SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Coach Brian Kelly stood in front of his Notre Dame squad after its 20-3 win at Michigan State, congratulated his players on their big victory and gave them a quick reminder.
"Enjoy this win, but we are now focusing on Michigan," he said to the cheers of the Irish players.
He had a similar reminder when the team got together for meetings on Monday, asking players about the pats on the backs they had been receiving around campus following the win over the then-10th ranked Spartans.
"Wasn't that a nice change, to go to class and not hear how bad you are or what you should have done or what you didn't do?" he said. "They told you a lot of good things. It feels good to be there. But how we got there, we need to continue to do these things."
Notre Dame is 3-0 for the first time since Tyrone Willingham's first year as coach in 2002, when the Irish opened the season 8-0 and most of the current players were in elementary school. The Irish are ranked No. 11, their highest ranking since being ranked 11th when they were beaten 41-14 by LSU in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2006 season. This is new territory to all of them.
For fans eager to see the Irish return to college elite, the victories are a reason for hope. There's always a buzz around campus during the week of the Michigan game. The buzz grows a little louder when Notre Dame is doing well. The attention, Kelly said, is welcome.
"You want your team with confidence and you want people to talk about your team in the sense that this is a big game," he said. "Those are the kind of things that coaches want to try to balance. Because if you don't have confidence and nobody cares, that's not a good place to be. These are the dynamics that come with building a program."
So Kelly is working hard to try to make sure the Irish stay grounded and keep the 3-0 start in perspective heading into Saturday night's game against No. 18 Michigan.
"The thing I want to talk about more than anything else is we have to continue to grow as a football team. Our guys know how they got to this point. They've just got to commit themselves to getting better," Kelly said Tuesday
Kelly began laying the ground work last year to keep the players balanced, confident that success he expected would come someday. He put up a sign in the football building that they see every day as they leave the locker room and head to practice. The signs reads:
Don't believe or fuel the hype. Manage expectations. Avoid the noise. Speak for yourself
"They know what that sign means. And they know if they want to continue to be successful, they need to continue to do the things they are doing," he said.
Kelly fueled some of the hype himself when he described the victory over Michigan State as a "signature" win. He said Tuesday every successful season has a key victory.
His first year at Cincinnati, it was a 28-18 victory at Oregon State in the third game of the season. The next year it was a 26-23 overtime win over No. 20 West Virginia that helped the Bearcats capture their first Big East title. In 2009, it was a 47-15 in the season-opener against Rutgers.
"I think each year you have some of those kinds of wins that kind of set you in a direction," he said. "We're 3-0. We didn't give out any rings yesterday. So we have a long way to go toward that end."