Photo by The Clemson Insider
Notre Dame Football

Cotton Bowl | Kelly Talks Measuring Sticks, Changes & More

December 27, 2018

Brian Kelly may have been joking at times during his meeting with reporters in Dallas on Thursday as part of the leadup to Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson, but the Notre Dame head coach clearly means business this week.

Kelly shot down the notion that a win over the Tigers in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic could put the Irish back on the national scene.

“You wouldn't be here unless we are on the national scene,” Kelly said.

He also dismissed the idea that Saturday’s game would be a measuring stick for his program.

“We understand who we are, and our schedule is a measuring stick,” said Kelly, who added the opener against Michigan was the true measuring stick for the season.

“When you go through and you win week after week, you're past measuring sticks. You're about consistency and performance. You are about complementing your offense and defense and special teams. We are well past that narrative.”

Another narrative Kelly wants to get past is how the Irish played in their last appearance on this kind of stage, a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game six years ago.

“I put that to rest the next day,” Kelly said. “That's why we're back here, building our football team, to get an opportunity to compete for a national championship.

“We put that behind us because you can't move forward unless you are building your football team. Our goal has been to win a national championship and get back to that. We are back here now. We've got to win a football game. We got a really good opponent in Clemson.”

As much as Kelly put the loss to the Crimson Tide to rest immediately, there’s no doubt that game did indeed provide a measuring stick of sorts.

“First of all, we needed to have more depth within our program,” he said. “We were pretty good with our first 44 players. We needed to get down to 85. All phases of our football team have been strengthened; offense, defense, special teams. Our front four, linebackers, backend are all really good, offensive line, wide receivers, quarterback.

“This is a much more balanced football team. That was a team that we were winning close games. That team could have been 5-7. This team was 12-0, and it deserved to be 12-0. So much more balance and depth within the program.”

Kelly also noted how he’s changed as a coach, delegating more responsibility and spending more time focusing on the mental preparation of the entire team, but many of those changes came in the wake of the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016.

“I think we developed better traits within our program,” Kelly said. “I think, what, seven of those eight games we either held the lead or had the lead in the fourth quarter.

“We made personnel decisions within our program that were difficult. We made some changes there, but we developed the traits necessary to be successful. And those traits have carried us to where we are over the last two years and that is we've won 22 out of our last 25 games.”

Kelly again shouldered much of the blame for that season.

“It always starts with the leader of the organization,” he said. “We went 4-8 because of my leadership, so I had to make changes. Nobody's going to follow somebody who thinks they know everything. I don't know everything. So, I had to make some changes, and we made changes as a group. We made changes as individuals.

“And then we follow the plan and a process that has worked for us, and we have stuck with it and been consistent with it along the way.”

Dedicating time to prepare the team as a whole allowed Kelly more time to spend with his players on a personal level.

“Building those relationships with players has afforded us a better opportunity to be successful,” he said.

The other three coaches in the College Football Playoff – Dabo Swinney, Lincoln Riley and Nick Saban – have been here before. In fact, they were all here last year.

But Kelly doesn’t feel out of place.

“This feels pretty comfortable to me, like I've been here before,” he said. “Maybe I haven't, but I act like I have. Aren't you supposed to fake it until you make it?

“I read that somewhere in a book. Take note of this. If you haven't been there before, fake it till you make it.”

Kelly has made it here, but this isn’t his final destination.

He’s still two wins away from that.

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