There's a common adage among Irish fans that states Notre Dame coaches either become wildly successful (winning a national title) or they fail pretty convincingly within 3 to 5 years to come even come close to the program's traditional high standards.
This certainly has been true since the invention of color television as the Irish program has seen Parseghian, Devine, and Holtz cast in bronze with at least 1 national championship a piece to go with a combined 248-63-7 record (.790 winning percentage) while Faust, Davie, Willingham, and Weis all struggled to stay above .500 and never came near fielding an elite team if for just one season.
It's not as clean cut and dry before the Era of Ara but the same loose adage holds true: Harper, Rockne, and Leahy were great coaches with absurdly high winning percentages while Anderson, Layden*, Devore, Brennan, and Kuharich all struggled mightily to differing degrees.
*Elmer Layden is the lone exception to this dichotomy. His winning percentage is 6 points higher than Devine and 5 points higher than Holtz, he only lost 10 games over his final 6 seasons in South Bend, and he came super close to winning the 1938 national title. Alas, he is without a national title and he coached an absolutely loaded roster in an era where Notre Dame had as big of an advantage as any other program in the country. Calling him a failure probably isn't correct but he didn't meet expectations and Notre Dame really should have won at least one championship in between Rockne and Leahy with most of that falling at Layden's feet. Also, I'm not counting McKeever's 8-2 season in 1944 during WWII but that would be an outlier as well.
What this short history lesson shows is that a football coach being good/very good---and not either great or poor---is largely unfamiliar territory at Notre Dame. With a .717 winning percentage through 3 years in South Bend and coming off a 12-win season without a championship, Brian Kelly has quickly become an outlier in the pantheon of Notre Dame coaches.
One could certainly argue that Kelly's sample size is much too small and there's still some time for his career to play out---that much seems painfully obvious. With that said, here are a couple points to consider:
1) Men do not coach at Notre Dame for very long.
Rockne (13 years), Leahy (11 years), Parseghian (11 years), and Holtz (11 years) all had long successful tenures, but 22 out of the 24 other coaches in program history lasted 5 years or less---while Layden lasted 7 years and Devine just 6 years.
Holtz was 64-9-1 from 1988-93 only to be gone 3 years later. [Matthew Emmons, USA Today Sports]
Can Kelly remain healthy enough and successful enough to make it 10 years at Notre Dame, given he wants to stay that long? He'll be 59 years and 2 months old at the conclusion of the 2019 season---that's not terribly old but the pressure will weigh on him like it has every other coach in program history.
Moreover, we're only 2 short years away from the traditional 5-year litmus test that virtually every coach at Notre Dame has been judged by. Seems like Kelly's first 3 years have flown by---now imagine how quickly the end of the 2014 season will get here.
2) Even the most fervent anti-Kelly people are begrudgingly accepting that the current coach is a significant step (or five) ahead of the post-Holtz coaches.
"That's not a big deal" you may retort but Kelly is only 48 percentage points behind the immortal Lou Holtz heading in to this 2013 season, as well as 3 points ahead of the former Irish coach through 3 seasons---without a national title of course. There's been enough of an acceptance that Kelly's teams over the next couple years aren't going to fall back in to the muddy waters of 5-loss campaigns, and even with a big loss to dynastic Alabama a perfect regular season has convinced many that he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
So let's say Kelly is able to go 9-4 and then 10-3 over the next 2 seasons. With the positive momentum around the program right now you might think that's a little disappointing, and I would agree, but let's just start there for now. Following a 19-7 record for 2013-14 Kelly's winning percentage at Notre Dame would rise to .723, but if he even wins 1 extra game in each of those seasons he'll be sitting at a .753 winning percentage after 5 years at Notre Dame.
