Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts on Coach Kelly

My Dad reminded me a few weeks ago that I hadn't yet chimed in with my opinion on Brian Kelly being hired as the new head football coach at Notre Dame. He was right, as he often is, but at the time I didn't really have anything intelligent to add to the conversation beyond "Yippee!" I wasn't surprised by the hire, as loyal OC Domer readers will recall that I confidently posted here on November 18th that his hiring was "all but a done deal." And of course I am extremely pleased that Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick targeted and landed a coach who was arguably the most qualified candidate he could have possibly lured to South Bend and a man who is easily the best prepared head football coach Notre Dame has hired since Lou Holtz.

To me, Coach Kelly perfectly fits the model that has produced National Championships for Notre Dame in the past. As I wrote during the long November of 2009 when we were all waiting for the curtain to come down on Charlie Weis' tenure at ND:

For me, the preferred model is the one that has made Notre Dame most successful in the past. Hire a coach who has been a very successful college head coach elsewhere. Find a guy who has displayed a knack for over-achieving at a "lesser" program, of doing "more" with "less." Frank Leahy was very successful at Boston College before coming to Notre Dame. Ara Parseghian won at Northwestern. Dan Devine won at Arizona State and Missouri. Lou Holtz won at William & Mary, North Carolina State, and Arkansas.
I don't think people truly appreciate how important experience and sustained success as a head coach is as a predictor of future success. People tend to think of Ara Parseghian as a young "up and comer" that we snatched away from Northwestern. But did you know that Ara was the head coach at Miami University for five years and at Northwestern for eight season before landing the Notre Dame job? That's thirteen years of incredibly important experience in the top job before coming to ND. Dan Devine had spent three years as head coach at Arizona State, thirteen years as head coach at Mizzou, and four years as head coach of the Green Bay Packers before coaching under the Golden Dome. That's twenty years as a head coach in Division I and the NFL. Lou Holtz's head coaching career before Notre Dame included three years at William & Mary, four years at N.C. State, one year with the N.Y. Jets, seven years at Arkansas and two years at Minnesota. That's seventeen years as a head coach before leading a team into Notre Dame stadium.

Contrast the above list of Championship coaches with this list: Gerry Faust (No college head coaching experience prior to ND); Bob Davie (No head coaching experience prior to ND); Ty Willingham (Seven seasons HC at Stanford); Charlie Weis (No college or Pro head coaching experience).

When looking at what has worked versus what hasn't worked historically at Notre Dame it should be painfully obvious that if you want to have a reasonable chance of football success you must hire a coach with significant experience as a head coach. Even Ty Willingham's seven years of HC experience at Stanford wasn't enough to prepare him for true success at Notre Dame. On the other hand, Brian Kelly's twenty years as a head coach at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati makes him more experienced than either Holtz or Parseghian and puts him on par with Dan Devine.

Take that twenty years of experience, give it to an Irish Catholic kid from Boston who has always dreamed of coaching at Notre Dame and who is a bundle of energy and seemingly a natural motivator and leader, and you have to expect that good things are about to happen for Notre Dame football.

So, to answer my Dad's e-mail, I'm pretty pumped about the beginning of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.

Having had the time to sit back a little and watch as Coach Kelly has gone about the task of retooling the Irish football program, I do have some initial impressions that I would like to share.

Players. Coach Kelly has his own definite notions of the type of players he wants in his program. He calls them RKGs (Right Kind of Guys). He wants young men who are football players. Not necessarily the most gifted or talented guys, but guys who love the game and who will work hard to be prepared to play hard on Saturdays. He wants guys with heart and passion and work ethic and discipline. He wants guys who want to be at Notre Dame and who really, really, want to wear that gold helmet and play for the Fighting Irish. He wants guys he can trust to be selfless and committed to the team and to their teammates. Prima donnas need not apply. I think he wants Rudy, but with more size and 4.4 speed.

Of course, not every 4-star and 5-star prospect will fit the RKG mold. Many of the most talented players choose their college with one eye focused on a future NFL career. Sure, they want to win. But it's at least as much about them as an an individual pro prospect as it is about the team. It's about making highlight reel big hits rather than a sure tackle. It's about the big breakaway run rather than putting your head down and getting a first down. It's about not getting hurt rather than going all out on punt coverage.

