Brian Kelly is staying at Notre Dame, spurning the Philadelphia Eagles, who were aggressively targeting the Irish head coach.
"This week, I had an incredible opportunity to speak with one of the premier organizations in sports about becoming their head coach," Kelly said in a released statement. "Like every kid who has ever put on a pair of football cleats, I have had thoughts about being a part of the NFL. However, after much reflection and conversation with those closest to me, I have decided to remain at Notre Dame.
"This decision was motivated purely by my love for Notre Dame and the entire Fighting Irish community, the young men I have the great fortune to coach, and my desire to continue to build the best football program in the country. We still have a lot of work to do and my staff and I are excited about the challenges ahead."
Kelly interviewed with the Eagles mere hours after the Irish were trounced by Alabama in the BCS national championship game. Reports then surfaced Saturday morning that Kelly had a second interview scheduled this weekend, sending speculation to a fever pitch. But the Irish ended the suspense Saturday afternoon, just two hours before Kelly was scheduled to receive the Walter Camp Coach of the Year award at Yale.
"I was always confident that Brian would continue to lead our football program. I am very happy to have that confirmed and share Brian's excitement about what lies ahead for our program," said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. "I appreciate the Eagles reaching out to request permission to speak with Brian, and I also appreciate Brian keeping me fully informed throughout this process. We all look forward to what's ahead for Notre Dame football."
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is scheduled to be in New Haven, Conn., this evening to accept the Walter Camp coach of the year award. But the question is, will he be around next year to go for another?
The Irish coach, back from vacation, has a second meeting scheduled with the Philadelphia Eagles, according to a report in the New York Daily News. Kelly met with Eagles officials on Tuesday, just hours after Notre Dame was trounced in the BCS national championship game by Alabama. The initial belief was that Kelly was using the NFL interest as a negotiating tactic to get raises for him and his assistants. But the planned follow-up meeting suggests there is indeed significant mutual interest.
A source familiar with the situation told the Sun-Times that Kelly's agent, Trace Armstrong, has been contacting NFL teams -- with Kelly's blessing -- to gauge interest in the third-year Notre Dame coach. Notre Dame has been mum on the topic since the news broke on Wednesday, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Kelly's dalliance with the NFL already has apparently cost the Irish one top recruit, linebacker Alex Anzalone, who enrolled at Florida at the last minute. That defection dropped the Irish's incoming recruiting class from No. 1 to No. 2, according to Rivals.com's rankings.
The rest of the early enrollees are arriving on campus this weekend, with winter workouts and classes beginning this week.
Contributing: Neil Hayes
There are times when Gunner Kiel allows himself to think about what might have been, about what the 2012 season would have been like had he stuck with his original choice of going to Indiana, or his second choice of LSU.
He knows this much: He almost certainly would have played at Indiana. And he wouldn't have a quarterback with four years of eligibility starting ahead of him at LSU.
But he wouldn't have been on Notre Dame's wild ride to Monday night's BCS national championship, either.
"I think about it a little bit," said Kiel, the nation's top-rated quarterback among last year's high school seniors, before the 42-14 loss to Alabama. "But at the same time, I'm happy where I'm at, and I'm more than happy to be with this team and to be in the national championship. Just to get the privilege to be here, it's second to none."
Kiel's ultimate decision, which came after he decommitted from IU, then failed to show up last January at LSU, rankled LSU coach Les Miles, who said Kiel didn't have the "chest" to play for the Tigers. Kiel shrugged it off this week, admitting he was "dumb" during recruiting and couldn't make up his mind.
Kiel now faces another decision. Once viewed as the future of Notre Dame football, the stud quarterback who was going to lead the Irish back to national prominence, Kiel watched from the sidelines on Monday night as Everett Golson -- a guy with three more seasons of eligibility ahead of him -- led the Irish against Alabama in the national championship game.
Barring something unusual, Kiel has to decide if he's willing to wait until his fifth-year senior season to start.
When asked if he was considering a transfer, Kiel said: "Not at the moment. ... We'll have to see down the road. Of course, I want to play. But I've just got to be patient and wait it out. Anything can happen in those three years."
Golson understands the awkward situation Kiel is in. And if Kiel sticks around, Golson wants to be as helpful to him as Tommy Rees was to Golson.
