In such a bizarre season, it’s only fitting that the center of college football in 2020 is found in America’s heartland. And so Sports Illustrated’s two college football writers set out on a (masked and socially distanced) journey to the six campuses in this Midwestern footprint. Ross Dellenger has the northern tier, trekking West to East from Evanston to South Bend to Columbus. Pat Forde is taking the southern route and going East to West, from Huntington to Cincinnati to Bloomington.
We’re rolling out two stories a day, starting Wednesday and running through Friday, as well as updates on our social media platforms, using the hashtag #MidwesternRevivalTour. Keep up to date with the entire series here.
WHY WE'RE HERE: Notre Dame is 8–0 and ranked No. 2 in both polls, its highest ranking since 2012.
SEASON HIGH POINT: Upsetting No. 1 Clemson in double overtime, 47–40, on Nov. 7.
PROGRAM ARC: The most storied tradition in the sport, it had slumbered for more than two decades until Brian Kelly woke up the echoes.
PROGRAM EDGE: The Fighting Irish have become a recruiting magnet for elite linemen and tight ends. This year's team is physically dominant in the trenches.
ACADEMIC BRAGGING POINT: The Mendoza Business School is ranked 30th nationally.
CAMPUS ICONOGRAPHY: Touchdown Jesus.
PLACE YOU MUST VISIT: The Linebacker, for a burger and a beer. Be prepared for your shoes to stick to the floor.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In December 2009, Jack Swarbrick thought his career as Notre Dame’s athletic director would end on a tarmac in New York.
The day before, inside a suite at his Manhattan hotel, he had interviewed, for a second time, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly and had agreed to hire him as the Irish’s next head football coach. But there was one more hurdle to cross. Swarbrick and Kelly were to fly to Atlanta together on a private plane from the Westchester County Airport to sign the deal in front of a team of school officials, including Notre Dame president John Jenkins.
Only there was an issue. Swarbrick arrived at the Westchester airport that morning to find a plane, a pilot and no Kelly.
Worse yet, his new coach wasn’t answering his phone. For more than an hour, Swarbrick frantically called Kelly to no avail. He even had workers at the coach’s Manhattan hotel check his room. It was empty.
No luggage. No clothes. No Kelly.
Had he skipped town? Was he reneging on the verbal agreement? What now?!
“I’m freaking out,” Swarbrick recalls. “This has gone sideways on me, and I’ve got my president flying to Atlanta. It may be the last day of my brief tenure at Notre Dame.”
A spray bottle in one hand and a pair of metallic scissors in the other, Chris Femia is busy clipping a client’s graying hair while gesturing to a signed photo of Brian Kelly on the wall of his barber shop.
“That’s him during his first year,” Femia says. “This job ages you. It’s hard.”
For more than 45 years, Armando’s barber shop has been cutting hair in South Bend. Chris’s father, Armando, opened the store in 1975, and he’s served as the barber for virtually every Notre Dame head coach since then. In fact, Armando, now 82, and Ara Parseghian were best buds. Charlie Weis still comes into Armando’s when he’s in town and so does Lou Holtz.
Kelly used to get his hair clipped here, too. For whatever reason, he stopped coming in, but there’s no hard feelings here.
“He’s the best coach we’ve had since Lou,” says Femia, 38. “He’s arguably going to go down as one of the top-three coaches in Notre Dame history. He wins a championship and it’s over—he might be No. 1.”
Eleven years into Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, he’s met quite literally every expectation except one. He’s won 10 games at least five times, has completed two undefeated regular seasons and has a 22–15 record against the Irish’s four biggest rivals (Navy, USC, Stanford and Michigan).
In this COVID-19-impacted season of 2020, he’s leading the Irish to what appears to be one of their best years yet. They are 8–0, have knocked off No. 1 Clemson and are ranked No. 2 in the latest AP Top 25. They feel destined for a rematch with the powerhouse Tigers in the ACC championship game, where they could punch their ticket (even maybe with a close loss?) into the College Football Playoff—two wins shy of checking Kelly’s final box.
Debate Kelly’s tenure all you want—and, woo boy, Notre Dame people do—but he’s on the cusp of toppling a legendary mark at this iconic place. The Irish need six more wins for a national title. Coincidentally, that would give Kelly 106 victories at the school—one better than the current record holder, Knute Rockne. His 100th win last week tied him with Holtz. He’s won 13 more games than Frank Leahy, five more than Parseghian and 47 more than Dan Devine.
