Notre Dame Football has one of the richest histories in the sport of college football. Despite not winning a national championship since 1988, the Irish are firmly entrenched as one of the elites in the sport. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the top ten greatest head coaches in the history of Irish Football. This will be a ten part series.
6. Brian Kelly
Record: 92-37 (includes games vacated by the NCAA during 2012 and 2013 seasons)
Brian Kelly was born in Everett, Massachusetts. During his youth, he excelled at football and played collegiately at Assumption College for four seasons. Following graduation, Kelly immediately jumped into coaching at Assumption. Not only did he become the linebacker/defensive coordinator for the football program, but he also became head coach of the softball team Kelly spent four years coaching at Assumption before moving onto Grand Valley State as a graduate assistant and defensive backs coach. After two seasons, he was elevated to Grand Valley State’s defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. Interestingly, head coach Tom Beck was hired away from Grand Valley by Lou Holtz to become the Notre Dame offensive coordinator for the 1991 season. At the time, Kelly was 28 years old but managed to beat out three other candidates to become Grand Valley State’s next head coach. During his 13 year run, he led the Lakers to 5 conference titles, 6 Division II Playoff appearances, and 2 national championships. After posting a 41-2 record during his final three seasons at Grand Valley State, Kelly was hired away by Central Michigan in 2004 to become their head coach. The Chippewas improved each year under Kelly, going from 4-7 to 6-5 to 9-4 and winning a MAC Championship. Three days after clinching the MAC, Cincinnati hired Brian Kelly as their new head coach. In 2007, his first full season at Cincinnati, the Bearcats recorded their first 10-win season since 1949. Cincinnati captured the Big East Title in 2008 and secured an invite to the Orange Bowl. In 2009, Kelly’s last season with Cincinnati, his team completed an undefeated regular season and rose to #3 in the BCS rankings. Following the dismissal of Charlie Weis at the conclusion of the 2009 season, Notre Dame reached out to Kelly. After the discussions concluded, Notre Dame announced Kelly as the program’s new head coach on December 10, 2009.
Kelly experienced a turbulent first season in South Bend. The Irish began the season 1-3, including a controversial overtime loss at Michigan State. Notre Dame righted the ship and recorded victories in the next three games to put their record at 4-3. However, the next three weeks would test the football program and university in ways unimagined. First, Navy blew out Notre Dame 35-17, setting off a massive panic amongst fans. Then, in the week leading up to Tulsa, tragedy struck the Irish program in a way no one could have predicted. During Notre Dame’s Wednesday practice, a video tower fell over and killed Declan Sullivan, who was a student videographer for the program. Sullivan was up in the air despite winds gusting up to 51 mph during practice causing many to question Kelly’s judgment. With the campus in mourning, the team went out and suffered an embarrassing 28-27 loss to Tulsa. Dayne Crist suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter, which forced freshman Tommy Rees into the game. Down 28-27, the Irish stood at their 19 yard line with 42 seconds left in the game. Instead of setting up for a field goal, Rees threw a pass into the end zone, resulting in an interception and allowed Tulsa to run out the clock. Following the Tulsa game, Notre Dame had a bye week. The media circle the Irish program like buzzards, condemning Kelly for Sullivan’s death off the field and his team’s poor results on the field. With some already calling for his job and forced to prepare a freshman quarterback to play the remainder of the season, Kelly readied his team to face #15 Utah in South Bend. In one of the more impressive games in the Kelly-era, the Irish came out and destroyed the Utes 28-3. Notre Dame finished the year on a roll, going 4-0 with Rees at the helm. To finish the regular season, Kelly gave the Irish their first win against USC in 9 tries and their 1st victory in the L.A. Coliseum since 2001. To cap the season, Notre Dame defeated Miami in the Sun Bowl to finish with an 8-5 record. Kelly became the first Notre Dame coach to win a bowl game in his first season with the program (Notre Dame did not play in bowl games from 1925-1968).