"I think Gunner has the same spirit that I do, of being a competitor," Golson said. "I think the guy that I am, I'm not going to have animosity toward Gunner just because he's competing for the spot. I want to help out the next man just as much as I could."
Johnny Manziel's picking Alabama in Monday night's BCS national championship game. But the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Texas A&M says his team and Notre Dame are sort of kindred spirits.
"I think Notre Dame has done a lot of great things this year," Manziel said on Sunday. "They've shocked a lot of people, kind of like what we did this year. People didn't have expectations for really either one of our teams this year. I'm picking Alabama through SEC loyalty. And I feel like their offensive line and what they can do, and having [quarterback A.J. McCarron] who's been there and has experience -- Everett [Golson], I don't know if he's been on this big a stage and A.J. has, so I feel offensively they have a little bit of an advantage -- then all the NFL-caliber guys they have on defense really makes them a pretty well-rounded team."
There's been a lot of talk this week about how Golson needs to do his best Manziel impression on Monday, considering A&M handed Alabama its only loss of the year. A&M tackle and Outland Award winner Luke Joeckel -- who also picked Alabama through SEC loyalty -- said that's a little unfair.
"Not many guys can do what Johnny can do," he said. "It's hard for me to say with [Manziel] sitting right here, but he's a very exciting player. I know at Notre Dame, that quarterback's an incredible athlete, too. They're just going to have to execute. Against Alabama, Johnny executed all game long, he made plays when he had to make plays, and our receivers made plays when they had to make plays, and our offensive line tried to do as good a job as we could. To beat a good team like Alabama, you've got to execute for four quarters, all game long."
Said Manziel: "Me being a little more mobile helped. I feel like Everett, in the same sense, can do some of that. He can escape when he needs to, and make some throws when he needs to. ... I feel with their ability to rush the ball, and do play-action stuff off that, with Everett, I feel they can do some good."
Of the six players honored by the Orange Bowl on Sunday, Manziel, Joeckel and Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks picked the Tide, sticking with their conference mates. USC receiver Marqise Lee -- who praised Notre Dame's defense -- Clemson's Daniel Rodriguez and Texas' Nate Boyer picked Notre Dame.
But Manziel, who became friends with Irish linebacker and Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o on the awards circuit, again made sure everyone knew he picked Alabama only because of his conference affiliation.
"It should be noted how much respect I have for Notre Dame, and how much respect I have for Manti," he said.
Notre Dame is back in the national championship picture for the first time in a quarter century, and Irish coach Brian Kelly intends to make this a habit.
But starting the season after next, the road to a national title is going to be even longer and harder, with the implementation of a four-team playoff. The money will go up, the stakes will rise, the media crush will be bigger, and the physical, emotional and academic toll on the players will be greater than ever.
For Kelly, who has navigated a postseason tournament and coached two 14-game seasons and a 15-game season while going to three straight NCAA Division II championship games at Grand Valley State, coaching will be key to making sure players can handle the strain.
"We're going to have to do a really good job," he said. "I'm used to playing 15 games, playing for a national championship. It's a long road. But I think as long as we have this thing planned out where we're not playing in late January and February, I think we can be in a good position. We play a 12-game schedule, there's a championship game, then if we can get right back to work, there's such a routine there that I'm not concerned with it. I think if we start talking about 16 and 32 teams, something is going to have to give on one end. Something is going to have to give on the regular season because we're not going to be able to play this thing into February. So that would be the concern that I have.
"You can do it. They play 20 games in the NFL. I know they're older, they're much more mature, but they play four preseason and 16. We're going to have to take an approach that you're going to have to take the pads off, we're going to have to be smart. I did it at Grand Valley State. We took the pads off after the second round. We didn't put the pads back on until the Saturdays that we played. I know Division I-A does it, Division II does it. We're going to have to learn from them."
Louis Nix III gave himself the nickname Irish Chocolate. He has his own YouTube channel, with five episodes of his "Chocolate News," one of which has 23,000 views, another of which has 31,000 views. He's fast become a media and Internet darling. Oh, and he sang and danced to "Gangnam Style" at the Miami Heat game on Wednesday night (that video has more than 50,000 views).
But here's something you don't know about Nix.
