SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Brian Kelly has his dream job. Now he has to figure out how to turn a Notre Dame program mired in mediocrity back into a national championship contender.
Just as did when he was introduced as the new Cincinnati coach three years ago, Kelly talked at his introductory news conference Friday about having a five-minute plan, not a five-year plan that reflects the length of his contract.
“When I refer to the challenge, it’s strictly getting to that high bar that’s been set at Notre Dame,” he told a standing-room crowd of 200 people, including his family. “We’ve got challenges, but we’ll go to work on those right away.”
Kelly left an undefeated Cincinnati team that is ranked No. 4, bound for the Sugar Bowl and may have been 1 second away from playing for the national title. The Irish are nowhere near that close and haven’t won it all in 21 years.
Kelly wouldn’t say how far away he thinks his new team is from that level, saying where the team now isn’t important.
“These young men want to win, and that’s why I’m here at Notre Dame,” he said. “I want to be around men that are committed, and we can’t trade anybody. There’s no waiver wire. We’re going to develop our players, and they’re going to play their very best for us. That to me has always been the most important principle. Let’s go. Don’t tell me what you don’t have. I don’t want to know about it. Tell me what you can do to help us win.”
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the 48-year-old Kelly was the first candidate he spoke to and the only one he offered the job to. Kelly wisecracked that he didn’t “doodle the ND diagram” while at his other jobs, but hoped he could one day run the Irish and called the job the “culmination” of 19 years of coaching.
Kelly said he was ready to get to work restoring Notre Dame’s traditions.
“Those aren’t 8-4 years. Those are national championship years,” he said. “So any time you’re talking about restoring a program and the challenges, it’s not about winning the conference championship, it’s about winning championships and being in the BCS and being nationally prominent. That’s a challenge. We’ve got to get to work on that.”
The question is whether he can succeed where his predecessors failed, returning Notre Dame to BCS prominence and keeping the fans on his side.
Notre Dame has gone 16-21 over the past three seasons and is losing two of its best offensive players. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his favorite receiver, Golden Tate, announced Monday they will enter the NFL draft.
The last three Notre Dame coaches started with six-year deals — Charlie Weis, Tyrone Willingham and George O’Leary, who resigned five days after his hiring. Before Kelly, the last coach to get a five-year deal was Bob Davie, who took the job after the 1996 season.
Like the coaches before him, Kelly talked about getting home from church as a youth and listening to Lindsey Nelson give the highlights during rebroadcasts of Notre Dame games. Unlike Weis, who was contentious with the media in his opening news conference, Kelly was as smooth as a politician he once planned to be.
He said everything the Irish faithful wanted to hear about embracing the school’s high academic standards and bringing in “RKGs,” the right kinds of kids.
“I can tell you today is that our football players will continue to represent the model of Notre Dame,” he said. “I want tough gentlemen. I want football players that are mentally and physically tough, that will play for four quarters. And I want gentlemen off the field that we all can be proud of.”
Kelly met with his players for 25 minutes Friday and came away with the feeling they are eager to get started.
“They want to be led. They want to be developed. I could tell that immediately,” he said. “You do not come to the University of Notre Dame because you want to be average. You want to be the best of the best. That’s why I’m here.”
Irish players said they were excited about their new coach. Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is from Cincinnati, said he’s been getting calls from Bearcats players and other friends who attend Cincinnati.
“I’ve heard nothing but great things so I’m excited to get things going,” he said. “I’ve gotten a few text messages saying that I’ve stolen their coach.”
“It’s great to see the versatility he has. Obviously he’s a tremendous coach,” said Crist, who hopes to be ready for spring practice after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Washington State on Oct. 31. “I’m very excited and anxious to get working.”
And so is Kelly, who officially starts Monday on the job he has wanted since he was growing up in Chelsea, Mass.
He won’t have a difficult time stirring the Irish faithful, who are by now familiar with his successes at Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. The school said 74,026 computers were linked to the news conference through the Notre Dame Web site.
Asked if he wished he had stayed at Cincinnati long enough to coach against Florida in the Sugar Bowl, Kelly said: “You would always want it to end with the best story. The best story would be that I get to coach in the Sugar Bowl.
“But I’m at Notre Dame now, and this is where I want to be.”
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