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Weekend Leftovers: Ragone, Kelly, Recruiting

This afternoon, Mike Ragone will make his initial court appearance for his misdemeanor marijuana charge in LaGrange County court. The proceedings might take less than 10 minutes, but they’ll likely carry a weightier consequence for the tight end, especially if he plans to play football this fall for the Irish.

This will be Brian Kelly’s first true disciplinary test, and for the most part, Kelly is playing his cards close to his vest.

""It’s one thing to have reports about him. I’ve worked with him over the past three of four months.” Kelly said last Wednesday. “He’s a hard-working kid who obviously wants to get his degree at Notre Dame and play college football.

“It’s one of those matters that I look at very seriously. We’re responsible for our student-athletes, whether some people like to shy away from that responsibility. We want to make sure they represent the university in a positive way.”

Ragone will likely meet with the Office of Residence Life over the summer semester, where he’ll find out if he’s going to spend next season with the football team, or suspended from school. Not to underscore the seriousness of the charges, but at any other school, Ragone’s looking at a one-game suspension. We’ll find out what Notre Dame thinks about Ragone’s mistake soon enough.

* The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning had a fawning column on Irish coach Brian Kelly last week, pointing out that both Michigan and Michigan State had chances at hiring Kelly, who drew the eyes of many with his impressive work at Grand Valley State and Central Michigan.

Kelly always had the coaching know-how, the savvy, the voltage, to be a remarkable Big Ten coach. Do you think his years at Grand Valley State, winning Division II national championships, were the product of a man leading a small-school team in ways that wouldn’t transfer to the larger stage?

It was foolishness even a decade ago to believe Kelly wasn’t on his way to becoming a major national coach. What he did at Grand Valley was no illusion. He got the recruiting discards from Division I schools, for the most part, and by way of a head coach’s engineering, discipline and inspiration turned the Lakers, pound for pound, into one of the slickest football powers in the country. (Grand Valley was 41-2 in Kelly’s final three seasons there.)

In the autumn of 1999, after Nick Saban had departed MSU for LSU, it was easy to mention Kelly as a potential candidate, even if he was 38 years old and had coached only in the NCAA’s second tier. That’s because all the national gurus who understood coaching pedigrees knew Kelly was special.

Michigan State never interviewed him. He was an hour drive away.

He climbed the ladder, of course, taking over Central Michigan when the Chippewas were lagging, and transforming them quickly into a power. But the Spartans looked past him again in 2002 when they fired Bobby Williams and hired John L. Smith.

Kelly got an even better handle on the Midwest recruiting turf at CMU, which he polished as quickly as he took the Cincinnati job when Mark Dantonio moved to MSU in 2006.

A year later, after Kelly had spent a year further toughening a Bearcats program Dantonio had nicely constructed, Michigan needed a football coach. Lloyd Carr was retiring.

Kelly was now 46. He had won at three different Michigan-Ohio stops. He had a sturdy resume, as well as the snap, crackle and pop of a man with intellect and personality -- the kind of coach who can talk substantively with a university president and turn around at that night’s banquet and fire-stoke the alumni.

But, again, he wasn’t quite tall enough timber for Michigan, which instead hired Rich Rodriguez -- a hire, by the way, that in this view was at the time as smart as Dantonio’s was in East Lansing a year earlier. And the belief here is that Rodriguez will yet win at Michigan, as Dantonio has been precisely what MSU needed.

The point is, Kelly never could quite get two Big Ten schools, in his backyard, to take him seriously at a point he was already emerging as a dynamic national coach.

It’s scary to think that both Kelly and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin spent most of their coaching careers in the back yards of Spartan and Wolverine fans, and now will be working tirelessly to defeat both teams in the first month of their Notre Dame career. After the start Rich Rodriguez has gotten off to, you’ve got to think there are quite a few Michigan administrators kicking themselves, especially with Kelly and Rodriguez running similar offenses, with Kelly spending his entire career in-state.

* Speaking of glowing columns about Kelly, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton spent 24-hours with the man in charge of Notre Dame nation, as he barnstormed the country. Hamilton goes into great detail about Kelly’s ability to meet-and-greet the masses. It’s not a skill that wins you football games, but it certainly is a skill that wins you the hearts and minds of a fanbase pretty hard-up for a winner.

“It’s not just about change,” Kelly says from his usual seat on the Notre Dame jet, third back on the right side of the plane. “I think it has to be met with an energy and excitement. You still have to get people to buy in. Even after having some lean years. They gotta believe in me.”

So he engages those people. He clutches their palms, absorbs the stories about family patriarchs who graduated from Notre Dame before the World War II. He meets their expectant eyes with the assurance they long for: We are part of this, you and I.

“This is really about, I think, making sure people know the head football coach at Notre Dame -- you can reach out and touch that person,” Kelly says. “It doesn’t sit up on a tower and is separate from what Notre Dame represents. It’s not this position that is guarded.”

Maybe he means to strike the note, maybe he doesn’t, but on this the contrast with his predecessor is impossible to ignore. Charlie Weis was not lovable, and the Guglielmino Athletics Complex was as welcoming as a Supermax penitentiary under his watch.

“No one loved Notre Dame more than Charlie Weis,” Kelly says of his predecessor, an alumnus. “He loved Notre Dame. He knew more about Notre Dame than I do.

“But I also know that a head football coach, regardless of whether it’s at Notre Dame or Central Michigan or Grand Valley is also an ambassador and a very influential person when it comes to shaping sentiments about how people feel about their program.”

I’m really impressed with the way Kelly handles the media’s questions about the previous coaching staff and Charlie Weis. There’s no way for Kelly to play the Notre Dame card the way Weis could, and to Kelly’s credit he doesn’t try to do that. He’s a head football coach, and Kelly plays that part of his resume up as well as anyone, which is something he should do, because he’s had as much success as any coach the Irish have had in years.