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Litke: Is Irish’s Kelly rent-a-coach?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 11:37 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 11:49 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly talks to Robby Toma during the BCS Championship game against Alabama on Monday in Miami Gardens, Fla. Kelly interviewed the next day for the Philadelphia Eagles' coaching vacancy.

Coaches bailing out on their teams is nothing new. Neither is saying one thing and doing the opposite. It’s practically an occupational hazard.

In the past few weeks, more than a half-dozen pulled that surprise on their teams between the end of the regular season and before the bowl game that was supposed to be their reward. In other sports, a few have departed right after winning a championship. Even so, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly may have taken insincerity to a new level.

Kelly apparently sat for an interview Tuesday with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. That was roughly a year after Notre Dame signed him to a two-year extension and promised to begin discussing a raise and yet another extension. And just four days after Kelly called his “the best job in the country” and added, “Leaving is not an option. I don’t even think about it.”

Now fast forward to the early hours of Tuesday morning, moments after Alabama crushed Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS Championship game, and an exchange between Kelly and a reporter in the interview room. The questioner asked Kelly “how optimistic” he was about making big strides in the Irish passing game, since both sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels and freshman quarterback Everett Golson were coming back with plenty of valuable experience under their belts.

Kelly pretended to panic.

He began his answer, “Well, if Everett would come back for another year,” then turned to face Golson. For a second, it was hard to tell whether Kelly was still acting.

“Are you coming back?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Golson said after a brief silence, playing along. “I’m coming back.”

Kelly’s role as a straight man doesn’t seem quite as funny today as it did at the moment. Especially since he answered a handful of questions on either side of that routine with statements like “now it’s pretty clear what we need to do to get over the top” and “as we move forward” and “we’re all going to learn” and so on. Because just a few hours later, while talking to the Eagles, it’s a safe bet that Kelly used the word “I’’ a lot more than he did “we.”

Of course, Kelly is free to explore job opportunities, same as anybody else. He might genuinely be interested in testing his skills at the highest level of the game, or simply looking for leverage when he sits down soon after his vacation this week to talk about a new contract. Yet neither Kelly nor athletic director Jack Swarbrick needed reminding what happened after Notre Dame, responding to rumors that then-first year coach Charlie Weis was being contacted about a return to the NFL, doubled Weis’ original five-year deal. But only one of them is interested in making sure the school doesn’t make a mistake that expensive again.

To be fair, despite a sometimes-rocky start, Kelly has been good for Notre Dame. After cameras caught him browbeating players on the sideline, he promised to tone down his act and did. His initial response to allegations of sexual assault against one of his players, as well as the accidental death of a student videographer who was filming football practice in 2010 was callous – at best. But he’s learned to better handle the responsibility that comes with Notre Dame’s exalted place in the college game since.

Kelly also has made the Irish program seem relevant again, a perception that’s been reinforced by a 2013 recruiting class rated among the top three in the nation.

Exactly why he chose to introduce a wrinkle into what looked like a comfortable relationship is something only Kelly can answer, and he took off on vacation before anyone had a chance to pose the question. Swarbrick, too, has declined comment since reports of Kelly’s interview with the Eagles surfaced, but he knew his coach’s reputation as a “climber” before he hired him. Kelly stuck around for 13 seasons in his first job, building Grand Valley State into a Division II powerhouse, but his stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati lasted only three full seasons in both places.

That’s hardly proof of a pattern, though something else Kelly said on the eve of the national championship game suggests it might be.

“When I took the job at Notre Dame, I think I said it was a dream job. But I never went around day to day saying anything about being the Notre Dame head coach, because the job that I had in hand was what I was thinking about.

“And I think,” Kelly added, though it sounds a lot less reassuring now than it did at the time, “that’s the same thing with the NFL.”

• Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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