Kelly changing Notre Dame's focus

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The painting has a prominent place in new Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly's office in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

"The Original Fighting Irish" is the work of former Notre Dame lacrosse player Revere La Noue, an award-winning artist. Kelly had to have one of the prints after seeing it online.

"You don't see faces," Kelly said. "You see blue-collar. You see a bit of a swagger. You see toughness. Growing up as an Irish Catholic in Boston, that's what I remember Notre Dame being. That's been one of our goals every day -- to get that fight back in the Fighting Irish. It's good because that's who I am anyway."

It hasn't taken Notre Dame's returning players long to realize life is going to be different under Kelly, who replaced Charlie Weis as their coach Dec. 10. Kelly has instituted several changes at Notre Dame, from where the players eat and study to how they practice and dress. He even wants them to arrange their lockers in a uniform way and had large charts printed to show them how to do it.

Kelly said the changes are designed to make the Fighting Irish more of a "team," instead of individual players performing only for themselves and future NFL careers.

"Most of the guys here were more interested in whether they were on Mel Kiper's Big Board," Kelly said. "I want guys who are more interested in what they can do for Notre Dame."

With four spring practices under his belt, Kelly said his team is still adapting to the way he coaches. His practices are fast and crisp, built around 24 five-minute segments. There are no designed water breaks or rest periods. Players have to adapt to his way fast, or they'll get left behind.

"It says, 'God, Country and Notre Dame' outside of my office," Kelly said. "I think my job is to put teeth back into that. Everybody looks at Notre Dame and assumes it's special. Well, define that for me. I'm still defining 'special.' It's about team, team, team. I'm trying to get it to where they understand this is about Notre Dame, your teammates, your family and then yourself. I think they had it flipped the other way. It started with me and Notre Dame was at the other end."

Truth be told, Notre Dame hasn't been very special in quite a while. Kelly guided Cincinnati to consecutive Big East championships and BCS bowl games in his last two seasons with the Bearcats. He inherits a Notre Dame program that went 16-21 the last three seasons combined. The Irish have finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press Top 25 only once since 1993.

"We're trying to create new habits," Kelly said. "We're not changing the culture because culture is too big of a word. This is about creating new daily habits."

Kelly has changed the way the Notre Dame program operates on a daily basis. Team meetings begin at 2:15 p.m and last for 45 minutes. Practice starts at 3:15 p.m. and typically lasts two hours. Dinner begins at 6 p.m. and a two-hour study hall starts 30 minutes later.

For the first time anyone at Notre Dame can remember, the football players have their own training table. In the past, players had to rush out of the locker room to eat dinner at an on-campus cafeteria before its doors closed. If they missed dinner, players often ate fast food. A few of Notre Dame's offensive linemen lost as many as 15 to 20 pounds last season.

The Irish now have study hall inside the team's position meeting rooms, and most of their daily activities outside of classes take place in the football complex, which is fondly called "The Gug" by students. Kelly has prohibited his players from wearing hats and earrings in The Gug. He printed a new Irish creed -- "The pride and tradition of Notre Dame football will not be left to the weak, timid, or non-committed" -- and splashed it on a wall in the locker room.

There's also an Irish covenant for all his players to read every time they walk into their locker room:

"Do you care?
Can I trust you?
Are you committed?
Observe the Golden Rule.
Do the right thing."

"It's definitely new for us, with the diagram of how our lockers should look and everything else," Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o said. "It's forced us to be responsible and pay attention to details. Coach Kelly tells us if we take care of the small things, the big things will fall into place."

Kelly jokes he has a "five-minute plan" because he knows Notre Dame fans won't wait five years for things to fall into place. It won't be easy this coming season. The Fighting Irish have to replace record-setting quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the country's top receiver last season. Three starters on the offensive line, including both tackles, also have departed.

Junior Dayne Crist is the only returning quarterback on scholarship who won't be a freshman this coming season. Crist has attempted only 20 passes in college and is recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee, which he suffered against Washington State on Oct. 31. The Irish do have potential stars in receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph, along with a deep group of running backs.

Eight starters are coming back to a defense that ranked 86th nationally in total defense (397.8 yards per game) and 63rd in scoring defense (25.9 points) in 2009. The Irish are switching from a 4-3 to 3-4 defensive alignment under Bob Diaco, who was Kelly's defensive coordinator at Cincinnati.

"I think we have enough on defense to play good defense, and our offensive line is probably fundamentally the best group we have on offense," Kelly said. "There are enough pieces on offense. At the end of the day, it's going to be up to our ability as coaches to get Dayne Crist to play consistently from week to week."

The Irish have certainly lacked consistency the past three seasons. During a disappointing 6-6 finish in 2009, Notre Dame lost its last four games and Weis was fired. Weis, a former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots and a Notre Dame alumnus, had a 35-27 record in five seasons. The 21 losses in his last three seasons were the most by the Irish in a three-year span.

More than anything else, Kelly said he's trying to change the mindset of his players this spring.

"Coach Weis' pedigree was the NFL," Kelly said. "It was a different way of going about it and it was what he was exposed to. Coach Weis had the NFL pedigree and that big ring on his finger. He coached Tom Brady and led him to a Super Bowl, and he told kids he could do it for them, too. That would be my pitch, too, but I haven't done that."

Instead of selling Notre Dame's players on a possible future in the NFL, Kelly wants them to appreciate the opportunity they already have.

"My biggest surprise was the [sense of] entitlement and selfishness," Kelly said. "I think at the end of the day, there wasn't a true appreciation for what they had. I know those are harsh terms, but they're 18, 19 or 20 years old and they're playing at a school where its existence as a university is because of football. You're a football player at Notre Dame and you need to appreciate what you have."

Kelly's words haven't fallen on deaf ears, according to Te'o.

"It's definitely true," Te'o said. "Last year, people were looking forward to graduating and weren't necessarily taking advantage of the things Notre Dame was offering them. Coach Kelly really helps us realize what we have here, and we're not just going through the motions anymore. You don't hear talk about the NFL anymore. You hear guys talking about winning a national championship. That's a conversation you didn't hear last year."

By the time the 2010 season kicks off against Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 4, Kelly hopes his team has the tough, menacing and almost anonymous look of the Fighting Irish army in the painting hanging on his office wall. He hopes to put the print on the cover of Notre Dame's media guide.

"That's such a stark contrast to what it was," Kelly said. "They'd probably all be in a Mercedes before."

If Kelly has his way, a beat-up truck might be a more appropriate vehicle for the Irish in the future.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.