That would put Kelly behind the current records of Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (.756), Mack Brown, Texas (.777), Les Miles, LSU (.800), Bob Stoops, Oklahoma (.801), Nick Saban, Alabama (.839), and David Shaw, Stanford (.851) as coaches with higher winning percentages in a major conference with at least 2 years at their current school. Add in Urban Meyer and maybe some mid-major coaches and Kelly is still probably in the Top 10 among current coaches---for whatever its worth Athlon recently rated him the 4th best in the nation.
So let's think about this for a minute. A realistic assessment might put Kelly at about a .738 winning percentage after 5 years. This puts Kelly completely in the gray area that no modern Irish coach has ever dealt with, nor more importantly has the Notre Dame fan base ever had to come to grips with such a situation over the past 80 years.
Now, the natural flow of discussion moves toward postseason play. A .738 winning percentage with some postseason success is one thing, but without some key bowl and/or playoff victories the discussion could change quite dramatically. And it's here where the future ahead could get really interesting.
Think back to the months and months of talk surrounding the job safety of Davie, Willingham, and Weis. In the age of the mass popularity of the internet the contentious arguments surrounding the employment of Willingham and Weis alone lasted about a combined 3.5 years. It wasn't much fun except for those masochistic fans who enjoy the hiring and firing process as much as the Irish actually winning.
Now imagine a scenario where Brian Kelly can't cement himself as either a failure or icon---what are those arguments going to be like within the fanbase?
Would Kelly be treated more like Frank Solich (58-19, .753, 1 major bowl win) at Nebraska, Mark Richt (118-40, .746, 2 major bowls wins) at Georgia, or Frank Beamer (216-104-2, .673, 2 major bowl wins) at Virginia Tech? Of course each of those coaches' situations at their respective schools will be different than Kelly's at Notre Dame, but they are examples of 3 coaches who have resided in the Gray Zone but on different points of the spectrum in terms of success without a national title.
Remember Frank Solich? [Robb Carr, Getty Images]
Solich followed Tom Osborne at Nebraska (255-49-3 overall, .836, 9 major bowl wins, 3 national titles) and the poor guy never had a chance, being sent packing after 6 years in the Gray Zone, while Osborne went 60-3 and perfect in conference play over his final 5 seasons.
Richt was 2 coaches removed from Vince Dooley (won a title in 1980 by beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl) and has increased Georgia's winning percentage 129 percentage points (Kelly is up 142 percentage points from the combined 3 previous Irish coaches) in contrast to those previous two Bulldog leaders. Richt has been on a perpetual hot seat for a number of years but will go in to his 13th season in Athens this fall.
Beamer inhabits the opposite pole in relation to Solich as he got off to a rocky start at a tradition deficient Virginia Tech program, slowly built up the Hokies in to a regional power, but has never been able to breakthrough in to true national greatness. Despite that, he'll enter his 27th season in Blacksburg and is the longest tenured coach in Division-I football.
You may thinking there's no way Brian Kelly will even be remotely close to being on the hot seat after 5 years of hard work dramatically improving the Notre Dame program and something in the ballpark of 8 losses over the prior 3 seasons by January 2015. I would agree, there's a very small chance Kelly is going anywhere especially if he wins 10 or more games 3 years in a row.
The question I'm asking is how long can Kelly last in the Gray Zone? Would 1 major bowl win over the next 3 seasons buy enough goodwill? What about an appearance in the coming 4-team playoff but that appearance is a loss? What's the temperature going to be like for Kelly if he's at a .740 winning percentage after 2016 but with pretty modest postseason success---like 2 mid-tier bowl wins and one major bowl loss?
I see you there wondering in your head, "Man, these are Successful Program Problems way too far away to worry about" but they could soon be a problem, or at least a dilemma. Especially since I haven't brought up the giant elephant in the room that may have to be addressed at some point:
That's Knute Rockne's hallowed wins record at Notre Dame. If Kelly can manage to coach 8 more seasons in South Bend he'll need 9.6 wins per year and he's at the record. If he can manage 9 more seasons that's just 8.5 wins per year and he'd probably be passing Rock's record sometime late in the 2020 season or early 2021 season.
