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Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly Versus Legendary Irish Coaches Through 90 Games

Forget about comparing Year 8. How did the legends do after they coached as many as Brian Kelly has?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame vs Army Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Kelly has a contract through 2021 with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, but his legacy at the university may already be set in stone.

Kelly, who has the most victories (230) of any coach currently coaching an Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) program, will undoubtedly come up short when Irish fans rank their team’s best coaches.

Let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

Comparing Brian Kelly to Legends

Brian Kelly is the worst coach Notre Dame has ever allowed to oversee its football team for at least 90 games. Of course, context is important here — the only other coaches to lead the Irish that long were Knute Rockne (122 games), Frank Leahy (107), Ara Parseghian (116) and Lou Holtz (132).


Fans and alumni want nothing more than for their favorite football team to win.

Record Through 90 Games

Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
HOLTZ 71 18 1 0.794
KELLY 59 31 0 0.656
LEAHY 72 10 8 0.844
PARSEGHIAN 73 13 4 0.833
ROCKNE 79 7 4 0.900
*As Notre Dame head coach @andrewwinn

Entering the 2016 season, Kelly and Lou Holtz held remarkably similar records through 78 games as Irish head coach. Had Kelly’s teams won the 2010 game against the Tulsa Hurricanes, the 2011 matchup versus the USF Bulls, the 2014 contest with the Northwestern Wildcats and the 2014 battle with the Louisville Cardinals, Kelly’s record would have been 59-19. Holtz was 59-18-1 in his first 78 games in South Bend.

This is where, of course, the paths diverge.

Holtz won his next 17 games, starting with a 52-21 drubbing of the lowly Pittsburgh Panthers.

Kelly, meanwhile, managed just four wins in 12 tries. He now has more losses (31) in 90 games than Holtz did (30) in 132 games.

Strength of Schedule

Brian Kelly squandered an opportunity to feast on a weak slate of opponents last year. The Irish’s foes went 77-67 (.534) last year, which was the 69th toughest schedule in the last 99 seasons.

Opponent records

Coach Wins Losses Ties Win %
Coach Wins Losses Ties Win %
HOLTZ 603 431 24 0.581
KELLY 664 483 0 0.579
LEAHY 407 396 40 0.507
PARSEGHIAN 447 465 21 0.490
ROCKNE 397 278 53 0.582
Through 90 games as ND head coach @andrewwinn

There was no Associated Press poll during Rockne’s tenure as head coach, but his 1927 schedule (games #86 through #94) ranks as the second toughest grouping in the 99 seasons studied.

Holtz, meanwhile, had 40 games against AP top 25 opponents in his first 90 games as Irish head coach -- and he won 26 of them! Contrast that with Kelly, who is now 11-14 (.440) against teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the game. Kelly is also 1-5 against teams ranked No. 10 or higher at game time. He just doesn’t win big games.

David vs. Goliath

Notre Dame fans hate to lose. The pain of that loss, however, is dulled if the loss comes at the hands of a team perceived to be “better.” Any loss to a team that fans consider “inferior” launches dozens of message board threads about firing coordinators, strength and conditioning staff, a head coach or an athletic director.

After beating all its unranked opponents in 2015, Kelly’s Irish lost to six teams who did not appear in the AP Top 25 the week of the game. Kelly is now 48-17 (.738) at Notre Dame against unranked teams and 26-4 when the Irish are ranked and their opponent is not. Those losses are to the 2011 South Florida Bulls, 2014 Northwestern Wildcats and 2016 Texas Longhorns, all who finished with losing records, and the 7-6 Pittsburgh Panthers team in 2013. (You may recall that game for this controversial call.)

This is Our House

A home win is the perfect capstone to a weekend in South Bend. No one should come to your house and push you around.

Kelly’s 31-12 (.721) record at Notre Dame Stadium seems pretty good, until you consider that he went 2-4 last season and that Rockne was 38-0-1 at home in his first 90 games.

Home Record Through 90 Games

Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
HOLTZ 35 7 1 0.826
KELLY 31 12 0 0.721
LEAHY 30 7 2 0.795
PARSEGHIAN 40 6 1 0.862
ROCKNE 38 0 1 0.987

Road Dogs

It’s satisfying to go into an opponent’s house and silence their crowd in a dominating win. My experience with our fan base, however, is they tend to forgive road losses more than home losses (unless they are against opponents deemed inferior).

Kelly’s Irish teams are not road warriors. They are 14-14 in his seven seasons, including 0-3 in true road games last season.

The four legends all won 75 percent of their road games (or more) by their 90th game.

Record During True Road Games (Through 90 Games)

Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
Coach Wins Losses Ties Win Pct
HOLTZ 26 8 0 0.765
KELLY 14 14 0 0.500
LEAHY 29 3 4 0.861
PARSEGHIAN 25 7 3 0.757
ROCKNE 31 6 3 0.813

Curb Stomping

Keep your foot on the accelerator.

When the Irish have built a big lead, fans want nothing more than for the offense to be unrelenting.

