Joseph Goodman: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has come a long way since coaching softball

To simply call Brian Kelly an overachiever would be an egregious understatement.

Ever heard of Assumption College? Neither had I until I looked it up.

Assumption is a small Catholic liberal arts school in Worcester, Mass. It’s where Brian Kelly, football CEO of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, got his first big break … as a softball coach.

Kelly coached for free.

On Monday, the former softball coach of a school that, at the time, didn’t give out athletic scholarships will coach the most revered college football team in the sport in one of the most anticipated national championships of the BCS era.

Work in the mailroom and have visions of one day running the company? Kelly is your guy.

Grinding away in the backwater of your industry with the hope, no matter how long it takes, to work your way to the top. Kelly is your role model.

From Assumption College, Kelly took a job as a glorified graduate assistant at Grand Valley State. That was in 1987. He remained in Allendale, Mich., until 2003.

Persistent, hardworking, motivated, unwavering: These are the qualities that have landed Kelly on the national stage. For the youngsters of today who want everything immediately at the touch of a button, Kelly’s path to Sun Life Stadium could serve as an important lesson.

But there is something else about Kelly that makes him a quintessential American success story — adaptability.

Remember when everyone thought Kelly was in over his head at Notre Dame? You don’t have to jog your memory too much. It was only last season.

On Sept. 3, 2011, Kelly and the Irish lost to the University of South Florida 23-20.

The loss wasn’t the story that day, but rather how utterly insane Kelly appeared on the sideline. Kelly lost his mind that day as his team committed five turnovers. (Understandable, if you ask me.) He berated his players so thoroughly that many called for him to be fired.

The next week didn’t improve Kelly’s mental stability. Notre Dame committed five more turnovers and lost to Michigan. Two weeks later, Notre Dame gave it away three times and lost to Southern Cal. An offensive philosophy that once propelled Kelly’s 2009 Cincinnati team to the Sugar Bowl had turned into a liability at Notre Dame. What was billed as a turnaround season for Notre Dame that preseason ended with an 8-5 record.

Kelly made changes. Just as he had done throughout his entire career, he adapted.

Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, who had been with Kelly since his days at Central Michigan, left for a head coaching opportunity at Massachusetts. Kelly wasted little time cleaning up his offensive staff.

He promoted safeties coach Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator and replaced his running backs and offensive line coaches. Martin coached offense at Grand Valley State using the same system Kelly had implemented while in Allendale. In his years at Grand Valley State, Martin’s quarterbacks averaged 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions per season.

Notre Dame finished the 2011 season with 33 turnovers (21 interceptions and 12 fumbles lost). Heading into the BCS National Championship, the Irish have committed 17 turnovers and starting quarterback Everett Golson, a freshman, has just five interceptions.

Kelly’s plan was to rely on his defense to win games. I’d say that plan worked out.

Meanwhile, Kelly has removed himself ever so gradually from the day-to-day operations of the offensive unit. If anyone has seen the YouTube video of Kelly’s meltdown against South Florida in 2011, I’d say that decision has relieved some tension.

“I think he was bound and determined to get some things corrected on offense, i.e., turnovers, for the most part, and was really bound and determined to do that in the spring,” Martin said of Kelly. “And then I think he had a new offensive staff and he had some new players, including a new quarterback.

“I think once everybody settled in, I think [Kelly] is a little bit more back to just running the whole outfit, which he’s pretty good at.”

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