SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson like to call Notre Dame's team chemistry a “brotherhood.” That's a good word.
Brothers squabble. Brothers compete. Brothers run the gamut from love to hate for each other. Ultimately, brothers have each other's backs.
Somehow, some way – and certainly winning every game helps – Notre Dame's coaching staff and players have built an atmosphere conducive to that elusive team chemistry.
“One thing I see that we have is that unity,” Golson said. “With that, you can achieve great things. Having that brotherhood really helped us through and really helped us get to the point where we are now.”
That's not to say Notre Dame, which plays Alabama in the BCS National Championship on Monday, didn't have moments of disagreement or out-and-out arguments. It couldn't have been pleasant for either Golson or Tommy Rees – or Andrew Hendrix – when coach Brian Kelly fluctuated on his quarterback. I'm sure there were sides drawn privately over which quarterback should be handling the load.
But you could also go through other areas of the team, outside of the obvious stars such as Manti Te'o or Tyler Eifert, and find areas where feelings could be hurt. Consider wide receiver John Goodman. His playing time was limited, even as he proved effective at making big catches when he got the chance.
The best coaches find a way, whether it's through tough love or off-field activities or something even more unorthodox, to bring players together, to get them to understand the larger goal is bigger than any of the individual parts.
“Our guys care about each other,” Kelly said. “I'm not saying they're hanging out, every one, and love each other. But they care about each other. When you care about each other, you have a chance to be a good football team.”
Kelly obviously has a strong grasp on the X's and O's of the game. He's a strategist and a good one. He knows how to prepare a team for every situation on the field. Yet if there was one thing that was considerably different this season, it was his decision to cut back on outside commitments, promotional or whatever, and spend more time with his players.
“If you are running around the country doing things, it's hard to have the pulse of your team,” Kelly said. “I made it a point to spend more time with our team this year. …It was getting back to why you would want to coach college players. You want to learn about them, know their strengths and weaknesses, help them with their leadership skills.
“This has been my most enjoyable year because I got to spend more time with my team.”
That time develops trust between coach and players, and allowed Kelly to make moves that might not have been popular but were accepted because the relationships had been built. It's the sort of trust that allows guys competing for playing time, such as Golson and Rees, to work together to make the team better even when they know one of them will likely be watching.
“I think this team is 12-0 just because of our unity,” Golson said. “That really serves as the foundation of great teams for me. That's one thing I saw in this team earlier in the year, that togetherness and understanding of what we'd been through in the spring and summer and all those workouts. We've just been exemplifying that throughout the season.”
Unity and brotherhood don't win games, necessarily. Golson must run the offense well against an Alabama defense that might not be as good as some of its predecessors, but still includes a bunch of “NFL first round picks,” according to Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.
Notre Dame's defense must close down the Alabama running game and bring pressure on the quarterback. Te'o and the other defensive players must be ready for a potentially low-scoring game and tighten up in the red zone to surrender field goals before touchdowns if they surrender anything at all.
But there's no question a lack of unity and brotherhood – poor chemistry – can lead to a loss. If Notre Dame hadn't been a tight unit, would it have been able to pull out games like Pittsburgh, where it looked headed the wrong way almost from the start? Doubtful.
“A lot of pride and a lot of work behind the scenes go to those two things – guys caring about each other and playing the game the right way.”
A band of brothers can be awfully tough to beat.