SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly knew it was time for a change.
The third-year Notre Dame coach didn’t feel as connected to his players as he wanted, and back-to-back 8-5 seasons solidified his desire to return to his comfort zone and be a more hands-on leader.
“It started back in January when I was committed to being a better head coach in the sense that I needed to spend more time with my players,” Kelly said. “This job has a tendency to distract you a little bit. I took (the job) because I wanted to coach, and I wanted to be around the guys.”
Kelly said he started meeting with his players every Monday to improve the relationship he had with them and they had with him.
The goal of forming a closer bond appears to have worked as players raved about Kelly’s new approach after the Irish’s first fall practice Saturday.
“You see that coach is going out of his way to get to know his players,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. “He’s done a great job of that, and he’s done a great job of trying to get to know us and gain that trust. We’ve gotten to know him. I think that has really helped our team.”
Receiver John Goodman, a Bishop Dwenger graduate, said Kelly is more relaxed this season, and the coach made it a point to let the players know how much of the team’s success is in their hands.
“He came in here and told us, ‘It’s your team. I’m going to lead you, but it’s your team,’ ” Goodman said. “We realize that, and we have a lot of leaders. He’s doing so many things for us to make us a better team. He’s helping us out as a football team and doing anything he can to get us better.”
Kelly said he thinks the players are more comfortable stepping into leadership roles because of the improved relationship with not just him but also the rest of the coaching staff.
“I think there is just the comfort level with the staff, myself, everybody that is involved in the program,” Kelly said. “I think it allows the players to feel like they can step up out front and be a leader and not have a mixed message. I think that just happens with time.”
Running back Theo Riddick said Kelly, whose sideline tirades have drawn criticism, isn’t yelling as much this year. Riddick also said Kelly is allowing players to police themselves more.
“He comes to us first, and we do all of the yelling,” Riddick said. “I think that is a great transition because it all depends on who it is coming from and where it is coming from. I think when it is player-to-player yelling, they won’t take it as offensive versus a coach yelling. I just think that has helped us out so far.”