Notre Dame began the 2011 season with a #16 preseason national ranking. Unfortunately, they would climb no higher the rest of the way. Notre Dame’s opening contest was marred by nearly 3 hours of lightning delays and saw the Irish lose 23-20 to USF. Despite winning a summer long quarterback controversy (a Kelly staple during his time in South Bend), Dayne Crist lasted all of one half before he was benched for Tommy Rees, who would start the remainder of the year. Notre Dame took on Michigan in the following week and lost. After entering the 4th quarter with a 24-13 lead, Notre Dame yielded 28 points and lost 35-31. After the ugly start, Notre Dame reeled off 4 consecutive victories before losing to USC. Another 4 game win streak allowed the Irish to climb back into the rankings at #24. However, Notre Dame concluded the season with a loss to #4 Stanford and a loss to #25 FSU in the Citrus Bowl to close out the season with an 8-5 record. Following the season, Jack Swarbrick announced the athletic department would exercise an option in Kelly’s contract to extend his deal for two years through the 2016 season.
Entering his third season in 2012, Kelly was seeking double-digit victories for the first time in South Bend. Tommy Rees was suspended for the first game of the season after being arrested in May of 2012 when police broke up an off-campus party. This allowed Everett Golson to seize the starting position heading into the season. Although they began the year unranked, Notre Dame opened the season on a 7 game winning streak. Along the way they defeated #10 Michigan State, #18 Michigan, and #17 Stanford. Interestingly, Brian Kelly called on Rees in 4 of the first 7 games to replace Golson due to ineffectiveness or injury. The Irish rose to #5 in the country and set up a nighttime showdown with the #8 Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. Heading into the game, Bob Stoops held a 79-4 career home record at Oklahoma. In what may arguably be Kelly’s best win, the Irish rolled to a 30-13 victory, scoring 20 points in the 4th quarter to pull away from the Sooners. The following week Pittsburgh nearly derailed the perfect season. However, Notre Dame overcame its sluggishness to win 29-26 in 3OT, albeit thanks to a missed call by the officials, overlooking two Irish players that were on the field wearing the same number during the final field goal attempt. Standing at #3 in the BCS, Notre Dame rolled to a 38-0 victory over Wake Forest on November 17th. Amazingly, both #1 Kansas State and #2 Oregon lost later that night, elevating the Irish to #1 for the first time since 1993. In the final game of the regular season, Notre Dame won a hard-fought game against USC and secured a spot in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Prior to the National Championship game, Kelly was announced as the AP 2012 Coach of the Year. Many within college football felt Alabama was the superior team, citing Notre Dame’s measly average margin of victory of 16.4 points per game during the season compared to Alabama’s 28.1 points per game. Furthermore, Notre Dame won 5 of their games by 1 score or less. Unfortunately, the college football media was proved correct as the Irish were absolutely annihilated, losing 42-12. Notre Dame’s depth, simplistic schemes, and lack of star power was exposed. Despite the sour ending, Notre Dame finished the season ranked #4 in the country, its highest rank since 1993. The day following the National Championship, Kelly interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles to discuss their vacant head coach position. Ultimately, he decided to return to the university. Many fans quickly forgot about his dance with the NFL after he reeled in a consensus top 5 recruiting class in February of 2013.
Despite the loss of 6 players in the NFL draft, spirits were high around the program in the spring of 2013. Those good vibes quickly dissipated after sophomores Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal, and Justin Ferguson all announced they were transferring. In late May the school announced that Everett Golson would be suspended for the fall semester due to an academic violation. Kelly also announced that Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin would assume play calling duties. Tommy Rees re-assumed the mantle as starting quarterback. After beginning the year ranked #14 and defeating Temple, Notre Dame lost on the road to #17 Michigan. Victories against Purdue and Michigan State, a team that would go on to finish the season as the #3 team in the country with a 13-1 record, restored some shine to the season. However, all hope was dashed after #14 Oklahoma trekked to South Bend in late September. The Sooners jumped on the Irish with a touchdown on a 24 yard interception return. On the ensuing drive, Rees threw another interception on the first play, which allowed Oklahoma to race out to a 21-7 lead at halftime. Oklahoma would not relinquish the lead and walked out of Notre Dame Stadium with a 35-21 victory. Kelly refocused his team the following week and defeated #22 Arizona State in AT & T Stadium in the Shamrock Series. A four game winning streak left the Irish at 7-2 and ranked #23 heading into a road night contest against Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, a very average Pittsburgh team struck a death blow to any hope of a BCS bowl, defeating the Irish 28-21. A year after playing for the National Championship, Notre Dame found itself in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers, who they defeated 29-16. The bowl victory left Notre Dame with a ho-hum 9-4 record and a final ranking of #20 in the AP Poll.