That’s not what has happened during the Brian Kelly era. Despite last year’s shellacking of the Nevada Wolf Pack, Syracuse Orange and Army Black Knights, the Irish under Kelly have won 48 percent of their games by fewer than 10 points.

There’s been a lot more parity in football since the days of Rockne’s men putting up 222 points in a season while surrendering just 27.

In his first 90 games, Rockne won 79 games — and just 11 were by margins of under 10 points. Even 51 of Holtz’s 71 wins in the time period studied were by 10 points or more.

Scoring Differential Through 90 Games

Coach Points Scored Points Surrendered Difference
Coach Points Scored Points Surrendered Difference
HOLTZ 2874 1580 1294
KELLY 2654 2015 639
LEAHY 2375 781 1594
PARSEGHIAN 2585 842 1743
ROCKNE 2292 417 1875

You Are My Bitter Rival

Beating a historical rival is a feel-good elixir for many of us. I studied six historical opponents – most are considered rivals; a few are not.

Here’s how each coach is doing through 90 games, with the caveat that Notre Dame has zero control over the ultimate successes or failures of other institutions during certain eras.

vs. USC Trojans

  • Lou Holtz: 7-0-0 (1.000)
  • Knute Rockne: 1-0-0 (1.000)
  • Frank Leahy: 6-1-1 (.813)
  • Brian Kelly: 4-3-0 (.571)
  • Ara Parseghian: 2-4-2 (.375)

vs. Michigan Wolverines

  • Lou Holtz: 5-2-1 (.688)
  • Frank Leahy: 1-1-0 (.500)
  • Brian Kelly: 2-3-0 (.400)
  • Ara Parseghian & Knute Rockne: n/a

vs. Michigan State Spartans

  • Lou Holtz: 7-1-0 (.875)
  • Brian Kelly: 3-2-0 (.600)
  • Knute Rockne: 3-1-0 (.750)
  • Ara Parseghian: 6-2-1 (.722)
  • Frank Leahy: 2-2-0 (.500)

vs. Navy Midshipmen

  • Ara Parseghian: 9-0-0 (1.000)
  • Lou Holtz: 7-0-0 (1.000)
  • Frank Leahy: 9-1-1 (.864)
  • Brian Kelly: 5-2-0 (.714)
  • Knute Rockne: 1-0-1 (.750)

vs. Purdue Boilermakers

  • Lou Holtz: 8-0-0 (1.000)
  • Knute Rockne: 6-0-0 (1.000)
  • Brian Kelly: 5-0-0 (1.000)
  • Frank Leahy: 5-1-0 (.833)
  • Ara Parseghian: 5-4-0 (.555)

vs. Stanford Cardinal

  • Frank Leahy: 1-0-0 (1.000)
  • Ara Parseghian: 1-0-0 (1.000)
  • Knute Rockne: 1-0-0 (1.000)
  • Lou Holtz: 4-2-0 (.666)
  • Brian Kelly: 2-5-0 (.286)

And Now...The Disclaimer

It is completely unfair to compare coaches from different eras because almost all aspects of the game have changed during the past 99 seasons. There are several issues that a head coaches can’t directly control: academic issues, injuries/luck and transfers, to name a few.

However, I undertook this amateur analysis because I believe fans do this sort of “apples-to-waffles” comparison, especially those who look back at the “good old days” with a certain reverence.

Looking Ahead

I don’t think it makes sense to compare Brian Kelly’s upcoming eighth season to the eighth seasons of other legendary coaches.

If Kelly’s team is bowl-eligible, they will play at least 13 games this year. So here’s how each legendary coach did in games #91-103.

  • Knute Rockne: This includes the second half of Rockne’s tenth season as head coach (1927) and the entirety of his 11th season (1928). The Ramblers compile a pedestrian 7-5-1 record, but do hand rival USC their sole loss of the 1927 campaign. They also do the same to the ‘28 Drake Bulldogs, who finish 7-1.
  • Frank Leahy: The lads run up a 12-1 record in Leahy’s 91st to 103rd games. These include wins over the then No. 9 Purdue Boilermakers, No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners and No. 2 USC Trojans in 1952, as well as the No. 6 Sooners, No. 15 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and No. 20 Navy in 1953. Their sole blemish is to No. 1 Michigan State in 1952, a 21-3 defeat in East Lansing.
  • Ara Parseghian: This time period covers the end of Parseghian’s ninth season and almost the entirety of the 1973 National Championship year. It’s probably no surprise, then, that Ara’s athletes compile a 11-2 record during this stretch. The two losses are to No. 1 USC and No. 9 Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl to end the 1972 season. Also included are wins over No. 6 USC and No. 20 Pittsburgh during the undefeated ’73 season. (If Kelly makes it to 14 games, Parseghian’s 104th game was the Sugar Bowl win over the Alabama Crimson Tide.)
  • Lou Holtz: Holtz’s 91st game as Irish head coach comes in the midst of the ’93 season, and the team will go 10-3 in its next 13 game stretch. Two of those losses are to the dastardly Boston College Eagles, who beat the Irish in both 1993 and 1994. The third loss is to then-No. 6 Michigan, a 26-24 nailbiter (which happens to be the first Notre Dame home game I attended.)