All five coaches have at least two things he doesn’t: a national championship and a bronze statue outside of Notre Dame Stadium.
Kelly verbally shrugs it off during an interview with Sports Illustrated on Wednesday in South Bend. Sure, he’d like to win it all. But he accepted the Notre Dame job that December in 2009 with the one expressed purpose, and it was not to win a national title.
“Job No. 1 to me was bringing Notre Dame back to football relevance,” he says. “The best phraseology is ... is Notre Dame relevant as a football program and as a power?”
Most would say the answer is yes. In fact, Notre Dame has been ranked in the top 10 in eight of the last nine seasons and in the top 25 for 55 consecutive weeks, the longest stretch since 1994.
The man who hired him is quite happy with the result. Swarbrick, now in his 12th year as athletic director here, chuckles when retelling the story of Kelly’s hire. The coach, of course, eventually arrived at the Westchester airport, where Swarbrick angrily waited on the tarmac.
“Where the hell have you been and why haven’t you answered your phone?!” he barked.
“I ran out of juice,” Kelly told his new boss. “I didn’t plug it in last night.”
The two are long over it now. They have a close bond, working hand-in-hand to resurrect a giant in college football.
Swarbrick’s hiring of Kelly is something of a rarity. Even more, it came after the Irish endured an embarrassing 14-year run of four fired coaches, including one, George O’Leary, who never coached a single game.
Swarbrick, a long-time attorney in Indianapolis, had been on the job only a year when he fired the latter of those, Charlie Weis, on Nov. 30, 2009, a move that cost the school roughly $19 million in buyout money that the university completed paying only three years ago.
Swarbrick led the search all by himself. He refers to the pressure as “extraordinary.”
“We couldn’t get it wrong again,” he says.
It turns out, he didn’t. Since Kelly’s hire, 56 of the 65 Power 5 schools have changed coaches. There are only nine active P5 coaches who have been at their current school for at least 10 years, and Kelly (.730) has the third-best winning percentage among them. The two with a better mark: Nick Saban (.873) and Dabo Swinney (.811).
Kelly is comfortable enough in South Bend that he is finally building a house here, just off Notre Dame Avenue and not far from Rockne’s original home. He refers to it as his “forever home,” a place to always cherish and visit no matter what football’s future brings.
Since arriving here, the Kellys have made their home near Diamond Lake, a 45-minute commute on the other side of the border with Michigan.
“We never had a place in town to avoid the noise,” he says. “We’re at the point where we wanted to build a home in town. It’s a great way for us to be part of the community even more.”
But how did Kelly, an Irish Catholic born to a Boston politician, end up here in the heart of the Midwest?
Swarbrick’s search took about 10 days. It included about three days of prep (roughly Dec. 1–4), about four days of interviews in a Manhattan hotel room (roughly Dec. 6–9) and the most turbulent flight that Swarbrick has ever endured (it was the one with Kelly from New York to Atlanta, which he believes was on Dec. 10).
During the prep phase, he and his staff identified a list of a dozen Division I head coaches as candidates. They cut the list to six, reached out to them and then narrowed the list to four.
“We had one coach use it immediately to leverage a new deal,” Swarbrick remembers. “Literally that day. He hung up the phone and walked down the hall to his AD’s office. It reinforced that wasn’t going to be the right guy anyway.”
To avoid leaks, Swarbrick purchased a burner phone for all search-related calls and messages. He told no one of his trip, aside from his wife and Jenkins. He even went to the length of booking his own travel, flying commercial to avoid being tracked by the tail number of private aircrafts.
One day, Swarbrick got a call from his wife. She was angry. She had read a report about him being in a different city than the one he had originally told her.
“You don’t have to tell me about the search but I have to know where you are!” she yelled over the phone.
The report was wrong.
“I am where I’m telling you!” he replied.
Eleven years later, he prides himself on the search—not only the result but the process itself.
“There was not one credible leak,” he says. “Everybody we talked to, we were very clear, ‘If your name leaks, you’re out.’ We didn't care where the leak came from. ‘If we see your name in any sort of credible way, you’re out.’ ”
Media outlets from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles reported various news around the search. Dozens of names were tossed out. Depending on what you believed, over that 10-day stretch, Swarbrick had struck a deal with Rutgers coach Greg Schiano (not true, of course) and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (Swarbrick only sought counsel from Stoops during the search).