There was an air of change around the program heading into the 2014 season. The Irish lost 8 players to the NFL Draft. Additionally, Kelly was forced to replace both of his coordinators as they left to take head coaching positions. Kelly promoted Mike Denbrock from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator. In what was seen as a splash move at the time, Kelly hired Brian Van Gorder to become his defensive coordinator. Van Gorder garnered much acclaim working with the Georgia Bulldogs during the early 2000’s as a defensive coordinator and spent 6 seasons in the NFL before arriving to South Bend. In a move that infuriated a large portion of the fan base, Notre Dame announced in April of 2014 that they would be installing field turf in Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly had pushed for this switch in the past and endorsed the moved. As a result, many fans “blamed” him for the athletic department deciding to update the playing surface.
On the field, Everett Golson returned to the team in spring and beat out Malik Zaire to reclaim his starting job. Kelly quickly made fans forget about the field turf issue, leading the team to a 6-0 start. The highlight of the first half of the season was the dismantling of Michigan by the score of 31-0, the Wolverines first shutout since 1984. Many fans felt another 2012 season was developing. Who could blame them after Golson threw a 23 yard touchdown pass to Ben Koyack with under a minute remaining to push Notre Dame past #14 Stanford. Kelly saw his team rise to #5 in the polls prior to a showdown with #1 ranked, and reigning national champion Florida State in Tallahassee. The Irish displayed an extreme amount of poise in such a raucous atmosphere. Van Gorder’s defense flustered Jameis Winston throughout the first half, and Notre Dame led 17-10 at halftime. Florida State answered back with 14 points in the 3rd quarter to leave the score tied at 24 heading into the 4th quarter. The Seminoles pulled ahead late in the final period with a 10 play, 75 yard march that culminated with a Karlos Williams touchdown. However, Notre Dame displayed resolve and worked their way down to the Seminole 2 yard line with less than 20 seconds to go. In one of the more controversial plays in Irish history, Golson threw a 2 yard touchdown pass to Corey Robinson with 13 seconds left in the game. However, officials ruled offensive pass interference on what they deemed was an offensive pick by C.J. Prosise. The Irish had one final play from the 18 yard line that ended with a Seminole interception in the end zone. The Irish dropped to #10 in the polls following the heartbreaking loss but rebounded to defeat Navy the following week. Then, the bottom completely fell out for Kelly and his team. The Irish lost their next four games in stunning fashion. Including the Navy win, the Irish ended the year by allowing 31 points or more in five straight contests as a once promising season ended on an extremely ugly note. Zaire was named the starter for the Music City Bowl against #23 LSU. The Irish won 31-28 as Kyle Brindza kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired. Notre Dame finished with an 8-5 record and unranked. After 5 years on the job, Kelly had produced three average seasons, 1 above average season, and 1 elite season. A complicated legacy was beginning to take hold in the eyes of many Notre Dame supporters.
