Despite his success as Notre Dame football coach, Brian Kelly has his share of flaws and shortcomings.
Brian Kelly is the most successful Notre Dame Football Coach since Lou Holtz. That’s not up for debate. This season, Kelly won the AP Coach of the Year Award. His second time winning it at Notre Dame. That’s a very impressive accomplishment, and not something done every day. The more or less consistent winning is a mark of a very good coach, and it’s a lot better than coaches like Charlie Weis.
To this point, there is a black mark on the Brian Kelly era, and I’m not talking about having wins vacated.
It is the Irish’s inability to win a major bowl game, let alone a National Championship. This is what separates Kelly from the all-time great Notre Dame coaches. A lack of a National Championship also keeps the fanbase hungrier than they’d like to be. It makes those around the program less forgiving of 4-8 seasons.
So, while Brian Kelly is undeniably a good coach, why can’t he get Notre Dame over the hump?
There’s a few reasons:
The first is that recruiting at Notre Dame isn’t as easy now as it was for Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz or the rest of the greats. Notre Dame is no longer special in terms of national visibility. The NFL scouts have also proven to be able to find players anywhere around the country. Furthermore, Notre Dame isn’t all that close to where most of the talent coming from. That would be the SEC and Big 12 for the most part. Finally, 17 year-olds today don’t remember the great Irish teams. They remember the Irish teams that didn’t meet expectations.
It’s tough to get talent into South Bend.
A second issue for Kelly has been a difficulty in developing quarterbacks while at Notre Dame. Brandon Wimbush, for as great of a leader and teammate he is, is the latest example of a Notre Dame quarterback who underperformed based on his natural talent. The list of good not great, or simply above average quarterbacks under Kelly is a long one, including Malik Zaire, Deshone Kizer, Everett Golson, Tommy Rees, and Dayne Crist.
Now, Ian Book looks to have as much a shot as any of them to be great next season, but that’s yet to be decided. He didn’t look great against Clemson, the best team he saw all year. If you want to win National Championships, you need your quarterback to step up in those games, even when they’re not getting much help. Otherwise, more great defenses and offensive lines could be wasted under Brian Kelly.
This is especially disappointing because when Brian Kelly came into Notre Dame, he came with the promise of great quarterback play. He left Cincinnati, having coached QB Tony Pike, one of the best quarterbacks in that program’s history. Subsquently, it has been disappointing to see what Kelly has done with quarterbacks at Notre Dame.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Kelly has not prepared well enough for big games. Maybe overshadowed by Jim Harbough’s own ineptitude in this department to be the butt of jokes, Kelly has been outcoached by other very good coaches. Dabo Swinney, Urban Meyer, Kirby Smart, Mark Richt and David Shaw have all beaten Kelly in big games since 2015. This year, Clay Helton of all people nearly out-schemed Kelly to ruin Notre Dame’s perfect season. Helton used simple routes to get receivers open quickly and hold onto the football. The Irish defense was slow to adjust, and it nearly ended in disaster for Notre Dame.
These factors have combined to keep Notre Dame from jumping to being very good-if-not consistently great. Brian Kelly falls under the same category as a coach — very good, but unfortunately not consistently great. He needs to adjust for Notre Dame to truly awaken the echoes.