Notre Dame is already limited in the pool of 4- and 5-star recruits we can really pursue due to above-average academic standards. That pool is clearly going to be narrowed a little bit more as Coach Kelly and his staff weed out players who are not RKG material. We may not see it this year as Coach Kelly nails down a recruiting class that was mostly selected and secured by Coach Weis' staff, but in February 2011 I think Irish fans are going to be very surprised by how the pundits rate Coach Kelly's first true class of recruits. I expect that class to be rated much lower than Charlie Weis' classes have been. Part of it will be the result of the RKG test discussed above. But a larger part will be that Coach Kelly has his own very strong opinions about the types of athletes that will perform best in his system.

I'll discuss it more below, but Coach Kelly has a very definite system and style of play that he coaches. He wants to recruit RKGs who will get the most out of his offensive and defensive system. He does not believe that or are as good at evaluating prospective players as he is. If he really likes a tackle for his offense who is "only" rated a 3-star prospect, he is not going to lose sleep over it. If the 3-star guy is a better fit than available 4-star guys, he'll take the 3-star guy. I think we'll see this play out all over the depth chart, on both sides of the ball.

Now, this isn't to say that future Notre Dame recruiting classes are going to look like recent Cincinnati classes. Clearly Coach Kelly will have access to a bigger, more talented pool of RKGs than he did at Cincy. But where Charlie Weis' recruiting classes were generally Top-10 caliber and even Top-5, I fully expect Coach Kelly's classes to be in the second ten (ranked 11-20) rather than Top 10.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. One of the great laments for Irish fans in recent years (as during the Gerry Faust years) is that we keep bringing in highly touted recruiting classes, but it isn't translating into wins on Saturday. So what is happening? Are the coaches failing to develop the players to their potential? Are the players not working as hard as they should? Are the folks at and who rank these players full of baloney?

I think one of Coach Weis' problems at Notre Dame was that he was prisoner to the star system. Certainly when he first arrived it was important to him to create the impression that Notre Dame was on the way back. One quick way to do that is to land some big recruits, create some buzz, and use that buzz to land more big recruits. And it worked, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Bringing in Jimmy Clausen certainly helped land other talented skill players. But were all these guys good fits for Charlie's system? Were they RKGs? Were they really as talented as their star ratings? I think Charlie paid too much heed to the star system and I think he lacked Coach Kelly's confidence in his ability to evaluate the college potential of high school football players.

So after several seasons of watching highly ranked recruiting classes under-perform on the field, I am more than willing to try another approach: Taking less-heralded RKGs and seeing them get coached up so that they over-perform on Saturday.

Coaches. Let's face it, Charlie Weis never really figured out how to evaluate and hire good coaches. Having never been a head coach, and not having any college coaching experience, the pool of guys he could draw on to join his staff based on personal relationships was small. So he had to rely on the recommendations of his NFL buddies on who would be good hires. And maybe these guys were good coaches. But they had never coached with Charlie, and they came from different systems, and in my view it never really came together as a full staff. I think the offensive staff this past season was (finally) excellent. But the Tenuta/Brown experiment on defense didn't work. The inexplicable loyalty to John Latina as O-line coach was, well, inexplicable. I don't want to dwell on it, but I file it under "lessons learned" that hiring an all-star hodge-podge of guys with no common experience is not the way to build a staff.

Coach Kelly has gone another direction. With a few exceptions his new Notre Dame staff is a group of guys that have coached with or for him before, in some cases for many years. These guys know each other, they trust each other, they know the system and trust the system. They are on the same page and pulling in the same direction from day one. (Cliche' alert!) They aren't big names or all-stars. They don't have much NFL experience. They are career college coaches who have won championships with Coach Kelly before, and who expect they will do so at Notre Dame.

The relative lack of name recognition and complete lack of Super Bowl rings will probably make recruiting just a little more challenging. But Coach Kelly isn't as worried about recruiting as he is about what happens to the players once they arrive at Notre Dame. He wants coaches who he knows can teach his system and who he knows can develop young high school players into the best college players they can be. He believes this staff of coaches will do that.

System. Through twenty years of learning and growing and evolving as a head coach, Brian Kelly knows who he is and he knows what type of football he wants to play. He has a system. It isn't an exotic or gimmicky system (although it may seem a little exotic to Notre Dame fans at first). It's a fully developed, established and de-bugged philosophy and playbook on both offense and defense. On offense they run a wide-open spread attack that features footballs flying all over the yard. On defense they run a base, balanced, aggressive 3-4.

