The son of a Boston politician, Kelly arrives from Cincinnati, where he forged a 34-6 record from 2007-09, leading the Bearcats to consecutive Big East titles in 2008-09 and trips to the Orange and Sugar bowls.
While Kelly was making Cincinnati a power, Notre Dame was foundering. Weis swaggered into South Bend from the NFL with plenty of bombast, touting that he would have a "decided schematic advantage" over opponents. But college football involves much more than drawing up fancy Xs and Os. It also involves player development, an area that was sorely lacking under Weis. The Irish went 16-21 from 2007-09, the most losses ever in a three-year span in school history.
It has been a meteoric rise for Kelly, who was coaching at Division II Grand Valley State (Mich.) as recently as 2003. After winning national titles there in 2002 and '03, Kelly took over Central Michigan, going 19-16 from 2004-06 and winning a MAC title in 2006.
Rivals.com talked with Kelly as he readied for his first season in the highest-profile college football coaching job in America.
Just seven years ago, you were the coach of a Division II program, Grand Valley State. Now, you are coach of arguably the most famous program in the nation. Could you have envisioned such an ascent?
"I don't think I ever came to work every day going, 'I want to be the head coach of Notre Dame.' I grew up following Notre Dame as a Catholic in Boston. But when I got into the business, it really was about the next day, the next week, really focusing on getting my football team to be the best that it could be. So, I never really sat around thinking about the ascent or the climb. I just wanted to do the best job that I could. I wasn't dreaming about what I could do next."
Did you leave Cincinnati in good shape?
"Let's see, Sugar Bowl … Orange Bowl. … 12-0 … yeah, I think we did OK. They are getting a practice field. Football is important there now. My job was to make it relevant. It was not relevant when I got there. That is nothing to say about what had happened before. But we needed to make it relevant. We did that. The program is better. Central [Michigan] was better when I left it. Grand Valley's was better when I left it. All three of those programs are better."
"Is the personnel you inherited capable of running your offense?"
"No, not right now. But we are making progress toward that. It will take a while for us to be full throttle here. … There are enough skill players for us to spread the field and keep pressure on defenses. It will take us some time to condition ourselves and mentally pick up to where we need to be. I see this as a process for us offensively. I don't see us hitting the ground and running. It is going to take a little while."
Did you have more talent at Cincinnati?
"From a talent standpoint last year, we probably had some players [at Cincinnati] who could match up favorably with Notre Dame. I think the difference was that we had a lot of confidence. We were at a point where we believed we could win going into the fourth quarter. I don't know if Notre Dame had that same mental feistiness. We had some talent, but we had other things going for us, like confidence."
How do you feel about your quarterback situation?
"Uncertain. We have one quarterback in Dayne Crist, who didn't play very much and tore his knee in a scrambling opportunity [last year]. I know he had great accolades coming out of high school. But he really hasn't done anything at Notre Dame. He is going to have to really prove himself. Three quarterbacks transferred and left it as a major hole, which is why I had to bring in a number of freshmen. But if you have to play a freshman quarterback at Notre Dame, boy, that's a scary proposition. I think the quarterback position is a huge question mark."
Do you have the personnel to switch from Notre Dame from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense?
"I think there are some fine points to the personnel, especially in the back end of the defense. But if there's a way that I have been pleasantly surprised, it's with the personnel on defense. I think we have a chance to stop the run and do some of the things that the defense struggled with last year."
Why has the defense struggled at Notre Dame in recent years?
"You had a few different schemes and philosophies, and sometimes there may have been too much going on. I think that staff, if it could do it over again, would take a step back and go with one kind of philosophy. There were a lot of different things going on there. And it's not just the defense. It's how the offense took care of the defense. Not being able to close out games. There are a lot of different reasons for that."
How have you been perceived by recruits?
"The Notre Dame brand is very, very strong, I can tell you from being on the East Coast and the West Coast. We are received very, very well. Having said that, 16-21 [the Irish's record the past three seasons] isn't going to get you that kid just because his dad, his mom, his principal recognizes the tradition of Notre Dame. We have to stop living and being reminded about what we did and start doing that in the present. We have to start winning games."
Do you have the facilities to compete with any program in the nation?
"Infrastructure, no. But as you know, there are some unique things about Notre Dame. And one is that we have no Jumbotron. We have no advertising in the stadium. We play on grass. It's not the head coach saying that those are negatives. They are unique and we sometimes have to address those in recruiting.
"We like the tradition, we like those things. But there clearly are things that are used against us in recruiting. As far as practice fields, training table, weight room, locker room -- we have everything we need at Notre Dame from that standpoint. And that has been the case for five or six years."
Do you like the way Notre Dame schedules?
"One of the best things about being independent is one weekend you can play in New York City and the next you are in L.A. You love that. But with that, you face challenges. The fan base wants to see a competitive schedule. We don't play I-AA teams. It is difficult in these times, especially with all of the talk about expansion, scheduling is difficult if you aren't in a conference. But I love it as a football coach. You are all over the place."
Would you like to see Notre Dame in a conference?
"I'd like to stay the way we are. But it's not going to be my decision. I love to keep doing what we are doing as an independent."
Some people believe that admissions standards at Notre Dame are too rigorous, which is why the Irish have had trouble becoming a national championship contender. Is that true?
"I think because of the academic environment at Notre Dame, you have to be very, very selective as to who you put in that classroom. When the average SAT is close to 1,500, you have to put a young man in there who can succeed. As a coach, I don't feel as though I am limited by our admissions standards. I am limited by what I believe a young man needs to be successful and get his degree at Notre Dame.
"So, academics won't be a deterrent. But you have to go coast to coast to find those kids. … You have to hit all of the United States to find those highly motivated kids who want to work hard in the classroom. There are other schools that they can go to that they may not have to work quite as hard. But if they come to Notre Dame, they will have to work hard in the classroom. That gets turned against us in the recruiting process: 'You can come to X-Y-Z college and it won't be quite as hard.' You know what? If they decide to go there, that isn't the kind of guy that I want to coach anyway."
Notre Dame hasn't won the national championship since 1988. Do feel pressure to win it all?
"One-hundred percent every day. You don't take the Notre Dame job because you are aspiring to go 8-4. You are taking the Notre Dame job to aspire to win the national championship. That's just the way it is. I could talk about lower expectations. But no one wants to hear anything else than Notre Dame being in competition for a national championship. I think we have to be part of the picture."
Did you talk to anyone before you took the job to get a feel for what you were going to walk in to?
"The person who I got the most counsel from was Rick Minter [who did two stints as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, in 1992-93 and 2005-07]. I got some great insight from him about what is to be here. I talked to Gary Darnell [defensive coordinator from 1990-91]. I talked to Mike Denbrock, who was at Notre Dame [2002-04 as offensive tackles/tight ends coach] and is back here with me and who was on my Grand Valley staff. I did not talk to any former head coaches, but I talked to a number of assistant coaches."
How soon will you win a national championship?
"I answer the question the same way when I am asked about what an acceptable record will be for me this year: I go in expecting to win every game. Notre Dame is a little bit different because we don't have fifth-year players for the most part, so you are talking to players, they want to know, 'Can we get this done right away?' Because we are here to build this right now and win right now. My first day with the team was, 'We are here to win a championship right away.'
"So, to answer the question, I don't think you can put a one-, a three- or a five-year plan. I think we have to hit the ground running and immediately compete at the highest level."