SOUTH BEND - At 1:30 a.m. Friday, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o announced to the world - at least the portion of it connected to Twitter - that he had just finished watching game film.
Isolated, without context, it sounded like a player whose only focus was Saturday’s Irish opponent, a Navy team (2-5) sporting its longest losing streak (five games) since 2002, but which had stunned ND in three of the past four seasons.
But just a few posts earlier was a vague reference to the latest crisis percolating in the 20-game-old coach Brian Kelly Era: “Playin for my bros and that's it!!!! @dflem45 @RobJob293 @Carlo44Cal @KLM_89 @Freekey_Zekey17 @stadium20status @J_Slaughter26 #theoriginals.”
Several of the other players, in positions of leadership on this 4-3 ND squad, joined in the cyber-conversation as did former ND tight end Kyle Rudolph, now a rookie tight end with the Minnesota Vikings.
By daybreak, it was being classified as anywhere from a fissure in team chemistry to an out-and-out team mutiny, all because of the way words Kelly uttered during an 8-minute, 29-second meeting with the media on Thursday were parsed, dissected and interpreted.
Within minutes fans joined in the anti-social media fray, and several players awakened to find dozens of posts on their Twitter accounts from strangers verbally attacking them.
By mid-afternoon Friday, at a regularly scheduled team meeting, Kelly mended fences with the team, according to two sources close to the program, and claimed the quotes lacked context.
The irony is it’s all about context when it comes to the fourth regime to try to bring Notre Dame football back since former athletic director Michael Wadsworth and executive vice president Rev. William Beauchamp held the door open when Lou Holtz brought up the idea of walking away in 1996.
But the context gets lost in the bottom line, and Kelly continues to try to draw lines for everyone, sometimes awkwardly, as to just what his vision looks like and his methodology for arriving there.
It also gets muddied by modern technology - by Twitter-gate, for example, and by the amount of eyeballs that are trained in every minuscule detail of what Kelly does these days - and by the past, specifically by those in the Notre Dame power structure who can’t or won’t believe progress can be married with tradition.
The context includes a labyrinth Kelly must negotiate that includes, according to a former staff member who wishes to remain anonymous, how donors leverage their money, roadblocks by some administrators, and broken or heretofore non-existent relationships on campus that can’t wait ’til the offseason to be repaired or nurtured.
It’s little wonder there’s time at all for X’s and O’s - or to have enough breath to make a verbal misstep.
Here are the isolated, unframed quotes from Kelly on Thursday that led to the ripples inside the locker room:
“They’ve all bought in, every single one of them has bought in. (But) I coach a style of football that I want played, and we’re not getting that style. A lot of the guys that are here, we’re retraining.”
“You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We’ve had one class of recruiting, kids that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it’s a process. It can’t happen over night. They’re getting there. They’re making good progress.”
What Kelly was trying to illustrate is that he doesn’t do things the Charlie Weis way, for better or for worse. It’s not necessarily better, but it’s different. And one of the staples is player accountability.
How that plays out in Kelly’s glass house is when he criticizes players publicly in order to do that, those on the outside looking in sometimes cringe.
Sometimes those on the inside do the same. Earlier in the week, according to sources close to the team, some of the older players on the team were rankled by pointed comments Kelly made about backup quarterback Dayne Crist, a senior and former starter who fumbled near the goal line in ND’s 31-17 loss to USC last Saturday night.
While the upperclassmen are supportive of Rees’ status as the No. 1 quarterback, Crist remains a positive force in the locker room and one of the most popular - if not the most popular players on the team.
Where that puts ND for the rest of this season is that the team dynamic will be tested in every game moving forward. Last year’s leaders galvanized the team at its nadir, 4-5, and helped touch off a 4-0 finish.
But those leaders trusted Kelly’s vision. Does he have enough equity with this group to push through the latest hiccup and to fuel another winning streak?
That’s only one side of program-building, and perhaps the more difficult side short-term. Long-term, the more challenging aspect is selling the vision all over campus and beyond.
“Wherever I’ve been - Grand Valley, Central Michigan, Cincinnati - that’s been the case,” Kelly said. “But it’s more so here in that there are more people touching your program, There’s the dean of students, admissions, Residential Life - all those touch your program on a day-to-day basis.
“So if you’re going to build your program with longevity, it’s relationships I’ve built with those people. And those people have to trust that you’re going to get it done.”
But Kelly is also pushing traditions, like FieldTurf and JumboTrons, that are ruffling some egos in the power structure.
That’s not an entirely novel concept. Legendary coach Knute Rockne, with a sparkling bottom line, had to battle ND administrators over whether to build Notre Dame Stadium.
As his vision continually stalled in the dream stage, Rockne threatened to go coach at other schools - Columbia, Wisconsin, USC and Ohio State to name a few - in order to leverage the new stadium. Finally, it worked. In 1927, Rev. Matthew J. Walsh, the third of four presidents to serve during the Rockne head coaching era (1918-30), appointed three committees to study the feasibility of a new stadium.
For good measure, Rockne submitted his resignation to Walsh and flirted with Ohio State to push things along.
Resistance in the 2000s is more scattered, almost more random. The administration was in step with facilities upgrades, like the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, but one administrator blocked the concept of a training table for five years.
Sometimes decisions are made without even consulting the football staff. The switch in pep rally locales, for example, from its regular home in Purcell Pavilion to the Irish Green, created logistical nightmares for Weis and Kelly, in terms of getting the team fed and keeping a reasonable meeting schedule.
Then, there was a time, the former staff member said, when star quarterback Jimmy Clausen suffered an ankle injury during a game. Trainers so heavily taped his foot, tape covered part of the adidas logo on the shoe.
An adidas official, the source said, asked that tape be altered to show the logo. When Weis protested, an ND administrator sided with adidas.
In every push for progress, in every misunderstanding, in every corner of campus the vision is carried to, the head coach can never delegate. And that tugs at the head coaching position more than in simpler eras.
“Think about it,” Kelly said, “You can ask someone to lay the groundwork, but sooner or later, the head coach has to show up. The uniqueness of Notre Dame forces my time and commitment to building the program differently than at, say, Cincinnati.
“But whatever the difficulties and differences are, it shouldn’t and doesn’t stop you from building your program. In time, the process should get easier. When you build trust with somebody, do you need to see them every day? When you really trust them? No. We just have to keep bringing in the right kind of people, doing the right kinds of things and the program will get built.”