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Brian Kelly’s up and down first year at Notre Dame

It was late last year and Brian Kelly had just taken over as the Notre Dame football coach.

With the season still months away, Kelly showed up at halftime of a Fighting Irish basketball game to meet his new fans. Grabbing a microphone, he stirred thunderous applause with talk of quickly jump-starting a fallen program.

“Get yourself ready,” he proclaimed.

Such bravado fit his personality. It also made sense because, after a successful run at Cincinnati, he ranked among the game’s top coaches.

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Surely no one — least of all Kelly — could foresee the roller-coaster ride that lay ahead.

Less than 12 months later, the Irish are struggling through an injury-riddled season, needing an upset victory over USC on Saturday to stay above .500. Worse, Kelly’s leadership has been questioned after the death of a team videographer and other troubling headlines.

The Chicago Tribune reported last weekend that a 19-year-old freshman from nearby St. Mary’s College had gone to Notre Dame authorities in September, alleging she was sexually assaulted by a football player. Days later, she died of an apparent drug overdose.

With the name of the alleged assailant — among other details — yet to be made public, Kelly has declined to comment on the matter.

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The coach who stood before reporters at a news conference this week, looking sharp in a blue blazer and tan slacks, did not sound quite as brash as before.

“I’ve got to do a lot of things better,” he said. “I’ve got to continue to evaluate myself.”

Reality meets expectations

From the very start, Irish fans desperately wanted Kelly to succeed where previous coaches Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie failed. They seemed to love his trademark confidence.

“We don’t get a five-year plan,” Kelly said in December. “This is a five-minute plan … we expect our football players to play at a high level immediately.”

The team certainly bought in.

“Everybody was really excited, moving on to something new,” center Braxston Cave said. “Obviously, there was a big buzz around campus and across the whole community.”

But the cheering subsided as Notre Dame lost three of its first four games, including a heartbreaker at Michigan State when the Spartans faked a field-goal attempt and scored the winning touchdown in overtime.

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“There was a huge disappointment,” said Lou Somogyi, senior editor of Blue and Gold Illustrated. “It wasn’t just the losses but the way they lost.”

Part of Notre Dame’s struggles could be attributed to injuries. For the first time in more than four decades, the Irish have lost their No. 1 quarterback and running back, along with other key starters.

Still, a miserable start prompted grumbling among the faithful.

“I think everyone expected more,” said Pat Flanagan, 46, a fan from nearby Mishawaka, Ind. “There were fingers pointed at Kelly.”

Critics suggested he wasn’t ready for the big time. Or that, like Weis, he focused too much on offense and faltered in other aspects of the game.

Kelly now acknowledges that he failed to anticipate the demands of coaching at Notre Dame, where he is often pulled away to meet with alumni, booster clubs and the media.

“You have to say enough’s enough,” he said. “Clearly, I’ve learned that.”

His team staged a brief comeback in October, winning three straight, but stumbled against Navy. The 35-17 defeat was galling — losses to the Midshipmen in two of the previous three seasons had figured heavily in Weis’ demise.

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Somogyi heard a common refrain among his readers, who wondered, “What else can go wrong?”

The answer: Plenty.

Notre Dame had already suffered an off-the-field tragedy when recruit Matt James died after falling from a hotel balcony during spring break in Florida.

In the week after the Navy loss, videographer Declan Sullivan climbed onto a hydraulic lift to videotape practice in stormy conditions. The 20-year-old student tweeted: “Gusts of up to 60 mph well today will be fun at work … I guess I’ve lived long enough.”

The lift fell over and Sullivan was killed. The university quickly assumed responsibility.

“We have systems in place … that deal with issues of safety,” Kelly said at the time. “Clearly, in this instance, they failed.”

The mood around South Bend didn’t lighten the next Saturday. In the waning moments against Tulsa, with the Irish in range of a game-winning field goal, Kelly let freshman quarterback Tommy Rees throw to the end zone.

The pass was intercepted.

Rees had replaced starter Dayne Crist, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter. After the 28-27 loss, Kelly was defiant about his decision to try for a touchdown.

“You better get used to it,” he said. “Because that’s the way we’re playing.”

Focus on football

This week should have been a welcome relief, a chance to feel good.

Notre Dame was coming off its two most impressive victories of the season, over Utah and Army, building momentum for rival USC.

Then the Elizabeth Seeberg story broke.

According to the Tribune, Seeberg went to Notre Dame campus police on Sept. 1, saying she had been attacked while visiting a university residence hall.

Nine days later, she was found unresponsive in her dorm room at St. Mary’s and subsequently died of a drug overdose. She had reportedly battled depression and overdosed on prescription medication.

Now, amid concerns over how the school and local police are handling the case, her family has hired a former federal prosecutor to investigate.

All of which puts Kelly in another difficult spot.

“The university is getting the facts together,” he said. “Then they’ll inform me.”

His players have adopted a similar mantra, saying they had no information on the alleged incident. Their focus, they say, is on football.

“Whatever happens out there,” linebacker Manti Te’o said, referring to the rest of the world, “we really don’t know about.”

But Kelly wonders whether off-the-field issues have distracted from the task at hand. This much he knows: His team could use a victory over the Trojans — breaking USC’s eight-year grip on the storied rivalry — to erase a lot of bad memories.

“Yeah,” he said, “this is a huge game.”

It could put Notre Dame into a higher class of bowl game and set the tone for continued rebuilding in the spring.

It could justify at least some of Kelly’s comments that echo from last winter.

“Clearly, 6-5 was not what I had in mind,” he said.

Should he have spoken more carefully at the start? Should he have tempered expectations?

Kelly employs a golf analogy, saying that he always begins playing from the black tees, the ones farthest from the hole. Sometimes that causes his score to balloon and he moves closer, to the white tees.

It seems the past year has caused him to reflect upon that approach. To a point.

“As I’ve seen things move forward, yeah, maybe I should have played from the white tees,” he said. “But that’s not who I am.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton


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