In sharp contrast to Coach Weis' philosophy of trying to out-scheme opposing teams ("schematic advantage" anyone?), Coach Kelly's goal is to have his players learn his system inside and out and then out-play (out-execute) opponents. Rather than trying to find and exploit individual match-ups to win games, Coach Kelly is in effect telling opponents "This is who we are, this is what we do. Good luck stopping us." It reminds me of the Notre Dame teams under Lou Holtz. Under Lou everybody knew we were going to run the option or hand the ball to Jerome Bettis. Stopping it was another matter. Bill Walsh's 49er teams led by Joe Montana were similar. Opponents knew what plays the 49ers were going to run. But the plays, if executed properly, put so much pressure on a defense that they were impossible to stop.

Having a clear system has several advantages. First of all, as discussed above, it allows you to be very precise in targeting recruits that fit your program. If you are a spread offense you need nimble offensive linemen and versatile running backs who can run routes and catch the ball. Giant tackles who can drive block but who can't move laterally, or fullbacks who can't catch the ball out of the backfield are not good fits, so you don't pursue those guys. On the defensive line, you need big guys that can anchor that 3-4 defense, not pass-rushing defensive ends who can't stand up and play linebacker. Having a clear philosophy and system on both sides of the ball allows you to focus on finding RKGs that are the best fit for your program.

Second, having a clear system gives players a sense of identity and therefore a sense of confidence. They know who they are are. They know what their role is. They know what they are supposed to do. The fundamentals of the system stay the same from the time they enroll as freshman until they are getting significant playing time as juniors and seniors. Practicing the same fundamentals, the same techniques, the same playbook over a course of several seasons breeds confidence, it breeds trust in the system and in their teammates. it allows players to react on the field without having to think about it, it allows players to play faster with fewer mistakes. I'll talk more about it below, but having a familiar system that is consistent from week to week and from year to year leads to what Coach Kelly calls "unconscious competence", which means that you have become so adept that you know what to do and how to do it without even having to think about it. It becomes second nature.

Compare the above concept of an established system with a defense that changes each year from a 3-4 (with 4-3 personnel) to a 4-3, and then back to a 3-4, and that changes defensive coordinators every year. Or an offense that is experiencing a competition at quarterback among four players who are inexperienced in the base offense while trying to also install a gimmicky "wildcat" offense that will hopefully "surprise" the opening day opponent. Do you think those players are gong to be thinking a little too much on game day? Is it any wonder the O-line played in slow motion on opening day 2007 against Georgia Tech? In retrospect, to a lesser degree one has to wonder if Charlie's attempts to out "X" and "O" opponents by devising a clever new game plan every week just slowed the guys down by forcing them to think too much, rather than just executing with confidence.

Development. Listening to his press conferences and reading his interviews, it is clear that Coach Kelly believes that the way to win football games is to develop players. Not recruit players. Develop players. He believes in developing them as players on the field, and as people off the field, in the classroom, and in the community. I'll be focusing here on development as players on the field.

All the topics I discussed above tie into the concept of player development. Getting the Right Kind of Guys (RKGs) who are passionate about the game, and who are disciplined and committed and willing to work hard to become better players. He hired a coaching staff of guys he knows to be great teachers and great at helping young men reach their full potential. And he has an established system which is designed to lend itself to and reinforce the development of players.

I have heard Coach Kelly mention the concept of "unconscious competence" more than once. It's an odd phrase and one that I was not familiar with, but it seemed to be fundamental to his coaching philosophy, so I looked it up. It isn't a new concept, but it is a powerful learning model that one can easily see would lend itself perfectly to teaching football. If you look it up you'll see these concepts referred to variously as the "conscious competence ladder" or the "conscious competence model" and so forth. I found one web page that did the best job of explaining the concepts fairly succinctly, so I'm going to borrow liberally from it below, but I encourage you to go read the full article at if you want more information.

The conscious competence model is a conceptual way of looking at the transition from a state of blissful ignorance of a skill to mastery of that skill. It can be applied to almost any endeavor, but I'm going to look at it in the context of football.
Level 1 - Unconscious Incompetence (You Don't Know that You Don't Know)
At this level you are blissfully ignorant: You have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in the subject in question. On top of this, you are unaware of this lack of skill, and your confidence may therefore far exceed your abilities.

[COMMENT: Think about that freshman running back who dominated every game he ever played his whole life and who thinks he knows all there is to know about being a running back and that he will excel as a college back from Day 1. He has no idea how little he really knows and how much he needs to learn to play at this level]
Level 2 - Conscious Incompetence (You Know that You Don't Know)
At this level you find that there are skills you need to learn, and you may be shocked to discover that there are others who are much more competent than you. As you realize that your ability is limited, your confidence drops. You go through an uncomfortable period as you learn these new skills when others are much more competent and successful than you are.

