Where does Brian Kelly stand compared to the most recent great coaches at Notre Dame?
When thinking about Brian Kelly’s first six years as Notre Dame’s head football coach, it may be interesting to compare them with the first six years of two great Notre Dame coaches, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.
Through his first six years, Brian Kelly’s record is 55 wins and 23 losses for a winning percentage of .705. Ara Parseghian had the best record of the three as he won 48 games and lost 8 for a percentage of .842. Lou Holtz won 56 games and lost 17 for a percentage of .767. The three coaches coached in different eras that span a half century from Ara’s time to Brian Kelly’s time.
There is one revealing common denominator that unites all three coaches. All three became the head coach of Notre Dame after seasons of mediocrity.
From 1959 to 1962, Joe Kuharich was the head coach of Notre Dame. During his four years as coach, the Fighting Irish were 17-23. In 1963, Hugh Devore was named interim coach, but his team went 2-9. Notre Dame football had fallen into one of its worse periods ever.
In 1964, Notre Dame hired a dynamic young coach from Northwestern. His name was Ara Parseghian and he began one of the greatest periods in Notre Dame history known as the “Era of Ara.” The Fighting Irish had a great season in 1964 lead by senior quarterback Johns Huarte, who was a back-up his first three years and ending up winning the Heisman Trophy. The Fighting Irish were 9-0 and headed west to face Southern Cal. The Irish led 17-0 at halftime and were 30 minutes from a National Championship. Unfortunately, Southern Cal scored two touchdowns in two minutes, the last one being a 15-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 1:33.
Ara would win the National Championship in 1966 with the historic 10-10 tie with Michigan State, the only blemish on the record. Parseghian would conclude his sixth season by leading Notre Dame to its first bowl game since 1925. The Irish would lose to national champion Texas.
In 1981, Notre Dame hired a coach from Cincinnati Moeller High School named Gerry Faust. Like Parseghian, Faust was also very dynamic. He also recruited well, but unfortunately, Notre Dame’s record was only 30-26-1 with only one bowl appearance after Faust was released in 1986, Notre Dame hired a veteran coach in Lou Holtz (known to Millennials as Doctor Lou). Holtz had previously coached at William & Mary, North Carolina State, Arkansas, and Minnesota. He had a trying rookie season going 5-6 in 1986. Two years later, he won the 1988 National Championship. In his first six years, Holtz’s teams went to five bowl games, winning three of them en route to a 56-17 record. Once again, a coach led Notre Dame from mediocrity to greatness.
In 2005, Notre Dame hired the only ND alumnus to become the head football coach at Notre Dame in Charlie Weis. Weis had two great seasons in 2005 & 2006 but the football program became very average with the 2008 team going 7-6 and the 2009 team going 6-6.
After Weis was released in 2009, Brian Kelly was hired. Kelly, of course, had been successful coaching other schools. He had success at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and then with Cincinnati.
Kelly’s first two Notre Dame teams were a little better than average going 8-5 and going to bowl games both years. So far, Kelly’s best team has been the 2012 one, which were undefeated during the regular season but lost to undefeated Alabama in the National Championship game.
As we review, the first six years of Parseghian, Holtz, and Kelly. Parseghian had the highest percentage of wins followed by Holtz and Kelly. We have to acknowledge that they coached in different eras. Parseghian and Holtz could give out many more scholarships than the 85 that limit Kelly and his fellow coaches.
Second, demographic factors also matter in our comparison. In the 1960s and 1970s, Notre Dame recruited primarily in the Midwest which during that time manufacturing was big and many of the most populated states in the country were in the Midwest. Kelly cannot depend on the Midwest for recruiting. Another factor in Notre Dame’s favor in the 60’s and 70’s was that a higher percentage of great football players from Catholic schools went to Notre Dame. Today, they do not.
Since people have migrated to the sunbelt states, Notre Dame now has to recruit there, which it should. With the Fighting Irish now being part of the ACC Conference, the Fighting Irish are where they need to be as far as recruiting goes.
Finally, it is a bit unfair to compare Kelly with Paraseghian and Holtz. The latter two are in the College Football Hall of Fame and will always be remembered by Notre Dame fans. Despite Kelly not having as good a record as Ara and Lou, he too can have a great legacy at Notre Dame if he can win a national championship.
All three coaches have led Notre Dame football from years of mediocrity and won National Championships. Kelly has a chance to do the same. Hopefully, for Notre Dame fans, that day is close at hand.