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Notre Dame's Brian Kelly can relate to Randy Edsall's rebuilding effort

If any of his coaching peers can relate to what Randy Edsall is going through in his first season at Maryland, it is the man who will be on the opposing sideline Saturday night at FedEx Field in Landover.

Like Edsall, Brian Kelly came to a more high-profile position — in the case of Notre Dame, one of the most highly-scrutinized in the country — after having success at a Big East school.

And, as Edsall has already experienced in his first 10 months in College Park, many wondered if Kelly was the right man for the job.

Some still do.

Though recent victories over Navy and Wake Forest have helped soften the mood since Kelly — like Edsall — questioned the level of talent he inherited in South Bend from Charlie Weis when he was hired before last season, the coach who built Cincinnati and two smaller programs into perennial winners believes it is part of the transition most coaches go through when changing jobs.

"There's a philosophy that's been laid down, there's a way of doing things, and you're coming in — you're not smarter than anybody else, you just do it differently," Kelly said during his weekly press conference Tuesday. "When they've done it a certain way for so long and there's been certain personalities talking to them, there are different voices. Different philosophies on how you want to succeed. There's a transition there, it just takes time. Nobody's patient. I understand that."

What Kelly has encountered in his first two seasons goes beyond the less-than-spectacular 14-8 record, including a 1-3 start in 2010 and the 0-2 start this season. It includes the tragic death last season of a student videographer who was killed after being thrown from a scissor lift that had been buffeted by 60 mile per hour winds. It also includes Kelly's verbal misstep when he insulted several of his players, including his defensive star.

Though Declan Sullivan's father said he never considered suing Kelly or the university, the on-field questions about Kelly repeating the success he had with the Bearcats, who he led to a 12-0 record and a BCS appearance in 2009, linger. Fans and players —especially those he trashed and later apologized to at a team meeting the day before the team played Navy on Oct. 29 — remain divided.

The jury is still out on whether Kelly can be more, or even as successful, as Weis and some of his other predecessors.

"You had (Ara) Parseghian, you had (Dan) Devine, then you had Lou Holtz, and the expectations were really high after Holtz," Kurt Hoffman, a longtime Notre Dame fan, said as he snapped pictures on his cell phone of Holtz's statue outside Notre Dame Stadium a couple of hours before the Navy game. "I think Brian Kelly is the best coach we've had since Lou Holtz."

Hoffman, a high school guidance counselor in Grand Rapids, Mich., has followed Kelly's career arc since he built the program at Grand Valley State, then at Central Michigan.

"I think they have a ton of talent here, I just don't think the leadership has been where it should be," Hoffman said. "It will get there. He's a football guy, he knows what he's doing. I watched him at Grand Valley. He put Grand Valley State on the map. But I'm usually optimistic."

It isn't clear whether Kelly's apology has been fully accepted by all of his players. His public questioning of the team's talent came in the aftermath of a 31-17 loss at home to Southern Cal Oct. 22 that all but ended Notre Dame's chances for a Bowl Championship Series invitation this season.

"You can see the players that I recruited here," Kelly said two days before the Navy game. "You know who they are. We've had one class … that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along. But it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. We're making good progress."

Many players — including junior linebacker Manti Te'o — took exception. According to the Chicago Tribune, Te'o tweeted "Playin for my bros and that's it!!!" Another player, senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, wrote on his Twitter account, "awful man."

But senior running back Jonas Gray said after the Navy game, "He (Kelly) did a great job of handling it. Our team did a great job of handling the whole situation. We are definitely unified from top to bottom. We had some things that we needed to hash out, and we got that across to Coach Kelly."

Helped by an easy victory (56-14) over a Navy team starting a sophomore at quarterback for the first time, and later surviving a close win (24-17) at Wake Forest last Saturday after the Demon Deacons fumbled late in the game at the Notre Dame 9-yard line, the ongoing tension has dissipated a bit this week.

"I definitely think we've come together and strengthened from the top down," junior quarterback Tommy Rees said in a teleconference Wednesday. "We've built a chemistry here that everyone's playing for each other. Success is kind of a product of that."

Though nothing should happen to change that this week — despite Kelly channeling Holtz and talking about the Terps as if they were the LSU Tigers — Kelly is smart enough to know the only thing that will secure a longtime future at Notre Dame is multiple BCS invitations and possibly a national title.

They all eluded Weis, Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie.

"Transition is a tricky word, we're in a journey here and that journey is to get to playing like a champion every day," Kelly said. "We are committed to the process. We're committed to getting there. We're certainly in that journey process right now."

As for his embattled Maryland counterpart, whose signature victory at Connecticut came against Weis and Notre Dame in 2009, Kelly said that Terps fans should be patient despite the rumblings that have erupted during Maryland's 2-7 season.

"I know Randy Edsall. He's a good football coach. I've gone against him, I've seen him develop," Kelly said. "It's going to happen at Maryland. I just hope it doesn't happen this weekend."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kelly was the Notre Dame coach during Connecticut's win over the team in 2009. The Sun regrets the error.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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