"I don't like the attention," he said on Saturday, surrounded by several reporters, both local and national.
"That's bad, right? it doesn't make sense," he continued. "I like making people laugh, but I don't like people saying, 'Oh, Louis, you're the greatest, you're the best.' I just like to be a normal guy."
He's quickly become one of the most recognizable players on one of the nation's most recognizable football teams. His quirky sense of humor and willingness to be silly have made him a fan -- and media -- favorite. His path to the spotlight began with a class he took for his Film and TV major.
"I wanted to get in the groove of it," he said. "I got in front of a camera a few times, I enjoyed it, I opened up, I saw that I could express my personality in front of everybody, and people enjoyed it. I made people laugh, made them feel good, and that's when I started doing my little YouTube channel, Chocolate News, and it just went on from there."
The fact that he had a difficult childhood, with 13 siblings, not a lot of money, and a dad who's been mostly out of the picture, makes his happy-go-lucky demeanor and genial presence all the more impressive.
"I just like to make people smile," he said. "I've been through a rough life, so, you know, I don't like to be just down and stuff. That's not how you should live. You should be happy."
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't say Saturday whether he or his agent has been contacted by any NFL teams looking for a new coach. But after Kelly -- ever the politician -- danced around the issue a while, he finally said something that at least came close to the words Irish fans were hoping to hear.
"Leaving is not an option," he said. "I don't even think about it."
Speculation around Kelly's future has been high since seven NFL coaches were fired, including the Bears' Lovie Smith, last Monday. But Kelly, the Walter Camp coach of the year, said his focus is strictly on Monday's national championship game against Alabama.
"There's a strict protocol for that; they have to contact my representation and then they've got to follow through that," Kelly said. "If that did occur, then all that stuff is secondary to this football game. This is the biggest game that I've ever been involved in, so my focus is 100 percent on this football game. All that other stuff, that happens when you're winning football games. I've been through this a lot in my career. It's flattering if there is interest -- which I don't know that there is -- but again, that is such a secondary topic for me right now. It's all about this game."
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who had an ill-fated two-year stint as the Miami Dolphins coach in between jobs at LSU and Alabama, was more emphatic in shooting down any NFL rumors.
"I don't have any unfinished business in the NFL," he said. "It's not even something I want to do."
Kelly recalled that when he left Cincinnati for Notre Dame a little more than three years ago, he called it his "dream job." And he said that hasn't changed.
"I think, from my perspective, I've got the best job in the country -- NFL, college, high school, whatever," he said.
As for the future, yes, Kelly and his staff have been talking about the future. But, he said, it's been all about Notre Dame's future, not Kelly's own future, wherever it might lead.
"For three or four days here, I've been talking about our 2013-14 recruiting class," he said. "I'm talking about getting back here, about consistency. Those are the things I think about. I don't think about leaving, because I don't have that intention or feeling in my heart."
Everett Golson will be the starting quarterback for Notre Dame in the national championship game. In terms of college athletics, it doesn't get much better than that.
But the way Golson talks, it sounds like he'd almost rather be on a basketball court in Cincinnati on Monday night.
"Obviously, basketball is my love," he said Friday. "That's what I love. But my primary right now is football."
Golson said he has talked with coach Mike Brey about playing basketball for the Irish, but nothing really came out of it.
"I'd like to say I would like to have the chance of playing basketball someday here," he said. "But like I said, football is my primary, and what I'm focused on right now is the national championship."
Golson led Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High to a state basketball championship as a freshman starting point guard in 2008. He was an all-state pick as a junior after averaging 19.6 points, 5.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. Golson actually originally committed to play at North Carolina. He was asked Friday if he'd be playing both sports if he had remained with the Tar Heels.
"Maybe so, but you can never say," he said.
At this point, a bemused Chuck Martin -- Notre Dame's offensive coordinator -- chimed in.
"He's pretty good at his hobby, this being his hobby," he said. "Primary love's basketball, [if football] is just what he does on the side, he's actually pretty decent at it."
Chuck Martin didn't dumb down the Notre Dame offense in his first year as coordinator. He simplified it. That way, his players could simply play, instead of think.