[Comment: Think about the freshman running back who gets into Fall practice and realizes he isn't the fastest or strongest guy on the field anymore. He is having trouble reading the defense to run in the correct hole or figure out who to block. He keeps getting tackled for no gain in the scrimmages and run over by linebackers in drills.]
Level 3 - Conscious Competence (You Know that You Know)

At this level you acquire the new skills and knowledge. You put your learning into practice and you gain confidence in carrying out the tasks or jobs involved. You are aware of your new skills and work on refining them.

You are still concentrating on the performance of these activities, but as you get ever-more practice and experience, these become increasingly automatic.

[Comment: Following good teaching and coaching and repetition in the familiar system, the young running back learns how to read the defense, how to find the hole, who to block and how to block them. Now he's ready to get on the field on Saturday.]

Level 4 - Unconscious Competence (You Don't Know that You Know - It Just Seems Easy!)
At this level your new skills become habits, and you perform the task without conscious effort and with automatic ease. This is the peak of your confidence and ability.
[Comment: Now the young running back can spot the holes and pick up the blitzer without having to think about it. It's automatic and second nature. Now the player can let his natural abilities and instincts flow, and he'll be playing fast and with incredible confidence.]

It seems obvious once you read through it. And once you understand the learning model, you can see how important it is that the players are being developed within an established system. In order to play fast and with confidence, the players have to get to level four - unconscious competence. They can only get there if they get enough practice and repetitions in the fundamentals of the system to make their play reactive and automatic. Any time the coach changes the system, or introduces a new series of plays or a new defensive concept, all the players get knocked back down to level 2, conscious incompetence, and have to work their way back up to level four. With good coaching they will get to level 3, conscious competence, within a reasonable period of time. But only with a sufficient number of repetitions and practice will the team get to level 4 on the new concepts.

Under NCAA rules the coaching staff only gets so many practice hours with the team each season. They can only squeeze so many reps into that time. A choice has be made, a balance struck, between how much playbook is installed and what percentage of the time will the players be playing with unconscious competence. It is clear that Coach Kelly places a premium on running a more limited, but known system extremely well rather than installing a more diverse playbook that the players can only execute at level 3, conscious competence.

Conclusion. Having watched Coach Kelly from my perch out here in California, I have been very impressed. His enthusiasm is palpable, and from his opening press conference I had no doubt that his players will be fired up and ready to run through walls come September. Hell, I'm ready to button my chin strap and go play. I've still got four years of eligibility to burn!

But as I've examined his moves and tried to get inside his head, he is even more impressive. He is completely ready for this challenge. Not only does he know football. It's clear from the discussion of "unconscious competence" above that he has been studying leadership and psychology and teaching for the past twenty years and he is fully equipped to take the young men who choose to go to Notre Dame places even they don't realize they can go.

Welcome to Notre Dame Coach Kelly! Go Irish!


Anonymous said...

Thank you! You speak very kindly about old people.

Excellent post, as they often are.


Anonymous said...

VERY well done article on our newest version of Football Savior. While many articles have mentioned things Coach Kelly values (RKGs! spread offense= a bajillion points! Camp Kelly!!1!!), few have ever fleshed out what these terms truly mean for the program, and what we should expect to see on the field on Saturdays. Well done, sir.

valpodoc said...

In medicine we refer to the four levels as: dumb and think your smart (most dangerous), dumb and know your dumb, smart and think your dumb, and smart and know your smart. Seems to me Kelly level four. I think he will work out.

Anonymous said...

Well said.. I only hope you are right!!!

Anonymous said...

Another great post.

Great to see some enthusiasm for this coaching staff during this dark period of uncertain recruits and anonymous posters on message boards.

Go Irish.

Anonymous said...

The defense is anything but fully developed, established and debugged. Kelly fired his DC last year and switched to a 3-4 this pat year. They struggled. The offense has yet go click against a top team like Florida.

Good article, but it's all still a WIP.

Anonymous said...

OC Domer, excellent post, and I believe you are correct with your analysis.

If the Kelly way works for Notre Dame, it may be the beginning of an evolution on how head coaches run their teams...especially recruiting.

I think it would be great for college football if someone could prove the "star" wars are absurd. Lemming has already voiced his disapproval with the Kelly system. That makes me wonder if Rivals and ESPN are wondering about the Kelly way.


jay said...

Rich Rodriguez has NEVER lost to a Brian Kelly team.