Coach Kelly Reflects on Challenges of 2010, And Spirit of Notre Dame That Prevailed

Notre Dame fans who came to the ND Club of Minnesota’s 2011 Universal Notre Dame Celebration on May 26 hoping to hear Coach Brian Kelly talk about depth charts, game strategies, or opponents’ strengths were in for something quite different.

The words spirit, passion, commitment, energy, motivation, service and leadership were much more in evidence.

A crowd of nearly 250 filled the ornate main hall of the historic Milwaukee Road Depot, a jewel of the passenger train system when it was built in 1899. Certainly, Knute Rockne stepped off a train at this station on one or more occasions.


Kelly, ever the polished speaker, reflected back to the day in December 2009 when he was introduced as Notre Dame’s 29th head coach.

“If you watched that event, you know I sure said all the right things, huh?”  he said with a twinkle, as if letting on that the values espoused in coachspeak are sometimes easier said than done.

“Well, it’s like Coach Holtz says, ‘if you know Notre Dame, no explanation is necessary.  If you don’t know Notre Dame, no explanation is sufficient.’

“I had been hired as head coach, and certainly I had followed Notre Dame all my life, and felt I knew something about it, but did I really know ND?”

It was the lived experience of 2010, with all its heartache and challenge, that Kelly says he really came to know and understand what he says makes the place special.

Starting with the tragic loss of key recruit Matt James, then a season marked by severe injuries to key players, gut-wrenching last-minute losses, and finally the horrible accident the claimed Declan Sullivan and left a campus community shocked and saddened, 2010 was filled with one setback after another.

“When I came in to work on the Monday after the loss to Tulsa, I thought, ‘Well, we’re either going to unravel as a team, or come together and get through this.  And when I saw the resolve of my players that day, I knew they were prepared to take some huge steps forward as a team. And by the time of the pep rally before the Utah game, when we were greeted by a huge supportive crowd, I felt like we were ready to really make something of the season.  To reach some sort of healing.”

Kelly noted: “It reminds us again that character isn’t shown when things are going well, but when things are going against you.  Then you find out what kind of inner strength you have, what your commitment is to each of your teammates, what you can muster from yourself.”

The team’s performance the rest of the 2010 season generated lots of talk of a corner being turned – decisive wins over Utah at home, Army at Yankee Stadium, USC at the LA Coliseum, and Miami in the Sun Bowl. A defense that looked lost earlier against Stanford and Navy turned into a dominating unit, and is back nearly intact for 2011.

A tragedy such as the one that claimed Declan Sullivan can never be mitigated by results on a football field. But the way the team came together and the University weathered some of its saddest days provided hope going forward.

“It all starts with leadership,” Coach Kelly told the crowd in Minneapolis.  “And in Father (John) Jenkins, Notre Dame has tremendous leadership.  A man of great strength, courage and compassion. His direction during those days was extraordinary.”

Kelly went on to also praise vice-president John Affleck-Graves and athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“Really, all the way down the line, Notre Dame has outstanding people in place.  And that’s what makes the difference.”

Kelly spoke of the ongoing job of recruiting, and noted that when he and his staff talk with prospects and their parents, “we are selling our distinctions.”

“True, you might not see the sun for a couple of months in winter,” he joked.  “You will be challenged academically. You will live in a dorm, and be part of residential life.  And after four years, you’ll have a degree from the University of Notre Dame.  And that’s a lifetime distinction.

“We talk little or not at all about ‘getting you to the NFL.’ If it happens, great.  But that’s a by-produce of what we would like to do, and that’s help you develop into the best possible young man you can be.”

It had been 25 years since Notre Dame’s head football coach had addressed the ND Club of Minnesota, back to when Lou Holtz had just left the University of Minnesota to lead the Fighting Irish. Having the top man speak is one of the perks of being honored with the Chuck Lennon Award as the ND Club of the Year.

Kelly recognized the honor, noting the many programs and achievements of the Club, and telling the members:

“I’m energized by you.  I come away from here motivated to be the best I can possibly be, because of all you have done here and continue to do.  Everything you do, you do with honor.  Your passion, your commitment, your spirit of community service…all of it symbolizes what Notre Dame is all about.”