"Before, everything was so complicated, we had so many different things in terms of reads," tailback Theo Riddick said on Friday. "He makes it so simple, you're not even thinking while you're playing, almost. It makes you feel like you're in high school again."
Oddly enough, though, Martin simplified things to better take advantage of his players' intellects. When he made the unusual switch from secondary coach to offensive coordinator following Charley Molnar's departure for Massachusetts last December, Martin didn't just want his players doing what they told him to do. He wanted them to understand why they were being told to do it.
"I think it starts with the offensive staff being on the same page all the time, and walking out to the practice field with a plan, whether it's a good plan or a bad plan, [and making] sure the kids understand the plan and why we're doing the things we're doing," Martin said. "It becomes simpler for these guys when you're not going with the military 'You do this because I'm the coach.' ... If you tell them what to do, hey, shut up and do it, they'll shut up and do it because that's how they're wired. But they'll think it's simpler when they understand why you're doing it.
"[You tell your players] 'OK, we're running this route versus this coverage, and here's why we're going to do it, and this is why it's going to be successful.' And then they look at it -- and we're fortunate at Notre Dame we've got some very, very, very intellectual kids that want to know the whys. Everett [Golson] doesn't want to just see a new route and say, 'OK, I'll run it, Coach.' ... I think getting our kids to understand the whys and not so much the hows has been a big benefit, and something that they take a lot of comfort in."
Tackle Zack Martin said Chuck Martin "brought a lot of balance to our offense," by emphasizing the run game, but that the new feel to the offense and the staff has made a big difference, too.
"I think they're more organized, starting on Monday when we get our game plan," Zack Martin said. "We're not changing plays at the last minute."
Irish receiver T.J. Jones agreed, and said having a consistent, reliable game plan makes the offense more effective.
"I'd say it's more fluent of an offense," Jones said. "We know what plays we're going to call, what schemes we're going to use, and that we're going to stick to the scheme. So he's made it easier on everybody."
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert doesn't think Alabama has seen anyone with his size, speed and skillset yet this season.
"I don't know," the unassuming senior said. "I don't think so."
Well, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner thinks he has -- current Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery.
"He's built a little like the receiver from South Carolina, Alshon Jeffery," Milliner said. "Just that type of size and height."
At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Eifert's actually three inches taller and about 35 pounds heavier than Jeffery, but Eifert's uncanny ability to go up and get the ball makes him seem more like a wideout than a tight end sometimes. And he does line up as a wideout from time to time, meaning Milliner will get a chance to defend him.
Alabama has the fourth-ranked pass defense in the nation, but Eifert said Friday that he thinks the Tide secondary can be had.
"They're not perfect, they're not Superman," he said. "They're a really, really good defense, but they have their weaknesses, too."
When pushed on what those weaknesses are, Eifert reluctantly relented: "They're good cover corner guys, but sometimes they may not play the ball as well as a receiver would in the air. Things like that."
Despite his All-America status, Milliner has heard that before. And he welcomes the challenge.
"I they say they can exploit it, go ahead," he said. "Hopefully, if they feel that way, they're going to try something in the game and we can change the way they think."
As the national championship game approaches, things have gotten pretty hairy for Notre Dame.
"We call ourselves the Beard Gang," safety Matthias Farley said of his shaggy Irish brethren. "We haven't shaved since camp. It started right before camp. We said, 'We're not shaving till we lose.' So some of us have a pretty nice beard."
Farley's is probably the most impressive of the bunch, a thick thatch of black facial hair that extends a few inches below his chin, and out the sides, as well.
"Mike Golic has the thickest beard," said scraggly safety Zeke Motta. "But as far as shape and color, I have to go with my boy Matthias."
And what if the Irish pull out a victory on Monday? Will the Irish finally shave, even though they wouldn't have lost yet?
"I don't know," Farley said. "That'll be a fame-time decision."
Well, burly Kapron Lewis-Moore sounded as if he already had made his.
"I don't know," he said, stroking his bushy beard. "I've gotta look good for the ladies."
Barrett Jones, Alabama's Rimington Award-winning center, sprained his foot in the SEC championship game five weeks ago, but returned to practice on Tuesday. He pronounced himself good to go on Thursday.
"I'm pretty close to 100 percent now," he said. "I think by the game I should be 100 percent."
