Notre Dame’s devastating season has put Brian Kelly under the microscope. Every comment that he makes, action that he takes, play that he calls, and every important decision is being criticized and questioned. There is no doubt that he is under immense pressure at the moment. It comes with the job and the expectations from coaching the University of Notre Dame. It’s also a sign of how quick perceptions can change in college football. In February, Kelly came off of a 10 win season in which he probably did his best coaching job in guiding an injury depleted roster through a treacherous schedule all the way to the Fiesta Bowl. Not only that, but he also assembled a talented recruiting class that filled a lot of holes in the roster and got a good head start into the 2017 class. For all this, he was rewarded with a huge 6-year contract extension that expires in 2021. Not only that, but with the retirement of Frank Beamer last season, Brian Kelly now has the most wins among active head coaches. Fast forward to the midseason break, Notre Dame is 2-5 and Brian Kelly is on the hot seat. Many are even calling for his job and believe that the coach’s time is up. Talk of Kelly’s demise may be a bit premature.
First off, Notre Dame is not going to sack Brian Kelly after giving him a new 6-year contract extension. That would be ludicrous considering that 2016 marked the last year payments were owed for Charlie Weis’ 10-year contract extension signed following the 2005 season. Wouldn’t it be insane to finally be done with paying your former head coach’s contract for the past six years only to fire your current head coach and have his contract hanging over your head for the next five years? That would be absolutely crazy and something that the Notre Dame administration will not be too eager to do. Not to mention that some sources have Brian Kelly earning in excess of $4 million per year, making him one of the top ten highest paid coaches. The university can afford it, but won’t likely be enthusiastic to pull the trigger.
Next, the job that Brian Kelly has done at Notre Dame so far in six years has earned him the slack to have one bad season. He took over from Charlie Weis who had this program performing at a mediocre level for his last three years and Notre Dame had lost some of its shine. People stopped talking of Notre Dame being an elite program and recruiting began to fall off. In Kelly’s first 6 years, he focused on getting Notre Dame to being fundamentally sound, better conditioned, and more competitive in games. This saw an uptick in his winning which saw him go 55-23 in his first six seasons for a win percentage of .705 which was significantly better than Charlie Weis’ win percentage of .565. He also brought Notre Dame to the national championship game in 2012. While Kelly’s success might not have been as eye-popping like what Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have done, it is still respectable for the stability that he has brought.
Also, in his time in charge, Brian Kelly has developed an understanding of the university’s distinct situation and the quirks that come with coaching at the University of Notre Dame. Being a Catholic university, Notre Dame can be a cultural mismatch for certain players who don’t identify with the university’s faith based alignment. While having strong academics can be a strong sell for many prospects, it also sets a high bar for the requirements of admission. It doesn’t just stop at recruiting, but the rigors of the classroom can at times be greater than football for these student athletes. Location is also a major factor. Indiana is not a state that produces many high level prospects and the university isn’t located near the major recruiting hotbeds of California, Texas, Florida, or Georgia. The closest major recruiting states to Notre Dame are Michigan and Ohio and have to battle the likes of in-state schools such as Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State for those recruits. All of these factors makes recruiting and coaching at Notre Dame a special kind of tough, but it seems that Brian Kelly has come into his own with the challenges.
As he has progressed with the university, his recruiting has become more balanced and effective. Kelly knows how to pitch the uniqueness of Notre Dame to recruits and sell its academics along with football. The “4 for 40” (4 years for your college education for 40 years of a successful career outside of football) has become part of every recruit’s vernacular. He has created an immersive experience for recruits who come onto the Notre Dame campus who leave feeling something special. His staff has been innovative with recruiting creating tools like the “Pot of Gold” and the “Irish Invasion” camp in order to draw in the most talented recruits from around the country to Notre Dame. This has possibly been the biggest contribution during the Kelly era and a precursor for future success. Every subsequent year since the Irish Invasion camp has been launched, Notre Dame’s recruiting has progressed in exposing top recruits to Notre Dame and its brand at a younger age and an earlier point in their careers. Top prospects are being exposed to Notre Dame in their sophomore or junior years in high school which gives the program a leg up in competing with top schools. The top 2018 quarterback, Phil Jurkovec committed to Notre Dame after the end of his sophomore year. This year, Notre Dame entered the season with the bulk of its recruiting class settled allowing it to selectively pursue higher ranked prospects (a drastic change from earlier in his tenor or the Weis era when the program would scramble in January to fill the class or fail to assign all the scholarships). It’s become so efficient that Notre Dame currently has 6 commitments for the class of 2018, all of whom committed prior to taking a snap in their junior seasons.
A lot has been done during the Brian Kelly era, it would be a shame to see that all gone following one horrific season. This is his annus horribilis, a year of disaster or misfortune. Everything that could have gone wrong this season, has. It’s just one of those years. But to hit the reset button on the entire program would be rash. Let’s not forget that Notre Dame’s men’s basketball coach Mike Brey went 15-17 in the 2013-2014 season, Notre Dame’s first in the ACC. At the time there were those who thought that Mike Brey took the program as far as he could and that Notre Dame was in need for a change if it were to progress any further. He then went on to post the most wins in a season the following year, won the ACC title, and went to make consecutive Elite 8 appearances in the NCAA tournament and taking his reputation to a whole new level. Let’s not forget about a guy by the name of John Wooden who despite his success only made the NCAA tournament in 3 of his first 13 years at UCLA and took 22 years at the program to win the first of 11 national titles. Even he had several rough seasons following early success and is widely considered the pinnacle of college coaching. The point isn’t that Brian Kelly will become Mike Brey or John Wooden, just that sometimes coaches and programs will have painful years where they are down and should be given the chance to turn it around. The silver lining is that the coaches are correcting some of the fundamental issues that were in place, a lot of young players are getting plenty of experience, and the team should be returning most of their starters for the 2017 season. There could be a chance that the Brian Kelly era has a happy ending after all.
Image credit to Irish Sports Daily.