Ask any college football head coach what his job entails and you’re likely to get a laundry list of responsibilities to his players and the program he represents.
Recruiting, public relations, assembling an assistant coaching staff, player-coach relationships, tactical knowledge of the sport and a number of other skills are required to succeed.
Above all else, a coach’s task is to put his players in the best position to win. To do that, he has to be able to communicate to his team clearly and inspire.
Throughout Notre Dame’s fall camp, head coach Brian Kelly has been adamant about being able to convey a clear sense of direction to his players. Saturday afternoon, as the 2010 campaign opens with Purdue, the nation will get its first chance to watch Kelly incite his squad.
“I think you motivate through a lot of different stimuli,” Kelly began as he attempted to describe his leadership style. “I think one is morale. I think if you have great morale and you have a trust within your group, that creates that intrinsic motivation that is so necessary for any successful business or organization.
“And I think the preparation that we give our players during the week, they gain a confidence level going into the game that they are as prepared physically and mentally as anyone in the country.”
As a result, the Irish coach feels that most of his motivational work is done Monday through Friday. As emotions rise and tensions build minutes before Saturday’s 3:41 p.m. kickoff, don’t expect any ‘Win one for the Gipper’ speeches that have made many previous Irish coaches famous.
“So that motivation comes from those two stimuli, which I think we do a great job during the week of providing our players,” he said. “But I'm not going to be giving the big rah-rah speeches. I just don't do that. I think I do a lot of my work leading into Saturday.”
After speaking with a number of Notre Dame’s players, it is clear that Kelly presents a different personality while inside the meeting rooms of the Guglielmo Athletics Complex or on the practice fields. However, in non-football settings, Kelly seems to lose the air of a football coach and tries to relate with his players.
To deliver his messages more clearly, Kelly marries his motivational style with accessible lines of communication.
“I try to reach our players and communicate to our players through everything that I have at my disposal,” he said. “Whether it be a meeting, individual time, walking through the hallways, calling him on his cell phone, text messaging them.
“I think head coaches have to be able to use all of those things that are at their disposal to reach a player. I don't think you reach them in one way. You don't reach them by having a team meeting or getting together after practice. You've got to be available and accessible to reach all of your players, because they're all different.”
Taking that approach to the practice field, Kelly’s style of communication has helped shape the football coach that he has become.
“Some of the things that I try to do is be around so players can get to me,” he said. “I want to be hands-on during practice, and I think that's what I try to use in my techniques relative to motivation.”
Backup safety Zeke Motta has seen this first-hand.
“He knows every player’s name, he gives you that personable feeling,” Motta said. “When he walks by you, he’ll say your name.”
Another common theme that the Irish players express when describing Kelly’s motivational style is a timely sense of humor.
“He's pretty straightforward with his approach,” Manti Te’o said. “Every now and then if he thinks we need a pick me up, he'll make a joke or something that gets the energy of the team up. He's just kind of a guy that can feel what the team's feeling. If he needs to get us riled up, he'll step in.”
When asked if he could provide a specific moment when Kelly lightened the mood in the locker room, the sophomore linebacker seemed to be stumped. However, he received some help with his memory.
“It's just many different situations,” Te’o explained. “He'll either make a joke or he'll kind of pick out somebody that is doing something pretty funny that kind of lightens the mood a little bit. So I can't really pick out any—”
Just as Te’o was about to conclude his sentence, Harrison Smith, sitting next to the linebacker at a table in the Isban Auditorium inside of the Gug Wednesday afternoon, did the job for him.
“There was one day in training camp where our practices were two hours long, and we were warming up and he's like, ‘All right, I'm helping you out today. It's only two hours,’” Smith recalled. “And in our mind it seemed like that practice was going like that. Just like the way he said it. He's just kind of played a mind game with us and we were like, ‘Okay, two hours isn't that bad.’ It just kind of made practice easier.”
After hearing his teammate’s example, Te’o jumped in and offered a glimpse of a more easy-going Kelly than the one that observers can see barking orders at his players during Irish practices.
“During camp, we were sitting in this room, and before Coach Kelly walks out the door to come down here to talk to the team, usually the team's talking amongst each other,” Te’o added. “We got into impersonations, and people started impersonating other people on the team and started doing things about other coaches.
“Coach Kelly, I saw him walk in, and everybody started to quiet down a little bit. But he kind of just told us, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ Those are the kind of things he does. He doesn't really need to crack a joke. He'll just do something to lighten the mood a little bit.”
For the most part, however, Notre Dame’s players indicated that Kelly is focused on the objectives he has set out for his team. Whether he wants to accomplish an installment in a practice or work on a broader goal like protecting the ball, Kelly gets his message across.
“He’s energetic,” Motta said. “In one word — I’d say he’s very energetic. Passionate.”
One of Motta’s teammates in the secondary, Jamoris Slaughter, echoed his thoughts.
“I would just say intense,” Slaughter said. “Basically, he just motivates us every day. When we even think about slowing down or if we’re having a bad practice, he’ll just stop, get everybody’s attention and get us on the right path.”
It seems like wherever he has gone, Kelly has had success. Whether it was ripping a pair of consecutive Division II National Championships at Grand Valley State or turning around Central Michigan into a Mid-American Conference Champion or taking Cincinnati to a pair of consecutive Big East Championships and back-to-back BCS bowl games, Kelly has won at every level.
Saturday, he will attempt to bring that winning culture to Notre Dame.
There is no doubt that he has had a calculated approach since his arrival in December to transform the morale of a team that lost 22 games in the past three seasons.
From here on out, however, Kelly isn’t looking to do it alone. Now, he wants his motivational style to rub off on his veteran leaders.
“He's also wanted us to take that part where the players, if some of the players notice that the energy's low, then we need to pick it up and get the team going,” Te’o said. “So it's kind of something that he's shown us the way, and he wants us to take over.”