The spring of 2015 saw another quarterback controversy heat up as Golson and Zaire competed to become the starter. Zaire emerged victorious and Golson announced his decision to transfer in May. Beginning the season ranked #11, Notre Dame shellacked Texas 38-3 as Zaire looked unstoppable. Unfortunately for Zaire, he suffered a fractured ankle in Week 2 against Virginia and missed the remainder of the season. DeShone Kizer came off the bench to lead Notre Dame to a dramatic 34-27 victory, throwing a 40 yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining in the game. After defeating #14 Georgia Tech at home, the Irish rose to #6 in the polls and again placed themselves in the thick of the national title hunt. On the first Saturday in October, Notre Dame readied itself to take on #12 Clemson in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin. Notre Dame trailed 21-3 heading into the 4th quarter. However, Notre Dame produced a dizzying 19 point rally. The furious comeback fell just short in what had started to become a theme in big games under Kelly, Notre Dame. Notre Dame lost 24-22 after DeShone Kizer was stopped on a two-point conversion with 7 seconds left in the game. Despite the setback, the team would go on to win its next six games, rising to #4 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and setting up a season finale showdown with #9 Stanford. Heading into the game, Kelly had yet to win on The Farm, as Stanford started to develop into his own personal bugaboo. The contest was a see-saw affair. Trailing 35-29 in the 4th quarter, Kizer directed a 15 play, 88 yard touchdown march that ended with him scoring on a 2 yard run with 30 seconds left. Unbelievably, the Irish could not hold Stanford. They allowed a 26 yard kick return, committed a 15 yard facemask penalty, and allowed a 27 yard pass completion to allow the Cardinal to move into field goal range. Conrad Ukropenia drilled a 45 yard field goal as time expired to exhaust Notre Dame’s playoff hopes. As a consolation, Notre Dame had to face #7 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, where they were drilled 44-28. The season ended with a 10-3 record, a final #11 ranking in the AP Poll, and many “what-ifs.” Despite the disappointing finishes the previous two seasons, Kelly sported a 55-23 record after 6 seasons on the job. In January of 2016, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick made the decision to give Kelly a 6 year extension to take his contract through the end of the 2021 season.
Heading into spring practice of 2016, an annual quarterback contest was being waged. Zaire, who had returned from injury, was competing with Kizer for the position. Kelly let the competition rage throughout spring and summer practices, undercutting either quarterback’s ability to assert themselves as a true leader. Little did Kelly know, this would only be the start of his problems during the 2016 season. The #10 Irish opened the season at Texas. Heading into the game, the plan was to play both quarterbacks. This proved to be a horrible decision as the team could not get into any sort of rhythm on offense. Even worse, the defense continued their alarming trend of being incapable of getting stops. The Irish found themselves trailing 31-14 in the 3rd quarter before Kizer helped lead a furious rally to force overtime. After surrendering a touchdown on defense, Kizer hit C.J. Sanders for a 25 yard touchdown pass on their first play of overtime to knot the score at 44-44. The Notre Dame offense could only generate a field goal on the ensuing possession. On Texas’ final possession of the game, the defense wilted and allowed Texas to score a game-ending touchdown in the 2OT period. The rest of the season would get no better. Kelly had no choice but to fire Brian Van Gorder after the defense surrendered 498 yards of offense in a horrendous home loss to Duke. Things continued to get worse for the team as they had to travel down to play N.C. State in the midst of Hurricane Matthew, where they lost 10-3. To make matters worse, Navy notched a victory against the Irish in early November. Many fans hoped to get through the final game of the season without any further damaging press to the program. Jerry Tillery quashed those hopes after he deliberately kicked the head of a concussed Trojan who was lying on the ground. Fittingly, the season ended with a 4-8 record after a 45-27 loss to #12 USC. Questions began to swirl if Kelly had completely lost control of his program. The offense was a mess, the defense had made a habit of allowing 30 points a game, and bad coaching decisions abounded.
