Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly on his ‘Never get satisfied’ philosophy as he enters Season No. 10 in South Bend
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The brand new indoor practice facility is sparkling. Much like the highly ranked team filtering into it, it contrasts with the Old World campus architecture surrounding it.
One such nearby castle houses Notre Dame’s football program, its decades of trophies and a team meeting room with a 2019 schedule on the wall that starts with Louisville and ends with the College Football Playoff semifinals and national title game.
That’s the goal, of course. As if it needs to be said.
“They know what our mission is, and that is graduate from Notre Dame and win a national championship,” head coach Brian Kelly said of his players earlier this preseason. “They know that they’re capable of doing so. Every single day, that is in front of them.”
As Kelly’s players exit headquarters and cross the street for a preseason practice, Touchdown Jesus peers down approvingly between the trees over their right shoulder. This morning, with students not yet back on campus for fall classes, they’ll wake up the echoes with musical choices that include The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and Blink 182’s “I Miss You.”
Game highlights are shown on the big screen in the new indoor facility as players stretch beneath 11 national championship banners lining the walls. The oldest is 1924. The newest is 1988, 31 long years ago, well before any of these players were born.
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To be a part of this program in 2019 is to constantly be held to standards set generations ago. The game itself has greatly changed, however, and Notre Dame’s return to national prominence has come without the same advantages.
In fact, it has sometimes been against the odds.
Clemson was an 11-point favorite for last year’s national semifinal victory over Notre Dame. And the Tigers cruised past the spread, winning 30-3 in a result that validated critics who might argue that others like Georgia or Ohio State deserved to be in the playoff ahead of an unbeaten Notre Dame.
But the Irish made it there anyway. And now, in a new season that will begin Monday night at Cardinal Stadium against a rebuilding Louisville, they plan to do it again.
“We made it to the playoffs, and we know what that feels like,” Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book told reporters earlier this preseason. “But we didn’t win in the playoffs. Now we know what it takes to get there. It’s time to get there and actually win it this time, and everyone on the team understands that.”
Upon taking the Louisville job this past December, former Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield looked at the Cardinals’ 2019 schedule and saw — of all teams — Notre Dame up first. Well, he thought, that’s not enough time.
“I told Vince (Tyra), I was like ‘Man, you could have at least given a little bit more time and start out with somebody else, I don’t know,’” Satterfield said with a smile.
It’s easy to forget now, with Louisville a three-touchdown underdog Monday night and coming off a 2-10 season, the last time these teams squared off the Cards won. On Nov. 22, 2014, Brandon Radcliff ran for 136 yards, including a late 15-yard touchdown, to push Louisville to a 31-28 victory at Notre Dame.
After bottoming out under Kelly at 4-8 in 2016, Notre Dame has gone 22-4 the past two seasons, beating LSU to close the 2017 season before last year’s playoff run.
Kelly is now entering his 11th season in charge, matching Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian while only being two years shy of Knute Rockne’s 13.
“Coach Kelly and his staff have done an outstanding job. They’ve built great depth,” Satterfield said. “I think he’s one of the longest-tenured guys there, and that’s a tough job there. You’re scrutinized in everything that you do. He’s withstood those naysayers in the middle there and done an outstanding job.”
Notre Dame ranked ninth in the USA TODAY preseason coaches’ poll to start this season. The Irish lost key players on each side of the football, but there is plenty of talent and depth returning, most notably Book, who transformed the offense when he took over the starting quarterback role during the 2018 season.
Along those lines, the Irish’s recent success has come after the hire of offensive coordinator Chip Long, a former graduate assistant under Bobby Petrino at Louisville. Long was a finalist this past season for the Broyles Award, which goes to the top assistant coach in college football.
“They took a chance on a 33-year-old kid from Memphis after going 4-8,” Long said during his speech at the Broyles Award ceremony. “Coach Kelly — I went up and interviewed with him — has been outstanding. The risk that he took, I mean, you think about it now, and it’s gutsy. … When you go 4-8 at Notre Dame, it’s a bad deal. It’s a small campus and they remind you every single day.”
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Kelly sounds confident entering this season. He likes this team’s leadership and what he sees on the practice field with some “really talented players.”
“I think our depth is outstanding,” he said. “We can play players and feel really confident, keep guys fresh on the back end of the defense. And I don’t know if we’ve had that kind of situation in a few years, so it feels pretty good.”
Yes, the Irish’s 2019 roster is deep and talented, but it’s not necessarily overwhelming in the way that last year’s opening opponent for Louisville — Alabama – would have been.
In the past five years, Notre Dame’s recruiting results have been consistent. The Irish’s signing classes have ranked no better than 10th nationally — yet no worse than 16th — from 2015 through 2019, according to 247 Sports’ composite.
“I don’t think the program changed. I really don’t,” said Todd Lyght, a former All-American cornerback at Notre Dame who returned as an assistant coach prior to the 2015 season. “I just think that nowadays when we’re recruiting, it’s just a little bit tougher to bring in a lot of the five-star athletes.
“I remember when I was here in my four years, I think we had the top recruiting class twice out of the four years I was here. … We’re at a point now where we’re trying to break into that top five, and I just think that with the diversity of college football and the landscape of college football there’s a lot more prestigious teams. With the media markets now, there’s a lot more exposure for teams, where 25 years ago, Notre Dame was always on TV, so we had the most exposure.”
In those past five classes, Notre Dame didn’t sign a five-star prospect, according to 247’s composite ratings. Meanwhile, in its past two classes alone, Georgia — which will host Notre Dame on Sept. 21 — signed 12.
Part of this is a new reality in college football. Notre Dame remains a big deal nationally but perhaps not as big as it once was.
But part of it also is by choice. Not everyone can play here, insist Notre Dame’s assistant coaches. And their statements are meant more off the field than on it.
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“One of the biggest things with Notre Dame is that we’re more selective in recruiting,” said Irish safeties coach Terry Joseph, who worked previously at Tennessee, Nebraska, Texas A&M and North Carolina. “You can go into big cities — Dallas, Atlanta, LA — and you really probably pass up more schools than you go in, because the Notre Dame fit is different than any other school that I’ve been at.”
Added Lyght: “We bring in a special caliber of student-athlete. They’re really a joy to coach. Sometimes you’ll go to coaching conventions or you’ll be other places with some other coaches and you’ll hear some of the stories about some of the other student-athletes they have to deal with. You always thank the good Lord that you have the opportunity to be at a place like Notre Dame to work with the quality kids that we do.”
New to the Irish’s coaching staff in 2019 is running backs coach Lance Taylor, an Alabama native who played for the Crimson Tide and coached as a graduate assistant under Nick Saban.
“Notre Dame is a really special place, and I felt that when I came here on my interview,” Taylor said. “It really felt like home to me. What I mean by that is growing up in Alabama and having such a great respect for Alabama football and Bear Bryant and the history and tradition, I felt those same things when I came to campus here. You see the Heisman Trophies and national championship trophies.
“And even growing up in Alabama, there is a great respect for the program that is Notre Dame.”