Brian Kelly interviewed with the Eagles, but opted to stay at Notre Dame. (AP)
For Notre Dame, the month of January was like some kind of endless bad dream, some strange combination of embarrassing, humbling, unnerving and simply ridiculous.
It started with a spot in the BCS title game, though the run-up to the game focused as much on the Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg tragedies as it did a return to on-field glory. The game was a 42-14 blowout, a disappointment, even if there is little shame in losing to Alabama.
Within hours, Brian Kelly was interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Hours. Who the heck interviews for another job hours after a blowout loss in the title game? When word broke of the blatant interest in jumping to the NFL – almost unfathomable to old-time fans – the head coach didn't apologize or release a statement. He went radio silent for a few days as Fighting Irish players, recruits and fans were left hanging in the balance, uncertain what was up.
Kelly finally decided to stay, only for news of Manti Te'o and Lennay Kekua to break, an outlandish story that quickly turned the star linebacker, and to a lesser extent the program, into a national punchline.
A school that prides itself on dignity above the muck of the sport – and often admirably tries to maintain it – was suddenly awash in a tidal wave of "Saturday Night Live" skits, Katie Couric and Dr. Phil sit-downs, embarrassingly shallow investigations and cringe-inducing headlines like: "Te'o's fake girlfriend was actually a man."
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Or trolling taunts such as: "The SEC. Real Football. Real Girlfriends."
This was January of 2013, a most un-Notre Dame-like stretch that could've distracted, or even destroyed, the program.
Only February arrived, and here was Wednesday's National Signing Day with Kelly, who never seems to blink an eye at anything, who carries himself with the supreme confidence of a self-made man, announcing a breathtaking recruiting haul.
"An exciting day at Notre Dame," Kelly said, and, with that, weeks of absurdity and uncertainty just seemed to float away.
The Irish finished with a consensus top-five recruiting class, coming in at No. 3 nationally according to Rivals.com.
Notre Dame signed four five-star recruits, the most for the school since such rankings existed. There were 14 more four-stars. There were speedsters from Florida and Texas, bruising defenders from California and punishing offensive linemen from the Midwest and Northeast.
It was some kind of perfect storm of recruiting magic, a 15-state roundup of talent that, just months ago, nearly every pundit in the game said Notre Dame was no longer capable of landing.
Remember when this program was supposed to be irrelevant, just an old, outdated sepia-toned shell of its former self?
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Remember when it was supposedly delusional in thinking a place of strong standards, real dormitories and actual academics, one with no conference affiliation and a cold, blue-collar hometown could still draw coveted kids out of places like Delray Beach or Mission Viejo?
It turns out that even after a stormy month, a full-throttle Notre Dame can still shake down the thunder.
Kelly may have danced with the NFL, causing doubts about his future commitment to the college game, and done it by not speaking to a single recruit for days – an eternity in today's cutthroat player procurement game – but the class held together.
He just got back to work, brushed off the Eagles, brushed off the Te'o jokes and brushed off the 'Bama game (heck, he used to dare recruits to take the program one step further). He's either unaware or unconcerned about what everyone else is saying. Whichever it is, that's one valuable personality trait for a coach, especially in South Bend.
For a program that was so fragile for nearly two decades that it always felt one setback from blowing up (which it always did), the Irish are suddenly rock solid.
"Well," Kelly said, "I think we eliminated confusion when we went back into the homes and all of our coaches were clear with why [recruits] were coming to Notre Dame [in the first place].
"These decisions were not based upon 'Notre Dame has a stadium that seats 81,000 and plays on TV,' " he continued. "These decisions were made based upon our distinctions at Notre Dame, a faith-based education, a community, obviously the high academic standards, and now their belief, not just my belief or my staff's belief, but their belief that Notre Dame can play for a championship.
"So when you have both of those together … it's going to keep them together."
[Related: Alabama claims another recruiting title]
In the past, even under Kelly, Notre Dame lost recruits at the last minute, or even after signing day. This time was the opposite. The Irish raided USC for five-star defensive back Max Redfield and five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and hit up the University of Texas for tight end Durham Smythe.
Notre Dame held onto Florida running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, despite rampant recruiting attempts down South.
Kelly's program had core leaders, like linebacker Jaylon Smith of Fort Wayne, who didn't just stick with Kelly, but spent the days Kelly wasn't talking to anyone doing it for him. He communicated with the rest of the class, making sure no one was bailing.
"We had a number of kids in this class that recruited each other," Kelly said. "That's what made this class such a strong class."
They began calling themselves the "Irish Mob," using hashtags on Twitter. Even as the world mocked 42-14 and laughed at Manti, Notre Dame became cool again.
Kelly just swept it aside and loaded up with the kind of athletes that might one day return to a championship game and, this time, give mighty Alabama all it can handle.
"We begin today by talking about what our future is going to look like," Kelly said Wednesday.
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