Following the season, Kelly completely overhauled the program. Kelly brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Chip Long was hired away from Memphis to become his new offensive coordinator and playcaller. He lured Mike Elko from Wake Forest to become his new defensive coordinator. Brian Polian was brought on staff to head the special teams unit. Long time strength coach, Paul Longo, was jettisoned for Matt Balis. In total, 17 new staff members were hired that off-season. Not stopping there, Kelly interviewed 93 players following the season seeking input on what needed to change in the program. The prevailing theme was that the players wanted Kelly to be around them more and work to develop more personal relationships with the players. Kelly implemented the change and began to show up at weight room sessions and team breakfasts, while working to get to know all of his players. He also distanced himself from the offense and took on a CEO type view of the team. This allowed him to be involved with defense and special teams. Off-season leaders, labeled as SWAT captains, were introduced in an effort to make not only football, but academics, the cleanliness of the locker room, and knowing the Alma Mater a priority. Kizer decided to forgo his final season of eligibility and entered the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Malik Zaire joined 7 other players in transferring to other schools. In addition to the personnel changes, Notre Dame Stadium also underwent change. It was announced that the south end zone of the stadium would be receiving a gigantic video board, similar to those seen throughout many modern stadiums, for the 2017 season. The move rankled many traditionalist fans; however, Kelly endorsed the move and saw it as an opportunity to highlight state of the art facilities to recruits. The 2017 Irish were, for better or worse, set to look like a completely revamped program.
Notre Dame entered the season 2017 unranked. A season-opening victory against Temple meant very little in the eyes of the fans. They were more interested in watching Notre Dame in week 2 against #15 Georgia. Eight years into his tenure with Notre Dame, Brian Kelly was still seeking a program defining victory, though many gave his team little chance against Georgia. A back and forth affair ended with a 20-19 Georgia victory. Despite the off-season changes, Notre Dame was unable to win a premier showdown with a SEC power. After the loss, Notre Dame went on to win their next 7 games, highlighted by a 49-14 thrashing of #11 USC. The winning streak propelled the team to the #3 ranking in the College Football Playoff and set-up a showdown with #7 Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. The Irish entered the contest with a boatload of confidence, ready to show the country that they had turned a corner. Instead, the Irish looked just as far away from being a title contender as they were in 2012. Miami boat raced the team to the tune of 41-8. The Irish looked like a deer in headlights for the majority of the first half. The vaunted Irish running attack struggled, and Brandon Wimbush was downright awful. Kelly even pulled Wimbush for redshirt freshman Ian Book for several plays, hoping to jumpstart the team. After defeating Navy the following week, Notre Dame traveled to Palo Alto, a place Kelly had never won, to take on #21 Stanford. David Shaw continued to have Kelly’s number as his team outscored Notre Dame 21-0 in the final period to walk away with a 38-20 victory. Three weeks earlier Kelly’s team had been planning for their first trip to the Playoff and now were faced with the reality that they would not even make a New Year’s Six bowl game. Instead, the team found itself in the Citrus Bowl against #16 LSU. Thanks to a rainstorm, the game turned out to be a sloppy affair. Wimbush continued his late season swoon, forcing Kelly to insert Book into the game in the middle of the 2nd quarter to salvage any hope of winning. The move proved correct as Book threw a 55 yard touchdown pass to Mile Boykin with 1:27 left in the game, allowing the Irish to pull out a 21-17 victory. The Irish ended the year 10-3 and finished #11 in the AP Poll.
The momentum generated from the bowl victory quickly dissipated as Mike Elko and Harry Hiestand left the staff to take positions with Texas A&M and the Chicago Bears, respectively. Kelly elected to stay in house and promoted linebackers coach, Clark Lea, to defensive coordinator and senior offensive analyst, Jeff Quinn, to offensive line coach. Notre Dame began the 2018 season ranked #12 and were slated to open up against #14 Michigan, who they defeated 24-17. Notre Dame proceeded to run the table during the regular season, defeating #7 Stanford, #24 Virginia Tech, and #13 Syracuse along the way. The biggest shakeup in the program occurred in week 4 of the season. Despite the team’s undefeated record, the offense was sputtering and barely won against Ball State and Vanderbilt. Kelly made the tough decision to insert Ian Book into the starting lineup to replace Wimbush. This move provided the offense with a passing threat and helped to open up the running attack. Thanks to an undefeated regular season, Notre Dame earned a spot in the College Football Playoff as the #3 seed. Their opponent in the Cotton Bowl was #2 Clemson. Kelly was again presented an opportunity to shed the belief that he could not “wing the big one.” Unfortunately for everybody, he was unsuccessful is achieving his goal as Notre Dame lost 30-3. Digging deeper into the game, Notre Dame was only outscored 10-3 while All-American cornerback Julian Love was on the field. However, he missed a good portion of the game due to a head injury. This argument only further added fuel to the fire that Notre Dame had still not achieved “elite” status as they could not overcome an injury to a single player in the biggest game of the season. Despite the loss, Notre Dame finished 12-1 and #5 in the AP Poll.