What if it becomes 10+ wins?
This really puts in to focus something I've always been incredibly intrigued by, namely, just how much patience the Irish fan base will have vis a vis the Gray Zone and under what circumstances Kelly is going to depart from South Bend. Remember, the Irish could play as many as 14 games in a season starting in 2014 so that all-time wins record is much closer than you think---and 14 games per season will also serve as an asterisk to many who deem it unfair in comparison to Rockne's 10-game seasons.
A segment of the Notre Dame fan base has always loved to divide the rest of the fan base into black and white, steel trapped, supporters or non-supporters of the current Irish head coach. It'll be this group that will feast on Kelly in the Gray Zone with more vitriol for every passing year. This is mostly why we recently saw this group go berserk after the rumors that the 2014 trip to Arizona State may be cancelled. The battlements are already being constructed ("We're dropping ASU, yet playing Temple, UMass and we'll probably add Duke in place of the Sun Devils!!") and the seeds being sewn to discredit a Kelly Gray Zone through the means of diminishing any future winning percentage due to a weaker schedule than past Irish coaches.
Of course these vultures are going to hover no matter what---they'll continue to bemoan the lack of leadership/decision making at the University and then quickly turn around and call for the firing of a .740% winning coach who doesn't win a national championship.
This isn't to say that Kelly shouldn't be let go after 7 or 8 years without a title, nor that the Lunatic Fringe's opinion is the driver in these discussions. But I really believe any type of scenario as depicted here has the ability to create far more contentious arguments than anything we saw with Davie, Willingham, or Weis---which is ironic considering Notre Dame would have finally found a fairly successful coach, finally made a smart hire, and the mudslinging could be worse than ever.
When I wrote the Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame (the final part IV with links to the other 3 parts here) I did so largely with the premise in mind that Kelly's era in South Bend would be a crucial time to take the program up 3 or 4 levels, that he needed to start ticking off several 'keys to rebuilding' that many Top 15 teams do on a consistent basis, and that if he achieved the majority of those keys but failed to win a title at least he'd leave the program in much better shape and the AD with a much stronger hand to play in enticing a new and elite head coach to town. Yet what I never thought much about until recently is how something like that could play out within the fan base and the psychological ramifications of having one of the top coaches in the country at Notre Dame but growing sentiment rising against him.
The Lunatic Fringe already think the majority of fans helplessly love Kelly---as if those who like what he's doing are mindless idiots who are financially attached to his success or something---and you can be sure that the LF will zero in on this subject with increasing pressure as fans actually do become fond of Kelly if he's winning 10 games a year.
If disagreements in the future are mostly about Kelly's inability to 'win the big game' that next coach is going to have a pretty tough task---which adds even more pressure to find a better coach. And what if that coach takes a step back from the Kelly era? Oh Lord, things could get ugly there as part of the fan base is bitter over Kelly leaving and another part screaming (as always) that the Administration can't get a hiring right. It's funny now because Kelly could have easily solidified himself as a top 5-ish coach, and we should be overjoyed by that, but doubt would start to creep in for even the most level-headed fans. It always does when there is no national title, and even in Holtz' example, the doubts flourish even with a championship.
Does Kelly stand any chance of developing himself into an institution at Notre Dame without climbing to the top of the mountain but instead with consistent 10 win seasons, or is that simply not in the ethos of the University?
In the end, that Rockne wins record will likely force Notre Dame's hand. I'd say with almost absolute certainty that there is no way the University of Notre Dame allows Kelly (or any other coach for that matter) to break that record without winning a national title.
We can debate if Kelly can win a national title (I think the odds are against him mainly because it's just an incredibly hard task mixed with a lot of luck and the impending playoff will make it even harder) but that is another argument for another day. If he doesn't win a championship all we can do is sit back and wait for the fascinating times ahead that may be so alien to the modern Notre Dame fan experience.