Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has made multiple statements in the last week that lead me to believe he's starting to turn the corner in regards to making the necessary program changes to take Notre Dame to the next level.
Two things can be true at the same time, and it seems difficult for many Notre Dame fans and college football analysts to grasp this.
One, Kelly has brought Notre Dame a very, very long way in 11 seasons. Two, the goal at Notre Dame should still be winning championships, and while it is certainly challenging, it should still be the expectation, and Kelly has not done what is needed to get the program to that final level as a program.
Notre Dame fans should be able to praise Kelly for all the good he's done, but also demand he do even better, and hold him accountable when he doesn't.
One of my biggest complaints with Kelly has been statement after statement that made it seem the Irish head coach was content with where the program has been the last three seasons. He kept referencing 33-6, graduating champions, shopping down a different aisle, and my favorite, after an embarrassing loss to Michigan last season in which he stated if Notre Dame won all of its games in November, "everyone will be happy."
No, no they won't. Being really good isn't the bar at Notre Dame, being a champion ON THE FIELD and off the field is the bar.
Part of accepting Notre Dame's current place in the college football world was Kelly's insistence on focusing on the results more than the process. It is what leads Kelly to pointing to quarterback Ian Book being a "winner" and referencing his program's record over the last three seasons, while failing to show the same attention to the record against the top teams on the schedule.
The process isn't as much about winning, but how you play, and doing what you need to do on a week to week basis to put yourself in position to beat the best teams, not just beat the teams you are supposed to be.
Let's be honest, the difference between Notre Dame from 2017-20 compared to his first seven seasons is they aren't losing to Tulsa, Northwestern, Louisville, Navy and Pitt anymore. That's a compliment, it truly is, but that's just step one.
Step two is now starting to beat the Georgia's, Alabama's, Clemson's and Ohio State's.
Those four programs have been the best in college football the last decade, with seven championships between them since Kelly arrived at Notre Dame. Kelly and the Irish are 0-6 against those four teams. Three of those games came in the postseason, and Notre Dame has been outscored 116-45 in those games.
Yes, Notre Dame has come a long way, but it still has plenty of room to get much better.
That's why Kelly's comments in recent days are so encouraging if you're someone who believes the standard the head coach at Notre Dame should be held to is winning championships.
Kelly seems to be getting away from the "it's just another game" comments that have been so infuriating to hear for the last decade. No, not every game is the same, and you need to prepare your football team accordingly.
Just winning isn't good enough, and beating a 1-3 Louisville team by a 12-7 score isn't something that gets you ready to beat Clemson, or Ohio State, or Alabama, or Georgia.
This is a quote from Kelly, and it's part of the clip I provided above.
"Just focusing on winning is not enough, it's the way you play the game and the way you compete, and at what level you compete at is what translates down the road."
Now, Kelly saying this is only part of the equation. He can say whatever he wants to the media, but it's about saying it to his team, taking steps to get his team to carry this out, and then getting his team to play on the field like a team that believes it's about the process, not the end result.
What gives me confidence that Kelly has seemingly turned a corner is not that he said it during a Tuesday press conference when asked about it.
No, what makes me believe this is genuine, and marks a change in the program, is that a source reached out to me this weekend before Kelly made these comments public and told me he had talked to the team about not worrying about mistakes, stop worrying about winning and losing, stop worrying about looking over your shoulder. Play fast, play free, play loose and play to your potential.
That is a process comment, not a results comment. It's not about beating Louisville 12-7, or even beating Pittsburgh 45-3 a week later. It's about what goes into those games from a preparation standpoint, an execution standpoint, an accountability standpoint, and from a confidence standpoint. The phrase "What's important next" was part of that mantra, and it's exactly right.
Notre Dame played like a confident football team against Pitt, something we have not seen against a Power 5 opponent all season. It coincidences with Kelly delivering the new message, one his players said on Tuesday night was a change, and was different.
If that new attitude continues, it could be the beginning of Notre Dame turning the final corner as a program.
This is how Notre Dame star safety Kyle Hamilton absorbed that message, which shows Kelly hit the right notes.
Now that is the kind of attitude a team needs at its core to develop into a championship contender, and ultimately, championship winner.
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