Heading into the 2019 season, many pundits felt the Irish had a chance to play in the College Football Playoff again. Though the defense lost several key pieces, Ian Book and most of the offense returned. After opening the year with two wins, the #7 Irish traveled to Athens, Georiga to take on the #3 Georgia Bulldogs. Unlike recent showings in big games, Notre Dame displayed poise in the face of 93,246 rowdy fans, a Sanford Stadium Record. After going into halftime up 10-7, Notre Dame found itself trailing 23-10 in the 4th quarter. The Irish hung around and with under 48 seconds remaining in the game, stood on the Bulldog 38 yard line. Again, the Irish came up short in a high stakes game as a 4th down pass from Book to Chase Claypool feel incomplete, allowing Georgia to emerge victorious. Wins over #18 Virginia, Bowling Green, and USC set up another big game, this time against #19 Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Irish looked completely disinterested in the game and were blown out 45-14, calling to mind the 2012 Alabama and 2017 Miami games. Notre Dame surrendered 303 yards rushing and 437 total yards of offense. Just when it seemed the Irish could have folded and reverted back to 2016 form, Kelly rallied the team. Notre Dame would go on to win its remaining 5 games of the regular season. At the conclusion of the regular season, Notre Dame received an invitation to play Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl. Prior to the bowl game, Kelly announced that the program would be parting ways with Chip Long, effective immediately. Kelly stated, “I made a change in the staff on the offensive side of the ball with the best interest of the program in mind.” Tommy Rees was given playcalling duties for the game. The Irish capped their season with a 33-9 victory, and Rees was promoted to offensive coordinator in the off-season. Notre Dame finished the year with an 11-2 record and a #12 ranking in the AP Poll.
As you can see, the 10 year career for Brian Kelly has been filled with many ups and downs. Kelly currently stands as the winningest active coach in the sport of college football. He sports a .713 winning percentage during his time in South Bend. Not only have the Irish played for 1 National Championship and taken part in 1 College Football Playoff, an argument can be made that the Irish had championship caliber teams in 2014, 2015, and 2017. On the other hand, 2010, 2011, and 2013 were pretty average seasons, and 2016 season was a complete meltdown. Furthermore, Kelly only sports a 20-21 record against ranked teams as Notre Dame’s coach, hardly elite. Off the field, he has helped bring Notre Dame into the 21st century in terms of how a football program is run. He has continued to push for stadium upgrades while maintaining a traditional feel around Notre Dame Stadium. Additionally, he has made it taken what Charlie Weis started and continued to make it the norm for freshman players to be able to become an early-enrollee. Under Kelly the program has averaged the 13th best recruiting class in the country, again pretty good but not great. While I certainly agree Notre Dame should be able to reel in a consistent top ten class, it is a pipe dream to think the Irish will routinely be among the top five classes in the country. All of this adds up to placing Kelly 6th on my Top Ten list of Notre Dame coaches. He still has several years left to win a title and achieve the elusive “elite” status in the eyes of Notre Dame fans. However, as it stands, Kelly is a very good coach. Despite his shortcomings, he should be appreciated for helping shepherd Notre Dame out of the wilderness in college football and bringing meaningful football back to South Bend.
Stay tuned to find out who ends up at #5 on my list of “Top Ten Greatest Notre Dame Football Head Coaches.” Below are links to the other profiles in the series.