SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- "That's an interesting question, because I don't know that it fully describes what the dynamics are here at Notre Dame," head coach Brian Kelly said, beginning a convoluted answer to a simple question that had seemingly vexed the three men who held this seat before him.
He's sitting in a chair in his corner office on the eve of his seventh training camp with the Fighting Irish. The ink is dry on a six-year extension signed this winter that, should he see it through, will make him the longest-tenured Notre Dame coach not named Knute Rockne. That prospect may have seemed ludicrous after an uneven opening act in Years 1 and 2, which preceded an NFL dalliance just as he made things right in Year 3. That created uneasy tension among his constituency every time his program seemed to turn a new corner -- or worse, every time his program hit a roadblock.
Now, though, Kelly seems to want for little. Notre Dame and its 212-person travel party took off an hour south for Culver Academies later that day to start camp off-site for a fourth-straight year, and for a third-straight year at Culver, where Kelly's two oldest kids attend school. The relocation, undoubtedly a pricey one, is something of a routine now, after no Irish team left campus for camp since Lou Holtz's final outfit in 1996. And that accompanying labor force -- which includes a revamped support staff across departments like recruiting, nutrition, player development and video -- has swelled by roughly 20 since Kelly's 2010 arrival.
That's to say nothing of the more visceral changes under Kelly at a place so often averse to revisions, from FieldTurf replacing Notre Dame Stadium's famed natural grass to Under Armour replacing Adidas as an apparel provider to a long-awaited videoboard highlighting the stadium's current renovation, which will be completed in 2017. Or well, to the not-so-insignificant matter of winning.
Following the retirements of Steve Spurrier and Frank Beamer, Kelly now enters 2016 as the winningest active FBS coach (226). He's churned out six first-round draft picks in his first six years, or twice as many as his three predecessors combined to produce in the 13 years before he got here. Three of his coordinators became head coaches, with a fourth, Mike Sanford, already in demand after one season under Kelly. Kelly's run of six straight eight-plus-win seasons to start a tenure is an Irish first.
So back to that question: How long did it take this guy to get Notre Dame, and to be comfortable with himself here?
And more pertinent to his delegation, is he a Notre Dame lifer?
Second answer first: Kelly's not a coaching lifer, as if his roundabout entry into the profession weren't already a tell. His laugh when pressed on that topic confirmed he will not go into the grave with the whistle around his neck.
But what are his future plans?
"I have never been that person that has looked far into the advance of, 'Hey, I want to do this,'" Kelly said. "I was never that way even at Central Michigan, like, 'Hey, I want this job.' I was always about the immediate. I don't mind being reminded about what I did in the past, but I've always stayed in the present. I really don't know. I don't know what the challenges are going to be like in five to six years. I'll find something. I know what I like to do. But I don't have a plan other than the day-to-day here of coaching Notre Dame football.
"I'm pretty good at figuring out when I get there."
His likes, he adds, include being around people, which surprises no one familiar with his early foray into politics. And in his current profession, there is something to be said for lasting seven years in one place, especially as a father of 19- and 15-year-old boys and a 16-year-old girl who saw their dad go three-and-out at his two previous stops, at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
From his two-oldest kids attending Culver (the youngest plays prep football locally) to the family's purchase of a summer house in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the Michiana region has become the closest thing the family of five has had to a permanent residence.
"They like Cincinnati, but they don't go back there. Mount Pleasant, they don't go back there. Grand Rapids, they were too young to even remember what the street was that they grew up on," Kelly said of his kids. "This is home for them now. And that's why we bought a house up on the lake, and we'll never sell that house. So there has to be a place sometime along this journey that they come home to. And they'll always come back here now. So this has become home for them."
Getting Notre Dame to the national title game in Year 3 showed what Kelly is capable of when everything breaks right. Perhaps more impressively, winning 10 games last year despite a comical amount of injuries showed what he can do even when the football gods conspire against him.
That Kelly lifted a hamstrung Notre Dame team to within four points of a perfect regular season in his first year with all of his own recruits and didn't depart for greener pastures afterward suggests he can more or less exit on his own terms, whenever that may be.
"To really build a program is a four-, five-year proposition, to get all the pieces in place," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "And that's what we're seeing now. To me last year was a testament to this program is in as good a place as it's been for two decades. ... And '12 bought us the time to do it right."
No move may illustrate Kelly's job security -- or gumption, for the uninitiated -- than his decision this month to open the season with an offensive system that features two quarterbacks with strikingly similar skill sets.
It is perplexing. It is without any real successful precedent. It was, and may still be, controversial.
"I swear I'm Coach Kelly's favorite quarterback the way these challenges keep coming up," Malik Zaire said upon the announcement, tongue firmly planted-in-cheek.
If it works, Notre Dame may be a playoff team, making up for a green defense. If it doesn't, and both Zaire and DeShone Kizer leave, Kelly can simply turn to third-stringer Brandon Wimbush, a player good enough to start at most places.
In any event, Kelly appears in this for the long haul. He was adamant late last season about how much more control he has at Notre Dame than he ever could have at the NFL level.
Cases in point: Academics and athletics are as in-sync as they ever have been, even if the football program has had high-profile academic casualties in each of the past four years. Tax records released this spring revealed that Notre Dame has a million-dollar assistant in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Even the latest drama surrounding two arrests involving six players this month gave way to a 329-word statement from Kelly that left little doubt about who was the primary decision-maker in booting one starter off the team and disciplining several others.
"Maybe as simply as not apologizing for wanting to be good at football, and understanding that, we can be who we are academically and still be really good at football," Kelly said of the program changes. "That shift of not having to apologize in a sense of wanting to invest in football, and give us the resources, and allow us to attract the very best coaches, and give us the best facilities, and give us the things necessary to be successful. I think that dialogue, that began when I came here, and it's probably allowed a lot of these things to happen."
With that came support. And with that support came more initiative. Kelly has worn many hats in his Notre Dame reign, and the 26-year head-coaching veteran will be the first to say he hasn't always worn them all right.
But he's brought stability to a program that was in desperate need of it. He has the program thinking reload instead of rebuild for the first time in a long time, with the Irish in position to post consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since Holtz's days. Kelly is, on the brink of Year 7, as comfortable as he has ever been. And for the first time in a long time at Notre Dame, the feeling is mutual.
"I was comfortable in my own skin as a coach of 19 years, but I really didn't know Notre Dame, because I didn't go here. I didn't know the hierarchy; I didn't know the politics. I didn't know all the dynamics of Notre Dame," Kelly said. "And so that's what took me more time, was to figure out the board of trustees, the administration, the alumni -- all those moving parts and how all of that kind of comes into your life on a day-to-day basis. So comfortable in own skin really relates to knowing how to navigate Notre Dame.
"Knowing that each challenge that you're presented with, there is a code that you have to dial into to do it properly, and if you don't, you're not going anywhere. And so learning that took a few years."