SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Finally, it seems the Notre Dame football coach I thought the school hired in December 2009 has shown up for work.
Too often since Day 1, when Brian Kelly has spoken his political background becomes obvious within two sentences. Explaining tough decisions, Kelly frequently left me wondering if he was speaking from the heart or off a Teleprompter. His rhetoric always seemed as slick as his wardrobe.
Imagine my surprise Tuesday when Kelly welcomed addressing bold action that had replaced so many ambiguous words.
Asked about the two-game suspension given running back Cierre Wood and backup defensive end Justin Utupo for violating team rules, Kelly made clear that more than just the uniforms had changed at Notre Dame this year.
"This is strictly an independent decision that I made relative to the decisions that those young men made,'' Kelly said.
Kelly's unexpected, unilateral show of strength struck a contrast to the let-the-university-process-play-out approach in 2010 with a player accused of attacking a Saint Mary's College student who later committed suicide — a situation neither Kelly nor Notre Dame handled gracefully.
Kelly's new brand of tough love differed greatly from the laissez-faire atmosphere created a year ago when he sent the wrong message reinstating star receiver Michael Floyd without a suspension after Floyd's third alcohol-related incident.
Funny thing happened to the coach who underwent June back surgery to repair a herniated disk. He developed a little more spine. I don't know if the change I detect in Kelly can help Notre Dame's season. I am convinced it will benefit his program.
"These are educational opportunities for me,'' Kelly said. "So when we suspend somebody, I look at it in terms of how are we going to get this young man to live up to the standards I have for our program.''
Lately, Kelly has educated more players than any coach prefers. Besides Wood and Utupo, quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlos Calabrese will miss Saturday's season opener against Navy in Dublin. Kelly suspended the two supposed team leaders after an arrest last May during an off-campus altercation.
Throw in sophomore DaVaris Daniels being cited for underage drinking, and you understand why Kelly might have sensed a need to re-establish a deterrent his players obviously no longer feared. Maybe they never did.
But as the annual debate over Notre Dame's relevance resumes, Kelly consistently taking stronger stands undeniably restores respect that, more significantly, had diminished. With blue-chippers Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard fleeing Notre Dame last offseason, more than ever Kelly could have been tempted to let permissiveness rule. He resisted, rediscovering his way — if not a cause.
"I don't know if I think of it as we have to overcome adversity as much as you understand that with 18- to 22-year-olds, you hope everybody makes good decisions all the time,'' Kelly said. "We all get disappointed but also know they are young and we want them to learn from their mistakes.''
Coaches call them teaching moments. The irony? Recent decisions reveal more about what Kelly has learned since arriving at Notre Dame. I asked Kelly if he would have felt as comfortable making such "independent" decisions before his first season.
"I don't know that I would have been reticent to make the decision (but) I probably would have checked to make sure that I could,'' Kelly said. "I learned in my first year that there were some decisions that I can't make. I was pretty clear being in my third year that this was the decision I could make.''
Traditionally at Notre Dame, the third season determines how soon the head coach starts to worry about recruiting realtors too. Year 3 produced the first losing seasons for Bob Davie and Charlie Weis. Each was fired two seasons later. Tyrone Willingham went 6-5 his third year and was forced out before his fourth. Kelly begins his barometer season at Notre Dame 16-10, comparable to where his three predecessors stood.
Naturally, the weekly news release noted not even Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian or Lou Holtz won eight games in each of his first two seasons like Kelly did. I like their enthusiasm. But all three Irish legends won national titles in their magical third seasons, so I bet that trivia gets edited out by mid-October.
Suffice to say I don't see a 2012 national championship for Notre Dame. I see eight victories, at most, and a chance for Kelly to prove with sophomore quarterback Everett Golson and so many unproven wide receivers and cornerbacks that he and his staff really do excel at player development.
I see an opportunity for Kelly to remind everyone what impressed Notre Dame enough to hire him. Tuesday jogged my memory.