SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly's real work is just starting.
Sure, he's made 150 or so appearances as an ambassador for Notre Dame since taking over as head football coach last December. He ran spring practice, installed parts of his spread offense and 3-4 defense, and got a glimpse of what kind of talent he inherited from Charlie Weis.
He's analyzed and studied the roster, and heard about all the expectations for one of the country's proudest programs that has gone 16-21 over the last three seasons.
Now, he says, it's time to start making improvements and progress on the field. After great success in transforming three other programs — Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati — he's hoping to carry it over at Notre Dame.
He's already changed the climate with some rules. Hats and earrings during any football-related endeavors are a no-no. And when you're practicing, your helmet stays on your noggin where it belongs.
His imprints are everywhere, even on the cover of the team's media guide that he helped designed. It shows an early Notre Dame team sporting the look of the day with leather helmets, jerseys without numbers and no facemasks coming out of the tunnel with imposing looks on their faces.
The cover resembles a painting in Kelly's office.
"I think that is the pervasive theme here: let's get back to understanding the great tradition, who we are, how we play the game," he said Friday. "We won't go as far as no facemasks, but I will tell you that toughness, that 'Fighting Irish' is certainly the theme that we want to continue to advance forward."
Being tough doesn't necessarily translate into victories and that's where everything really hinges — the satisfaction of the alumni and widespread fan base, and successful recruiting.
When it was noted that his two most recent predecessors, Tyrone Willingham and Weis, got off to good starts in their first seasons before eventually faltering, Kelly acknowledged that it's his plan to start strong and get better.
"We took this job over with the idea that we're not going anywhere. I'm staying here for the rest of my life and going to coach Notre Dame," Kelly said.
"It's not like there's the next part that has to be implemented, let's get off to the good start here and next year we'll do this. This is all about getting this program nationally in the top echelon immediately and then continue to work on that every single day."
Kelly's teams during his three full seasons at Cincinnati went 33-6 with two straight Big East titles and two BSC bowl bids before he got his dream job in South Bend. His final Bearcats team last season went 12-0 in the regular season.
Now he takes his hurry-up offense to a place where so many want him to hurry up and win.
The Irish lost prolific quarterback Jimmy Clausen and top receiver Golden Tate. Kelly must count on Dayne Crist, who played four games as a backup last season before injuring his knee, as the replacement for Clausen.
Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph are the top pass-catching threats and Armando Allen led the team in rushing last season. Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson are key returning offensive linemen.
A porous defense that allowed nearly 400 yards per game last season returns top linebackers in Manti Te'o and Brian Smith and a powerful nose guard in Ian Williams.
Kelly lists his team's depth, especially on the offensive line and at running back, as strengths. He also likes the playmaking ability of his team on perimeter. Depth at quarterback behind Crist — where Joe Montana's son, Nate, is a backup — and depth at defensive line are vulnerabilities, according to Kelly. He considers the kicking game a question mark.
All to be addressed by a Sept. 4 opener at home against Purdue.
Kelly expects his players to graduate and to comport themselves as representatives of the school and the program. No wonder he was not happy last month when eight of his players were arrested for underage drinking at a party in South Bend.
"We've already handled it internally. We've already addressed it," he said without providing details.
Preseason practice starts Saturday.