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A Lesson from Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly Screaming

Growing up about a mile from the campus of Notre Dame and being a lifelong fan of their football team, my Irish eyes have been smiling all season long. (For non-college-football fans, Notre Dame is playing January 7th for their first national title since 1988.)

Watching college football has always been a distraction from my ministry life. It’s one thing easy to compartmentalize and be unabashedly excited about. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I often overlay my fall ministry schedule against the Notre Dame schedule so as to miss lesser games for retreats and protect more important Saturday’s from ministry stuff.

But this year I actually learned something about youth ministry from my favorite team’s coach. While not exactly a traditional youth worker, Brian Kelly is a Catholic man who has spent his 20+ year coaching career investing in the lives of adolescent men.

Brian Kelly’s first 3 years at Notre Dame may become a case study in handling crisis and controversy only to discover first love all over again. (Something many youth workers deal with.) First, there was the horrible accident which resulted in the death of a member of the video team. Then, in the first game of 2011, he embarrassed himself on national television by very clearly cursing out his players after playing poorly. (Alumni were not pleased to see it replayed on ESPN over and over again.) Later in that same season, he inadvertently created further problems amongst his players by talking to the media about “his guys” being more committed than his predecessors. All season long, 2011 was marked by mistakes and turnovers that cost them games.

It all started to spin out of control over the summer when 2 players were arrested in South Bend at a party. One player pushed a cop and threatened him. On top of that he didn’t have a clear choice as a starting quarterback and they were facing their toughest schedule in years.

As a fan, I was prepared for this to be last year of his tenure as coach. I liked Brian Kelly. Everyone did. But Notre Dame isn’t the kind of place that cares much about moral victories. 

I had no idea that between year two and year three Brian Kelly had called the biggest audible of his life.

Kelly made every hire with the intention of spending more time with his players. Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

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Faced with two lackluster years… knowing that another one would just result in him getting fired… Brian Kelly did the most obvious, yet least likely thing imaginable: He got to know his players. 

I think a lot of us face a similar problem. Our roles have a tendency to pull more and more of our attention away from students. We justify that as “selling our vision” and “representing the students voice.” But, before too long, we fall into the habit of becoming advocates to strangers. We barely know our students… but we represent them all the time.

The tension is there. We think that if we create a great environment for our students that great things will just happen because of our leadership.

But, in reality the one thing our students need more than represented to the rest of the church… is us.

We need to focus on our first love, investing in the lives of teenagers. We need to fight against the seemingly gravitational pull to do other stuff. And we need to make sure we know our students and they know us.

It’s simple. But like all simple things… it’s just not easy.

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3 thoughts on “A Lesson from Brian Kelly

  1. As a fellow Bender, an Irish fan, and a youth worker who’s committed to putting youth ministry back into youth ministry, I loved this post.

    1. Who knew there were so many Benders in youth ministry? Crazy!

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