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SOUTH BEND – Somewhere along the Midwest highways that connect the towns of Allendale and Mount Pleasant, Mich. and the cities of Cincinnati and South Bend, Brian Kelly lost his way.
After a couple of years of learning how to be the football coach at Notre Dame, he vows to find himself – at the very least professionally – again.
“This job has a tendency to distract you a little bit,” Kelly said.
Having never been at the highest level of football prominence, Kelly only knew what he had experienced at the NCAA Division II and lower Division I levels. When he accepted the position at Notre Dame, Kelly was thrust into the brightest spotlight possible. So the fact that he has had to learn how to navigate unchartered territory is certainly understandable.
“There is no way to train as a coach to be the coach at Notre Dame,” former Fighting Irish player Brandon Newman said. “You have to go through it, make your mistakes and learn from them.”
Newman spent the past four seasons in South Bend before transferring to spend his final season of eligibility at Ball State. There are stark differences between the two programs according the Newman, one of which is the accessibility to the head coach.
“I told (Ball State coach Pete Lembo) 'You have to understand how surprised I am to see the head coach's office in the front of the complex and door wide open,” Newman chuckled. “There is not a negative sense of coaching in the ivory tower.”
Kelly admitted that he has made the mistake of drifting too far into the day-to-day operations of the job and away from why he got into the profession in the first place, and that is to work with student-athletes.
“When there is not the kind of results that you are looking for,” Kelly explained, “you've got to look at yourself first. That's where I looked.”
During Notre Dame's initial practice of the 2012 season on Saturday, Kelly was running drills with the quarterback himself. It was he that was delivering the instruction down to the smallest detail, not a position coach, and he appeared to be reveling in it.
“I just need to be involved,” Kelly said. “I need to coach. I need to be in the trenches. I need to be around our guys.”
Earlier this year, Kelly sought to improve his personal relationships with his players. The fact that he wasn't really accessible bothered the coach and he began making a concerted effort to meet with players weekly.
“My emphasis was spending more time with the players,” Kelly said. “Getting to know them better and letting them get to know me better rather than just sitting up in an office and 'Well, there's where the head coach at Notre Dame sits.' I've never been that kind of coach and I felt myself sliding towards that.”
Lembo used the term “family” to describe his program and when speaking with the veteran coach, you truly get the sense that it isn't just rhetoric in a recruiting sales pitch. Ball State senior captain Travis Freeman recently explained that he often spends more time discussing life with the Cardinal coaches than he does schemes and blitzes.
“At the end of the day, it is management and organizational behavior,” Lembo said. “If you have a group of people that are highly motivated because they are excited to be a part of that organization, and there is a culture, where there are high expectations, but it's a family, you are going to get more out of them. Whether it's football or whether you're working at IBM.”
Like Lembo, Kelly believes the relationship building can – and will – translate to success on the field and also help in his own professional development.
“Some (coaches) are better sitting up on the tower,” Kelly said. “Some are better being hands-on. I need to be a better head coach and that is what my strengths are and I'm going to them.”