As we look ahead to the 2020 season, it is a bit surreal to think that Brian Kelly will be entering his 11th season as the head coach for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. For some perspective, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian, and Frank Leahy all concluded their careers with the Irish following their 11th season. Only Knute Rockne had a longer run as head coach, spending 13 seasons at the helm. While the Irish have come close to a national championship on two occasions, many fans still feel the Irish are worlds apart from the likes of Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State. Though the Irish are still chasing these programs, they have cemented themselves as a Tier 2 program over the past several years.
Since Kelly’s arrival in 2010 the football program has undergone massive changes which have brought the program into the 21st century. Though training tables were added during Charlie Weis’ last year as head coach, Kelly has continued to upgrade the program to give players better access to nutrition. Early enrollees have become the rule and not the exception under Kelly. This season the Irish welcomed nine early enrollees/transfers, a far cry from the original group of three in 2006. As more and more high school seniors seek to graduate a semester early in order to get a jump-start on their collegiate career,it became imperative for Kelly to push administration to allow this yearly, while also seeking ways to improve the transition process for these players both academically and athletically.
Kelly has also played a key role in getting field turf installed at Notre Dame Stadium in 2014, as well as the installation of the large video board in the south end zone for the 2017 season. This past summer, the Irish were able to open a new indoor practice facility. After years in the Loftus Center, the Irish will no longer have to worry about low ceilings, trying to fight with intramural sports for practice times, or safety issues with a track surrounding the field. Per Pete Thamel’s recent article, Kelly has set his eyes on upgrading the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to provide more space for things such as a sports science area and academics. Though these changes may not seem like much, or even if you yourself opposed them, they were necessary to keep the Irish on the forefront of college football. Tradition can get you in the door with recruits, but Kelly recognized the need to upgrade the facilities as a whole in order to keep attracting high level talent. He has been able to walk the tightrope of keeping many important traditional aspects of the football program while modernizing areas he is able to.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment in Kelly’s career occurred after the dismal 4-8 season in 2016. Change was the theme in January of 2017. He completely revamped his entire program in a few months time. Kelly hired Mike Elko from Wake Forest as his defensive coordinator and Chip Long from Memphis as his offensive coordinator, neither of whom had any previous ties to him. Furthermore, Kelly replaced one of his closest companions, head strength coach Paul Longo, with Matt Balis, who came to South Bend from Connecticut. In total, Kelly hired 17 new staff members following the 2016 season. Other notable changes Kelly instituted during the off season included: distancing himself from the offense in order to have more of a CEO approach to the entire team, committing to becoming a more personable head coach that all of his players felt comfortable around, and even toning down his fiery demeanor and communication style on the sidelines. How many coaches in college football have been able to reinvent his program and his personality in such a short period of time? I struggle to think of one.
Overall, Kelly has delivered a 92-37 career record with the Irish, good for a .713 winning percentage. Looking deeper, Kelly has gone 33-6 since the beginning of the 2017 season, good for a 0.846 winning percentage. In fact, Notre Dame has not lost to an unranked opponent since November 19, 2016. The only team in the country who has a longer winning streak against unranked opponents is Alabama, who hasn’t lost to an unranked team since 2007. Gone are the ugly losses that Irish fans had become so accustomed to under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis, and yes even under Brian Kelly (hello Tulsa, South Florida, and Duke). The program is the most successful it has been in a generation, something a guy like myself appreciates after having been born in 1994.
For as much as Brian Kelly has accomplished during his time in South Bend, he still has a large albatross hanging around his neck. Kelly is lacking a program defining victory in his ten years with the Irish. Whether through blowouts (2012 Alabama, 2017 Miami, 2018 Clemson, 2019 Michigan) or heartbreaking losses (2011 Michigan, 2015 Clemson, 2017 Stanford, 2019 Georgia), the Irish have not been able to get it done on the national stage. What seems to rile up fans the most is that in many of these games the Irish appear timid and weak. Notre Dame is often on their heels for much of the first half and look like a deer in headlights. Until the Irish are able to secure a win in one of these games, such as Clemson this November, Kelly will not receive the credit for the work he has done. While certainly not the big game coach that Nick Saban or Urban Meyer is, Kelly has tools to change the narrative late in his career.
In my opinion, a final piece to securing a national championship revolves around improved development from our quarterbacks. Not since Brady Quinn has the program had elite level play at the position. Everett Golson was a game manager. Sure, DeShone Kizer had a nice year in 2015, but he dropped off in 2016. Brandon Wimbush had accuracy issues. Ian Book lacked confidence for the better part of the 2019 season. Something has seemingly always been an excuse in the quarterback room under Kelly. After riding Tony Pike to an undefeated season at Cincinnati, this is the one area of Kelly’s legacy I can not seem to wrap my head around.
Why can’t we develop a premier signal caller? While we aren’t landing the Trevor Lawrences of the world, it isn’t like the Irish aren’t recruiting at a fairly high level. Most puzzling is how quarterbacks have seemingly regressed in their 2nd year under Kelly. To the naked eye, Golson, Zaire, Kizer, Wimbush, and Book all have seen their development stalled following their first season. I do not have a great answer to these struggles. Now, maybe with Tommy Rees as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the story begins to change. While I am not expecting Ian Book to become a top 5 pick in next year’s NFL draft, Book has the ability to play himself into a mid round selection. The Irish also have highly touted Tyler Buchner set to enroll following the 2020 season. Again, Kelly has time to change the narrative of this part in his career. However, change needs to happen quickly or the Irish will struggle to take the next step forward as a program that this fan base so desperately craves.
While we aren’t quite the powerhouse of yesteryear, we are again knocking on the door of the elite in college football, and we owe thanks to Brian Kelly for it. With a couple of upgrades within the program, Kelly should be in line to claim a national championship in the coming years. As Kelly enters into the twilight of his career, Irish fans should take a moment to reflect on just how far he has brought this program.