Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My 10 Minutes with Coach Brian Kelly

I honestly think one of the greatest gifts you can offer another person is your undivided attention. My ten-minute conversation at the inaugural Notre Dame Family wines event and dinner with Brian Kelly, head football coach for the Fightin' Irish, affirmed my belief.
My friend Steve and I talked to Coach Kelly about everything and nothing in particular. But reflecting back on it now, I realize we exchanged ideas about some of my favorite things. I asked him if I could serve as his caddy at the American Century Championship Golf Classic, a tourney he plays in up at Lake Tahoe every summer. He made analogies between teaching and coaching. He shared thoughts on working with athletes today, about his Kelly Cares Foundation and its annual Football 101: For women only. And I talked to him about what consumed my imagination this past Fall: "A Season with Notre Dame Football." 

Showtime Sports claims that this series allows the viewer to "Go inside the locker room and coaching offices for never-before-seen footage of what goes into the makings of a champion college team." While most college football fans anticipate game day, I couldn't wait for Tuesday evenings September through November to watch the latest episode. 

This program invested me in the team and the players in a new way. I was able to see their work ethic, the demands of college football today, the different personalities, challenges, and of course the thrill or victory and the agony of defeat. (I showed multiple clips in my Sports and Spirituality class...shamelessly...unapologetically...to which my students said more often than not "Can we watch the rest of this?!") I came to know and love so many different players: DeShone Kizer, Jaylon Smith, Tori Hunter Jr., Devin Butler. But, one person captured my focus and attention more than anyone: Coach Brian Kelly. I spent the entire season psychoanalyzing him. I was desperate to get a better read on a man who is in one of the most and least enviable position in athletics.
Having the opportunity to talk to him one on one, hearing his speech, and considering what I've witnessed on the sidelines every Saturday (and Tuesday night), I have collected hundreds of thoughts. But one emerged; it crystallized from that one evening. I think it is one that many Irish fans will know and understand: Brian Kelly has grown into his role as Head Coach of Notre Dame. And I like it.

I should tell you the impressive stats and stories he shared about Notre Dame football. For example, Team 127 had not only six players taken in the first round of the NFL draft, they also earned he highest GPA of any football team in Fightin' Irish history. Perhaps wide receiver Corey Robinson has something to do with it. I hear he has a genius IQ; he will also serve as student body president next year. (Coach Kelly said he won the election with full party support). Who does that? Play football AND serve in student government? The Admiral's son, a man who deserves his own nickname, that's who.

I enjoyed learning Coach Kelly's path to the position as the head coach of Notre Dame. One step included coaching women's' softball, at his alma mater—Assumption College—where he also served as linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. The first time BK ever set foot in South Bend was when he accepted the job in December 2009. As someone who hadn't visited ND until I arrived there as a Freshman in August of 1992, I could relate. Though most people in the room were shocked to hear his story, I understood. Notre Dame is where Coach Kelly wanted to be. I get that.

He told us that Team 127 performed 2500 hours of community service and participated in 37 distinct community events. Right now, 11 men on the team are studying abroad and many others are working internships throughout the country. He successfully painted a portrait of a student consistent with his message "We are looking for a young man who will connect with the values of Notre Dame. How we develop and who we recruit is contingent on finding that fit. It's my job to recruit, retain and develop these players."

In a "Q & A" that followed his speech, an alumni said, "I watched A Season with Notre Dame Football and I was surprised at just how likable the team was. Is that true?" 

Coach Kelly responded by telling us that he had been to but two of his son's high school football games this past fall. He added, "if you had asked me 15 years ago whether or not I like my athletes, I would have told you I don't care. So long as you can run or score for me, I don't care if I like you or not. But knowing what I am missing out on with my own family, I decided I had to care about these guys." His words made me pause and think: Does this mean he's recruiting guys he knows he will like? Is he now investing in his players in a new way so he can get to know them better (e.g. training table, an open office)? I would love to talk to him more about that.
People might be familiar with this face of Coach Kelly.
I would also like him to know that what I was privy to in one evening helped me understand an important idea I encountered in Jim Martin SJ's new book "The Seven Last Words of Christ: An Invitation to a Deeper Relationship with Jesus." In it, Martin writes,
More to the point, who did Jesus think he was? Did he understand himself as the Messiah? And how did he come to understand himself? His identity? His humanity? His divinity? 
Much of this must remain a mystery. But one helpful way to understand it is that Jesus grew in his understanding of his identity throughout his life. 
To begin with, it is reasonable to think that Mary would have shared with her son her experience with the Angel Gabriel, and Joseph his experiences of his dreams. All parents want to help their children understand who they are called to be, so why wouldn't Mary and Joseph try to help Jesus understand his unique vocation? As he matured, they likely spoke with him about his identity, even if they didn't fully comprehend it themselves. Much later, of course, at his baptism, Jesus has a profound experience of himself as God's "beloved son."
But even after his baptism, Jesus may have struggled to understand what this meant. We all do the same after we have had a deep insight or passed a milestone in our lives. A married couple, for example, don't fully understand marriage on their wedding day. A mother doesn't fully understand motherhood on the day of the birth of her first chid. And a priest doesn't fully understand what it means to be a priest on the day of his ordination. All of this takes time. 
The truth of growing into one's identity and the way I have seen this in the seven years Brian Kelly has coached football at Notre Dame is what I want people to know. To think that anyone should arrive at a place and serve in a position like that one and have it all figured out is unfair. It takes time. Though our world (and alums) has immediate demands, to make something like a high profile coaching position one's own demands reflection, maturity, wisdom, prayer, assistance, support, and encouragement. I don't appreciate the fans who have written Coach Kelly off for some of the mistakes he made in his first two years. The program that he has built and the players that he is shaping are ones I am very proud to be associated with. 
Watch Coach Kelly on the sidelines on any given Saturday, and he can't help but stand face to face with his quarterback or the referee. It's a role he's grown into, one that he has made his own. And I'm grateful he's sharing that with the University of Notre Dame, undivided attention and more.  Go, Irish.

Photo Credits
BK and Kizer
Coach Kelly
Season with ND Football
Angry BK

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