weight room.
The building blocks are there… greatness has been thrust upon Kelly.
Irish faithful will watch closely to see if he’s up to the challenge.
** I was a few pints deep into the evening... the historical recounting of the USC game likely reflects that.
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Labels: Brian Kelly, Leadership, notre dame football