Jones missed nine practices in all, but the fifth-year senior looks like he hasn't miss a beat, according to guard Chance Warmack.
Jones credited the Alabama training staff for that.
"Our trainer did a great job," he said. "First of all, I did a lot of swimming, which was kind of cool. It's hard. You guys ever swim before? It's exhausting. We had this really cool treadmill, called the Ultra G treadmill. It's a treadmill that kind of allows you to run on just part of your body weight. It's pretty neat. It's like your whole bottom is in a vacuum. You've got to look it up. It's hard to explain. But we had several different ways I was able to stay in shape, so I feel pretty good."
Or maybe the walking boot was just a crafty effort to keep the spotlight on the guys in the trenches. A savvy veteran move.
"The big players, we have to do anything we can to draw attention away from the skill players," Jones said with a wry smile. "I feel the boot was kind of a ploy to do that. Worked to perfection. It's a fifth-year thing."
Shortly after Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly pointed out that the BCS national championship game was an experience unlike anything any Irish player or coach has ever experienced, Alabama's players and coaches were asked if this stuff was old hat to them.
Alabama won the national championship following the 2009 and 2011 seasons, and is hoping to make it three out of four. For center Barrett Jones, one of the Crimson Tide players who've been a part of all three trips to the title game, it doesn't get old.
"It's pretty special," he said after the Tide landed in Miami on Wednesday afternoon. "It's something we try not to take for granted. People ask me all the time, 'Do you get tired of playing in the national championship?' Of course not. Every game is a little different and this going to be a big challenge for us. Notre Dame is a great team and we're excited. I can't wait to get there."
Jones, who returned to practice on Tuesday after dealing with a sprained foot suffered in the SEC championship game, didn't seem to think the Tide's overwhelming experience advantage would be a deciding factor in Monday's game at Sun Life Stadium.
But it doesn't hurt.
"I think that might be a little overplayed," he said. "Once you get on the field, it's going to be about not necessarily who's the best team, it's going to be about who plays the better game that day. Certainly our coaches have been in these situations and have learned how to effectively prepare us for the national championship game. I think if there is an advantage, that might be it."
Alabama coach Nick Saban again went to a well-worn anecdote when asked about winning a third title in four years.
"We're focused on what we've got to do in this particular game," he said. "Michael Jordan always said it doesn't matter how many game-winning shots I've made in the past, all that matters is the next one. And that's really what matters to our guys."
When Brian Kelly got off the plane and walked down the stairs onto the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale Jet Center on Wednesday afternoon, he recognized a few of the people in orange jackets from the 2009 Orange Bowl, when his Cincinnati Bearcats lost 20-7 to Virginia Tech.
But the orange jackets are about the only things that will be the same this time around. For Kelly and his players, this week will be an all-new experience, and unlike any bowl week they've ever experienced. This isn't the Champs Sports Bowl, after all.
"We're going to play the national championship game in Miami, so it's not like any trip they've had before," Kelly said. "It's not like any trip I've had before. So there was the anticipation when we got on the bus at the airport that they were really excited about this trip. It's something that you dream about when you play this game."
Receiver Robby Toma said the key will be to keep things as normal as possible. He also realizes how difficult that will be.
"In all bowl games, there are opportunities for your team to get better, and this doesn't change that," he said. "This week, it's difficult to focus with all the distractions especially in Miami. Coach is going to give us a lot of free time so we're going to be able to have fun, but when it's work time, it's work time."
That said, playing in big games is nothing new for the Irish. It's just a matter of magnitude.
"All season, the coaches have done a good job of keeping us grounded and not letting our heads get too big," he said. "So it won't be too difficult. Just having an opportunity to play for Notre Dame, with all the fan support and how many people follow us, every week is a big game. But this is the biggest game, and we're ready for it."
The Irish are 115th (out of 120 teams) in the nation in punt returns (averaging 2.4 yards per return) and 84th in the nation in kickoff returns (20 yards per return). Kelly said that the one-off nature of the BCS title game will allow him to put more playmakers on special teams, though he declined to name names.
"We think it's all hands on deck for our special teams," he said. "It's a one-game deal, so we can certainly add to the personnel on our ST. We'll probably look to do that. We have not been spectacular, but we haven't stunk up the joint, either."