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LOS ANGELES – A year ago it was USC's Lane Kiffin that appeared to be a coaching genius, as he walked off of the field at Notre Dame Stadium following a 31-17 Trojan victory over the Fighting Irish.
Kiffin was the young, suave, ultra-cool coach that was going to recruit circles around Notre Dame's latest coaching prayer, Brian Kelly.
That is what appeared on the surface – and I wrote that because I believed it.
I was foolish. I should've looked deeper and never doubted 21 years of proven success by Kelly.
This isn't a column based on the emotion of watching Kelly's team win its 12th game in as many outings this season on Saturday by beating Kiffin and the Trojans 22-13 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
This is a column based on the evidence. Kelly has resurrected the Irish program to heights no one could have fathomed. But even more so, it is how Kelly resurrected this program, which was faltering under Lou Holtz in the later years (blasphemy I know), and continued through the tenures of three others that tried, yet failed to do what Kelly has accomplished.
On Saturday, the Irish offense allowed USC to stay alive into the final minutes of the game, and the Notre Dame defense did the same by allowing a 53-yard Trojan pass to its 2-yard line.
At that point, the disparity between the two coaches was put on display for nearly 11 million viewers to see.
Kiffin's team had a chance at victory and the coach chose to mismanage the clock like it was his first season outside of Pop Warner.
Kelly's team encapsulated what the veteran leader had preached from day one in December 2009, that being toughness.
The Trojans had eight opportunities to score and never did. How was that possible? Because Kelly has constructed a defense to play at this level. Just like has at three other schools.
Lost in the fantasy-like offensive statistics that Kelly's teams racked up at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati is the fact that each of those programs also had defenses that could excel as well.
That is the genius of Kelly – he is good enough to coach successfully in any number of ways.
He initially addressed the physical and mental toughness of the Irish when he was hired. That is not an issue any longer.
He needed to find a quarterback. It appears that he has done so.
He needed to minimize turnovers. Is anyone even talking about that topic anymore?
And that brings us to the defense – and perhaps what the Irish offense can evolve into.
At Grand Valley State, Kelly had one team lead the nation (Division II) in rushing defense (2003), while another (2001) averaged nearly 59 points per game (not a typo).
Give him some personnel and he'll figure out how to utilize it.
At Central Michigan, he curbed the Chippewas run defense numbers from over 245 yards allowed each game to less than 114 in one season (leading the Mid-American Conference).
That is coaching, my friend.
Kelly's 2009 Cincinnati squad also went 12-0 (Kelly has been here, done that), while leading the nation in passing efficiency. But that same team was also among the national leaders in tackles for losses and sacks.
So Kelly has won with a prolific quarterback, and now he's winning with a protected one (first-year starter Everett Golson). Meanwhile Kiffin's team has been marginal (7-5) with a first round NFL Draft pick (Matt Barkley) running his offense.
Three questions about Kelly were tossed around in abundance when Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick hired Kelly.
First, could the guy recruit nationally for the first time in his career?
Secondly, could the guy coach at the highest level of college football? This wasn't the GLIAC after all.
Lastly, could Kelly get this program to succeed on the field given the academic requirements that this university would never relent on and previous coaches had complained about?
Yes, yes, and an emphatic yes.
“When you can talk about the highest graduation rates and being No. 1 in the country,” Kelly said following Saturday's victory, “I think that is a great thing for Notre Dame.”
It truly is. However, Kelly himself has also proven to be a “great thing for Notre Dame,” as well.