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Kelly's new pact about now, not future

In the end, a contract is just a symbolic thing now. Practically, it's just about walking-terms. Brian Kelly's new five-year deal at Notre Dame, announced Saturday, will not stop him from leaving for the NFL when he wants, will not stop Notre Dame from firing him when it wants.

So it's a little laughable when athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Kelly talked about this deal Saturday as a sign of where Notre Dame will be in four, five, six years.

It isn't. It's about where Notre Dame and Kelly are now.

And that's a good place. Kelly has brought Notre Dame back to national relevance. That might not be shocking news, considering that the Irish were in the BCS title game in January. Like I said, it's a symbolic thing.

"We've all been in discussion about the future of the program,'' Kelly said, after the Irish beat Temple 28-6 in the opener. "So when we come to an agreement, it's not necessarily that within it I get a lunch stipend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's about that we're all together in this contract about moving the program forward.

"Do you know what I mean? That's we've all decided that by singing this contract, we're all in it together.''

The truth is that Notre Dame is not really back to being its old self. It might never be. There is an entire level above the Irish now -- called the SEC -- but at least they matter again.

And the place just has such a different vibe than it did a few years ago. Remember the last contract extension Notre Dame gave out: to Charlie Weis. He was in his first year, and had lost a close game to USC. Fans and the Notre Dame power brokers had been in such panic about losing their place in the college-football world, and about losing Weis to an NFL team, that they then gave him a 10-year deal just to beg him to stay.

After a loss.

Weis turned out to be a disaster, though it took Notre Dame a little longer than everyone else to realize that. Before him, Ty Willingham probably wasn't going to work out, though panic led to Notre Dame firing him after three years.

Saturday was a little tribute to Kelly, actually. A nice little PR orchestration. Not only did he get the extension, but also he got his 200th career victory as a head coach. The school brought out Kelly's quarterback from years ago at little Grand Valley State, Jack Hull.

Way back, Hull was the leader in Kelly's first win. Hull said it was a nondescript win, actually. And then the team followed up by beating North Dakota State, which was No. 1 in the country at a lower level at the time.

Yes, but doesn't that mean Hull was around for Kelly's first loss as a head coach, too? And Kelly's notorious temper apparently used to be even more notorious. Hull said that, yes, the team lost the week after beating the No. 1 team in the country, 29-0, 39-0, 34-0, or something like that.

"The next week,'' Hull said, "was a rough week.''

Kelly had great success there, but also it's where he was learning at a small level where no one noticed his mistakes. Maybe those mistakes were about his excessive emotional highs and lows.

Well, that's a long time ago. And now Kelly has Notre Dame as a stable program again. But he hasn't reached that top level yet. The blowout loss to Alabama, which manhandled the Irish, was proof of that.

Kelly needs to get more speed in the program. He also has yet to develop a quarterback, which was the main thing he was hired for. It was his specialty.

He has started to have some success recruiting defensive linemen, and recruiting from the South, pulling players from the SEC. Weis never was able to do that. It's where the best players are.

It's a start. And so are the plans for stadium expansion.

You can look at growth and the longterm future, as Kelly and his bosses say they're doing. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

But there's no reason Notre Dame can't celebrate the now.