Last week, just a few days after Notre Dame climbed to the top of the Associated Press poll for the first time in 19 years, and the top of the Bowl Championship Series standings for the first time ever, the resident myth makers at Sports Illustrated put the Irish's resurgence into perspective with a reverent cover hailing "THE NOTRE DAME MIRACLE." After all this time, and all those disappointments, it does look that way: In August, the perennially "overrated" Irish began the season unranked in the preseason polls, facing a nightmare of a schedule the featured six different teams that won at least ten games the previous season. As of Sunday night, the undefeated Irish are bound for the BCS Championship Game in Miami after a 22-13 win at USC, which began the season ranked number one. Five of Notre Dame's dozen victories came by a touchdown or less, two in overtime, and one on the dumb luck of an opponent's missed field goal. If that doesn't qualify as a miracle, sanctified in the eyes of Touchdown Jesus, my god, what does?
But at some point Saturday night, as the clocked ticked down on another low-scoring yet utterly convincing victory over their biggest rival, the moment became a palpable reminder that this is exactly what Notre Dame expected to happen when it hired Brian Kelly. In December 2009, Kelly was the hottest available name on the market, a known quantity with championships at every level he'd taken on: He won two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State, a conference championship at previously flailing Central Michigan and back-to-back Big East crowns during a 34-6 run at Cincinnati, where he guided the Bearcats to the first top-25, top-20 and top-10 finishes in school history in consecutive seasons. There were no hints of scandal or disgruntled colleagues in his wake. From Notre Dame's perspective, the only drawback on Kelly's resumé was his total lack of experience (even as an assistant) at any school that remotely resembles a national power, the main reason more than a few Irish fans seemed to consider him somewhat beneath the Golden Dome's station.
Those small-school roots, though, are just another of the many ways that Kelly personified the antithesis of the guy he was replacing, Charlie Weis. From the beginning, temperamentally, he was the consummate anti-Weis. Where his predecessor came off as gruff, impersonal, impatient with the media, aloof to much of the campus and perfectly content to be caught on camera scowling in a sweatsuit, Kelly arrived for his introductory press conference enthusiastic, manicured, quick to emphasize the importance of personal relationships and communicating effectively with the media. Weis, a student of the Parcells/Belichick school with an ego to match his Super Bowl rings, was just there to coach football. Despite his worst moments, Kelly has that crucial bit of politician Weis totally lacked.
That's style, not substance, but where Kelly has most clearly distinguished himself is in his success adjusting his style to the substance at hand.