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December 29, 2012 » 11:48 am

Leadership Lessons from Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Notre Dame has a proud football tradition, but for the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of futility. It last won a national championship in 1988, and it hasn’t been in the running for one since Lou Holtz retired. That finally changed this year under coach Brian Kelly, as Notre Dame will be duking it out against Alabama next week for the title.

Kelly had two mediocre years before turning things around this year. ESPN.com had a nice article about what led to the turnaround. One of his problems was that he was not spending enough time communicating with his players, building trust. After a bad loss to USC late last year, he challenged his players, but they did not react well. He took responsibility for that.

“They didn’t know me well enough,” Kelly said. “Not their fault. My fault. You’d want a response to my comments [like], ‘That’s Coach. He has high expectations. He’s demanding this.’ No, it was the other way. ‘Coach doesn’t trust us. He didn’t recruit us.’ That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players.”

He decided he needed to spend more time with his players, so he made a number of changes this past year to create that time.

Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn’t need name tags for the guys on defense.

“He’s there as a more familiar face,” safety Zeke Motta said. “It’s great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other.”

Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.

“I could be the guy who wasn’t jumping on them because they didn’t run the route the right way,” Kelly said. “I could be the guy who said, ‘Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That’s what Coach is trying to tell you.’”

It’s a new way of coaching for Kelly.

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