Other names mentioned included Florida’s Urban Meyer, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, TCU's Gary Patterson, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, John Gruden and UConn coach Randy Edsall.
To this day, Swarbrick says none of the other three candidates who he interviewed in New York that week have ever been identified.
“Let me say this: We made the right choice,” he says. “None of them have come close to matching Brian’s level of success in their careers.”
Kelly’s interview took place in Swarbrick’s suite at the Benjamin Hotel, positioned strategically next to the Waldorf-Astoria, where that week coaches and administrators from around college football flooded in for the annual National Football Foundation, a yearly soiree for those within the industry.
Kelly brought with him to the two-hour interview session a single binder. He took notes and he answered questions thoughtfully.
“As we developed our criteria, one of the leading things was an acknowledgement that our program was broken,” Swarbrick says. “This wasn’t about finding somebody who could bring a different offense or defense. This was about … there was not much with our program that works right now.”
At one point during the interview, the AD asked Kelly to demonstrate how he’s built a program in the past. Kelly gave a 30-minute answer so well articulated that Swarbrick sat struck in his chair.
“Most high-profile coaches who people would have wanted me to talk to, a fundamental problem with them is they say, ‘Here’s what you have to change for it to work for me,’” Swarbrick says.
Kelly had the opposite approach. The AD was sold.
Kelly, meanwhile, has bittersweet memories of that week. On Dec. 5, two days before his first interview with Swarbrick, his Cincinnati team completed an undefeated season by beating Pitt 45–44 in the Big East championship game.
He addressed the circulating rumors by promising his team that they’d be first to know if he decided to leave to become the coach at Notre Dame. Two days later, he even tweeted a message that is still up today.
“Just informed our team that Notre Dame has contacted me and I will listen to what they have to say,” the tweet said.
Despite his transparency, on Dec. 10, his team learned of their coach’s future from the media—a fact that Kelly remains sore about a decade later.
“I’ve never forgotten that. The relationship you have with your players and communicating with them honestly… it’s kind of one of those unwritten rules. If you break that, you really don’t have anything,” he says. “I have my own [theory] what happened. It’s unfortunate. The pressure of wanting to be the first to report. ... You feel this in your own business. You walk a fine line, and somebody stepped over that line. It was disappointing.”
But last year, Kelly says he got “closure” as it relates to that. His 2009 Cincinnati team gathered for a 10-year anniversary of the championship team. More than 60 players attended. They convinced Kelly to attend, too. There were hugs, tears and apologies.
“Their reason for coming back was they wanted to celebrate together with me,” Kelly says. “That felt like a healing.”
That Bearcats team finished No. 4 in the BCS standings after the conference championship games, trailing Alabama, Texas and TCU. The Longhorns were only No. 2 after beating Nebraska by a single point in the Big 12 championship game that week.
Kelly wonders aloud what would have happened had Texas lost and Cincinnati then jumped TCU. If the Bearcats were playing Alabama for the national title, what then?
“I would have coached them,” he says.
It’s unlikely that Notre Dame would have waited.
“As a coach, you’re in this to develop your players and create great relationships,” Kelly says. “But you’re also trying to get them to win a national championship. You’re not going to pass that up. No one would have expected me to, either.”
Back to the Westchester County Airport. There was Brian Kelly arriving late and having no power to his phone. After an exchange with Jack Swarbrick, the two flew through a nasty storm to Atlanta and signed the agreement, and then Swarbrick joined Kelly on a flight to drop the coach off in Cincinnati. He’d be introduced the next day in South Bend, but Kelly wanted to deliver the news to his team that night (by this point, the news hadn’t been reported).
The plane arrived at a remote landing strip outside of Cincinnati, in line with Swarbrick’s secretive process. The plane’s door opened. The stairwell dropped to the tarmac. Standing in the doorway, the two men embrace. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” the AD said to his new coach.
Seconds later, Kelly began to descend with Swarbrick watching. And there, on the tarmac, was an airport worker who had guided the plane into the landing strip.
The man glanced up at them.
“Oh,” the worker said, “hello, Coach Kelly!”