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Eight Notre Dame football coaches make ESPN’s Top 150 greatest in history list

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EIGHT.

Frank Leahy
Notre Dame’s retiring Frank Leahy, after a tour of the football stadium promised, “In the future, I won’t be so pessimistic about Notre Dame teams.”
Photo by Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Even if the pollsters have tried to bury the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this season, there’s no way to get around the Golden Dome when it comes to the 150 years of college football history. ESPN has been pushing lists and documentaries out all season, and their latest list is right in Notre Dame’s wheelhouse.

The folks in Bristol published their Top 150 Coaches in College Football History, and the Irish have six coaches ranked in the top 90, and eight overall.

3. Knute Rockne

Rockne created modern coaching. He was a brilliant tactician, to be sure, but he also created the coach as CEO. He marketed his small, Midwestern Catholic institution in America’s biggest cities, taking his team to where the immigrant Catholics could root for them. He applied his motivational skills to business as a top executive for Studebaker cars -- while he coached. And Notre Dame kept winning. He had five unbeaten seasons and won four national titles (1919, 1924, 1929 and 1930). Rockne’s winning percentage of .881 remains first among FBS coaches nearly a century after he died in a plane crash in 1931 at age 43.

10. Frank Leahy

He spoke in courtly language, referring to his players as “lads,” but no one mistook that gentlemanly demeanor as anything other than good manners. Leahy would do anything to win and rarely did anything but win. His postwar teams at Notre Dame were so good -- the freshmen who enrolled in 1946 never lost a game -- that backups enjoyed long NFL careers. The Irish won four national titles in seven years. Leahy drove his players no harder than he drove himself. The stress became so great that he nearly died during the 1953 season. He retired at age 45 and never coached again.

15. Ara Parseghian

He took Northwestern to the top 10, but it gnawed on him that no one in Chicago cared. They cared about Notre Dame, though. In the ‘60s, who didn’t? The Irish had wallowed in mediocrity for more than a decade when he arrived in 1964. Parseghian nearly stole the national title that season. People at Michigan State and Alabama still think he stole the 1966 title, settling for a 10-10 tie with the Spartans because he deduced (cynically? efficiently?) that the Irish would win the debate. No one argued about the 1973 national champs, who defeated the Crimson Tide (the schools’ first meeting) 24-23 in one of the greatest Sugar Bowls ever. He retired a year later, exhausted. He was only 51 years old.

23. Lou Holtz

Holtz always said he believed in “faith, family and football.” The stats (10 top-10 teams, seven 10-win seasons) don’t measure the great work he performed in rebuilding the foundation over six seasons at South Carolina. Nor do they illustrate how he tamed the tiger that is coaching at Notre Dame. He took a floundering Irish program and three seasons later won the 1988 national title. He still thinks he should have won the 1993 title, when the Irish defeated eventual champion Florida State. His record in South Bend stands as tall as anyone’s not named Rockne or Leahy. Holtz left after 11 seasons; he said he didn’t want to coach as long as Rockne (13). Lovely.

88. Dan Devine

The more important of Devine’s two Big Eight titles at Mizzou over a 13-year span was the first, the one in 1960 that broke Oklahoma’s long hold on the league. After four mediocre seasons in Green Bay, Devine returned to the college game’s biggest job. He replaced Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame and led the Irish to a national title in 1977, his third season.

89. Brian Kelly

Kelly led Grand Valley State to two Division II national championships. He won conference titles at Central Michigan (MAC) and Cincinnati (Big East). Though he hasn’t won a national title at Notre Dame, he has come close: a BCS championship game loss in 2012 and a playoff semifinal loss in 2018. More importantly, he restored respectability to the Fighting Irish.

95. Elmer Layden

He is better known as one of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen and the hero of the 1925 Rose Bowl. Layden returned to his alma mater in 1934 as the second coach to replace Knute Rockne. His record of 47-13-3 in South Bend would have been viewed as a success at any other school. But after hearing a solid drumbeat of criticism, Layden jumped at the chance to become NFL commissioner in 1940.

131. Jesse Harper

First, Harper won a bunch of games at Alma and Wabash, 23 in all. But it was at Notre Dame where his legacy was truly shaped. He championed the forward pass and used it to upset Army in 1913. He also hired an assistant by the name of Knute Rockne. Before handing the reins off to Rockne in 1918, Harper went 34-5-1 in five seasons in South Bend. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Jim Crowley, another member of the 4 Horsemen, was ranked #130. Crowley coached the Michigan State Spartans and finally for Fordham.

It’s... well it’s a very subjective list. While I suppose there are many arguments that can be made within the 150 man ranking — this is an incredibly tough task to undertake.

I’ll just leave it at that.

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