By Tom Coyne
The Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. —
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knows the importance of staying on message, and he has been consistent all spring.
As the Fighting Irish prepared for the annual Blue-Gold game Saturday, Kelly said he believes Notre Dame is close to winning its first national championship since 1988. At the same time, he’s telling players that they can’t depend on last season’s success leading to victories in 2013. And he’s telling everyone he plans to be at Notre Dame for the long haul and talking about being a national power annually.
It’s a task no Irish coach since Lou Holtz has been able to accomplish.
Championship-starved Irish fans are hoping he’s right about Notre Dame being close. The embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama, the second most lopsided loss ever in the BCS title game, has shaken the faith of some long-suffering fans who jumped on the Kelly bandwagon last season.
During a Sirius XM Radio “town hall” Thursday, one fan told Kelly it appeared Alabama was a “step and a half faster, 10 to 15 pounds stronger” than Notre Dame, then asked: “What do you have to do to bring the Notre Dame football program to the caliber of the SEC and Alabama?”
Kelly started by saying he believes Notre Dame is on the right path, but he believes the Irish might have been overwhelmed by the moment last January after going 12-0 and grabbing the No. 1 ranking.
“When we really sat down as a staff and analyzed it, we’re a lot closer than many people think,” he said. “You look at the score and you look at the game, we were missing tackles and we weren’t fitting plays, we didn’t protect here or catch the ball there, we feel like — and we’re realistic, we’re probably more realistic than any fan — we believe we’re on the right track, and we’re a lot closer than people believe.”
Revisionist history? It’s definitely a different message than Kelly had immediately after the game, when he said the Irish needed to get physically stronger and “continue to close the gap.”
Tackle Zack Martin said the Irish players know how much they need to improve after seeing Alabama.
“That’s what it looks like. We know we’re not there yet. But that’s what we’re working to,” Martin said. “We know we’re capable of a lot of things if we can come in and work and get everything out of everyone every day.”
Martin said the message Kelly emphasized to the team back in January was that they couldn’t count on last year’s success translating to a continuation of that this season — and players understand that.
“We’ve got a lot to work on. For people to think we’ve arrived is a bit ridiculous. We know after that game that we’re far from it,” he said.
It’s been nearly two decades since the Fighting Irish have been a consistent national power. They haven’t finished in the top 10 in back-to-back seasons since being ranked No. 4 in 1992 and No. 2 in 1993. In fact, in the 19 seasons since, the Irish have finished only two seasons ranked in the top 10 — finishing No. 9 in 2005 and No. 4 last season.
But Kelly looks at Alabama and believes Notre Dame can have similar success.
“I believe we can do it here, what they’ve done at Alabama,” Kelly said.
Kelly knows how he wants the Irish to do that. He wants to do it having a dominant defense, like the Irish did last year, when Notre Dame was seventh in the nation in total defense and second in scoring defense at 12.77 points a game. He also wants a fast-paced offense that keeps defenses off-balance with a no-huddle, hurry-up spread attack like he had when Cincinnati finished fourth in the nation in scoring in 2009 at 38.6 points a game.
“I want that as an offensive tool that we can go into a game at any time and change how we play the game. We couldn’t do that last year,” he said. “I believe we are close to being able to do that this year.”
There was a time when Irish fans weren’t certain Kelly would be Notre Dame’s coach in 2013. He interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles job on the day after the BCS game. Irish players were back at their homes when news broke and were concerned. Quarterback Everett Golson was worried if Kelly left it would mean starting over.
“But that fact that he did come back, we’re ramped up and ready to go,” he said.
Golson and other Irish players say they accepted Kelly’s explanation that he was simply learning more about being an NFL coach and determining he is better suited for college. Kelly joked when asked if he had to do anything to win players back.
“They don’t like me very much anyway so it was really very little,” he said.
Kelly said he expects more teams to contact him in the future “because we’re going to continue to win here. That doesn’t mean I have an interest.”
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the school is continuing to work on a contract extension for Kelly, whose current deal runs through the 2016 season. He said he hopes to have a deal in place by the start of the season.
So the focus now is on whether Notre Dame can contend again for a national title. The final question for Kelly at the town hall meeting came from emcee Tim Brown, the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner, about how many games Kelly expects Notre Dame to win.
“Thirteen,” he said, to applause from the crowd, explaining it was the only possible answer. “If our kids do the right things, which they have, and prepare the right way, and play the right way on Saturdays, we’ll have them prepared and I expect to win each and every week that we play.”
That’s the message Irish fans want to hear.