Kelly shows that winning is a process

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly did not enter his new job at Notre Dame three years ago and think that his new program would be playing for a national championship by the 2012 season. But he also did not, as he said Saturday, think that the Fighting Irish could not reach this point this soon.

If his Monday counterpart, Alabama coach Nick Saban, is the curator of The Process -- which has guided the Crimson Tide to its third national title game under him, the first coming in his third season -- then Kelly can be considered a distant disciple.

Kelly has taken the same blueprint for success that the SEC has set in dominating the college football landscape for the past seven years and adapted it to Notre Dame. The elite defense, unbending high bar and mental tests are the hallmarks of the Irish's rise from the depths of mediocrity to the Discover BCS National Championship Game, and they have Notre Dame in position to remain elite in the years to come.

They are why, despite consecutive 8-5 seasons coming into 2012, athletic director Jack Swarbrick extended Kelly's contract two more years through the 2016 season, saying that that the coach was on the coolest seat in America.

"He knew how to build a program, and he could explain it," Swarbrick said in the minutes after Notre Dame beat USC to clinch a berth in the title game. "He could articulate every element of it. He could tell me exactly what all those elements were and how he was going to address them, and that's what we were missing: the program elements.

"As you could see, we had some really talented kids, great leaders. It wasn't our problem with the approach to the game; it was the other stuff. And he knew how to build that stuff. He demonstrated it, and that compelled me."

Kelly and his staff did not make the dozen or so trips to Hawaii to land eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o. They did not make the three-hour drive East to Indianapolis to land eventual four-year starting left tackle Zack Martin.

But they developed them and the other talented building blocks they landed from SEC country -- notably Stephon Tuitt (Georgia), Louis Nix (Florida) and the since-departed Aaron Lynch (Florida) -- under the team of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, Kelly's consigliere, who has been with the head coach from Central Michigan to Cincinnati and now at Notre Dame.

Before that, he spent 16 seasons with Iowa, where three current Irish assistants either played or coached at during that time.

"They started to realize from Day 1 that our expectations from a day-to-day basis were not going to change, that we weren't going to go hard and then go light, and then be grasping the straws," Longo said. "We knew what they had to do and where they needed to be, and we started pushing them in that direction."

Just look at Stanford, which outgained Notre Dame on the ground by a 642-208 margin over the previous three seasons before losing the rushing battle and the game against the Irish on a goal-line stand this season.

"It's who we are," Te'o said. "I think it's a carryover from summer. It's a carryover from fall. It's a carryover from winter conditioning. It's something that happens. It's something that's built into us. It's something that we cultivate and that we grow here. And for us, when it happened, it was kind of like, 'See, I told you.'"

Or look at Kelly's late-season success, as his FBS teams boast a 28-7 mark in November and December regular-season games.

"I think, first of all, we have to set a bar and you have to challenge your players to reach and exceed that bar," Kelly said. "So that requires a consistency -- a clear, concise communication of what the goals and objectives are on a day-to-day basis -- and that you're not going to settle for anything less. I think there also has to be an environment where your players really enjoy the process, the process of getting to where we're trying to get to. Coming in here and wanting to improve on a day-to-day basis, having energy and enthusiasm to be the best that they can be.

"It's not in a Gatorade bottle, you know what I mean? It's something that takes time, and it takes a commitment from everybody in the room. And I think that those are things that you really can't put your finger on as much as you develop over time, and I think that's what we're seeing happen here."

This year's outfit -- which has also benefitted immeasurably from a training table instituted after Kelly's arrival -- spoke about peaking in late months, a far cry from the rude awakening they received upon their introduction to the current regime.

Summer workouts were met with a noticeable attitude difference.

"We were in the stadium a lot and did a lot of different things and repetition over and over again," wide receiver John Goodman said. "I think it made us better. And you can't go into a workout thinking, 'Let's just get through this.' But as a human, sometimes people do do that.

"But the main thing that Coach Longo preached to us was: 'Everybody's working this hard. Everybody's working this hard.' But it's not necessarily how hard you work. It's the little things. It's what you do once you get into the season and discipline and the locker room, all that kind of stuff. All the little things outside of the hard work that make you a championship football team."

Yes, the locker room. A place Kelly likes tidy, with playbooks in a specific spot in each locker, and with a double-dose of anger coming the players' ways when that was not always the case early on.

"A couple years ago we were like: 'What is he talking about? Why does he want the locker clean?' " Goodman said. "We thought it was clean enough. Just discipline. It goes back to discipline, and discipline is a huge part of success and winning.

"And when you have 105 disciplined guys working together as a team, if you get in their way it's going to be tough to beat them. So discipline was one of the main things we focused on, and having a locker room clean is one thing that entails discipline."

So, too, is execution, a switch that cannot be flipped overnight.

Whereas last year's team, a unit that was still learning The Process, let a potential BCS-bowl campaign go to waste with 10 turnovers over two close losses to open the season, this one has seized opportunity at every corner.

From recent offensive recruits KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley stepping up as defensive starters due to injury, to freshman Chris Brown's first career catch serving as the Irish's biggest offensive play of the season, the next-man-in philosophy has been on display all season long.

"During the weeks in practice leading up, there are calls that Chris had during the practice, and he knows what he's doing," Kelly said the day after Brown's 50-yard fourth-quarter grab helped lift Notre Dame past Oklahoma on Oct. 27. "It's just you're waiting for that opportunity. You can't call it for the first time. That's a play we've run 50, 60, 70 times over the past eight weeks of repping that particular play. So it's not for us as coaches as much of a gamble as you would think putting a true freshman up there, because we've repped it so much."

Kelly rode The Process to two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State. He turned it into a Mid-American Conference title in his third year at Central Michigan. He utilized it to an undefeated regular season by Year 3 at Cincinnati.

Now Kelly has Notre Dame on the doorsteps of its first national title in 24 years, which would put him in company with names such as Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz -- coaches who have done the same in their third year at the school. And, regardless of result against the Tide, Kelly has the Irish in position to make similar runs in the future, with upward of eight defensive starters returning and ESPN's No. 3 recruiting class on the way.

"I thought that it was going to just be a matter of time," Kelly said. "Again, I've said this a number of times: The guys that were sitting in these chairs the first two years as well, they did everything we asked them to do; we just didn't play the right way yet. It was going to come, we just didn't play the right way on Saturday.

"But they were committed, they did everything we asked them to do. But it was a process."