Can Brian Kelly Repeat His Grand Valley State Success At Notre Dame?

Brian Kelly built Grand Valley State into a champion deep into his tenure, can he repeat that success at Notre Dame?
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Brian Kelly is going into his 12th season at Notre Dame and he has yet to win a championship. In fact, he has yet to win a playoff game or a championship game. Changes are needed, and surely Brian Kelly is too far into his coaching tenure at Notre Dame to make changes ..... right?

This offseason we have seen a different Brian Kelly. His battle with LSU to land Marcus Freeman wasn't typically what we see from Notre Dame or its head football coach. His activity on the recruiting trail in the last four months surpasses what he did the previous four seasons ... possibly combined.

Talking to sources close to the program there is a different energy around the program, and it begins with the head coach.

This is just talk, right? A coach doesn't make major changes over a decade into his tenure, right?

Well, that's normally the case, but we might be seeing something different with Kelly, and it's something we've seen from him before. 

Kelly's first head coaching gig came at Grand Valley State, a job he got in 1991. Kelly made an early splash, leading the Lakers to a 9-2 regular season record and a trip to the Division II playoffs. GVSU lost 36-15 in the first round.

Over the next seven seasons the Lakers were good but never much of a threat to beat the "big boys" of Division II football. Grand Valley State went a respectable 65-24, finishing with a bunch of 2-3 loss seasons, and Kelly went 0-3 in the postseason, with two of those losses coming by at least 21 points. 

In years nine and ten, Kelly and the Lakers went just 12-9, including a 5-5 record in 1999. Something had to change, and according to an article from the New York Times the GVSU fans and alums were growing restless. Yes, Kelly was doing a good job but the program wasn't sniffing a championship, and the offense was mediocre, averaging just 29.8 points per game in his first ten seasons.

Again, sound familiar?

Following the 7-4 season in 2000, Kelly became frustrated with his program's inability to take the next step. So he decided to make a major change.

"The next season, the Lakers started 1-4 but won their final six games. Kelly, as he would show later at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, was adaptable," wrote Greg Bishop in a 2013 Times article. "He visited Northwestern and Oklahoma State, and he borrowed from their offensive philosophies to install a spread system of his own. He built around the talent that existed."

After going 12-9 in the previous two seasons, Kelly and the new-look Lakers went 13-1, losing to North Dakota in the national championship game. A case could be made that had the Lakers not lost star quarterback Curt Anes to a season-ending injury in the first round that would have been Kelly's first championship. Grand Valley State averaged 58.4 points per game prior to Anes going down.

Over the next two seasons the Lakers went 28-1 and won back-to-back national championships. In seasons 11, 12 and 13 of Kelly's tenure at Grand Valley State the Lakers went 41-2 and averaged 44.5 points per game. GVSU averaged 46.7 points per game during its first title season.

Brian Kelly At Grand Valley

Years 1-10 - 77-33-2 record, .692 win percentage, 29.8 offensive points per game
Years 11-13 - 41-2 record, .953 win percentage, 44.5 offensive points per game

Years 1-10 - 0-3 postseason record, 18.7 offensive points per game
Years 11-13 - 11-1 postseason record, 49.8 offensive points per game

What are teams winning titles in college football doing now? Scoring a lot of points.

It took some time to get there and it required a major philosophical shift deep into his tenure, but Kelly built Grand Valley State into a truly dominant program that was the envy of Division II football. It earned him a pair of national titles.

That dynamic offense is what allowed Kelly to rebuild Central Michigan (2004-06) and to lead Cincinnati to its best three-year stretch in school history, going 34-6 in three seasons. Cincinnati ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense and was second in yards per play in 2009, Kelly's final in the Queen City.

Can Brian Kelly repeat the program overhaul we saw at Grand Valley State? Can he build the elite offense he had at GVSU and Cincinnati at Notre Dame? We'll find those answers out over the next couple of seasons, but if Kelly is willing to make the program overhaul in South Bend that he made in Allendale the next few seasons should be a lot of fun for Fighting Irish fans, and the endings could be quite different than what we've seen.

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