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Set to break Knute Rockne’s record, Brian Kelly knows Notre Dame legacy rests on winning national title

Written by on September 24, 2021

Statues of Notre Dame’s national championship coaches almost stand guard around the Fighting Irish’s 91-year-old stadium. Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz. You don’t need the first names. Bronze gods erected to salute the chase that matters most in South Bend, Indiana.

More could be made about the milestone Brian Kelly will soon pass. The next win by Notre Dame’s current coach will be his 106th, the most in school history, passing Knute Rockne. They’ve made movies about Rockne. Kelly knows they won’t build a statue to him no matter how many games he wins … unless he qualifies.

“I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history,” Kelly said during a conversation with CBS Sports this week. “The coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship. That’s where I’ll sit.”

It’s clear Kelly has thought about the answer. There will be no crowing despite the fact he is about to pass Knute freakin’ Rockne. If he lasts three more seasons, Kelly will also pass Rockne as the football powerhouse’s longest-tenured coach.

But that statue? There is only one way he gets it.

That’s a significant storyline hanging over Saturday’s game against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field. The game was circled on calendars years ago. Playing a Big Ten opponent in Chicago checks a lot of historical boxes.

The Irish (10-0-2) have never lost in Soldier Field. They played there in 1929 when Notre Dame Stadium was being built. ND’s first claimed national title came in 1924, the year Soldier Field opened.

So wedging in Kelly’s legacy alongside the game itself almost has to take a backseat to real time. No. 12 Notre Dame is in the mix again following two College Football Playoff appearances in the last three years. That’s a chase of a different kind, one that hasn’t been completed.

“We’ve brought Notre Dame football back to its relevance in competing for championships,” Kelly said. “You continue to build toward that goal of winning a championship. Other than that, everything is judged — rightly so — on winning national championships. I knew that coming in.”

The drought is now 33 years. It was 22 years when Kelly was hired away from Cincinnati in 2010. The entire Irish enterprise has been moved forward, sometimes through fits and starts.

There was a time five years ago CBS Sports said Notre Dame was “running out of reasons” to keep Kelly.

And when you’re an independent that can annually assemble its own schedule, there’s only one goal. Within those parameters, perhaps no other ND coach has been scrutinized as much as Kelly.

If it wasn’t his red-faced sideline outbursts — heightened to a national conversation by television partner NBC — it was an NCAA investigation that stripped him of wins in 2012 and 2013. That penalty led Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins to call the NCAA process in an academic fraud case “perverted.”

The death of Declan Sullivan and the Lizzy Seeburg sexual assault scandal go beyond scrutiny. That will remain part of Kelly’s legacy, too.

“No one has handled the pressure at Notre Dame like you. Nobody.”

That’s what Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin texted to his old boss this week. Martin was an assistant for Kelly at Grand Valley State (2000-03) and Notre Dame (2010-13).

“When it comes to Notre Dame, you’re either a Notre Dame fan or everybody roots against you,” Martin said. “You hear all the stories about all the great Notre Dame coaches and how it’s so consuming. He’s just handled it like nobody else.”

Al McKellar has seen it from the beginning. McKellar basically begged for a job as an offensive line assistant 30 years ago at Grand Valley State. He had been a high school coach in Grand Rapids, Michigan. McKellar gladly took on the task and everything that went with it. That included selling advertising for the scoreboard.

McKellar remains one of Kelly’s closest friends witnessed a textbook progression from Grand Valley to Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame. He held hands with the family as Kelly’s wife, Paqui, beat breast cancer — twice. McKellar is a Kelly historian, who was once trusted enough to run the coach’s Kelly Cares Foundation.

“You’re gung ho. You’re 20 years old. You want to get back on the horse and ride,” McKellar said of a young Brian Kelly. “At some point, you have to put the horse back in the stable. When he had that direction … he understood.”

In a profession that values uniformity, Kelly’s had no choice but to change, grow and mature as a coach. That’s led to championship postseasons for the Irish in 2012 (BCS), 2018 (CFP) and 2020 (CFP).

Kelly’s evolution remains a hot topic. In 2002 at Grand Valley State, he spread the field, running up a bunch of yards and points on his way to a 14-0 record and national championship. The next year, the Lakers lost a core of their team. Kelly ran the ball and played defense. Same result, beating North Dakota 10-3 in the national title game.

Kelly got hired because of the same spread fireworks at Cincinnati that culminated in a 12-1 season in 2009. That wouldn’t exactly work at Notre Dame. Following the 2011 season, Kelly took his safeties coach (Martin) and switched him to offensive coordinator. The next year, Notre Dame played for the national championship.

“The point is, you don’t do that at Notre Dame,” Martin said. “If you go 8-4, 7-5, they’re not really happy with him. But Year 3, he’s looking at his team; he’s looking at his organization. … He’d probably never share it, but he felt like that [coaching switch] gave his team the best chance to win.”

“Quite frankly, when I came to Notre Dame, I was trying to fit an offense to the players that were here in place,” Kelly said before last season’s playoff. “We’ve evolved. … You can see it’s built on a strong running game, the ability to still spread the field, but to be physical at the line of scrimmage. And it’s matching what our philosophy is on defense.”

Those two playoff appearances have produced similar results. Notre Dame was outclassed by Clemson in 2018 and Alabama in 2020.

It all hit Kelly last Jan. 1 after being blown out by Alabama, 42-14. While the Irish had been retooling, the Crimson Tide had revolutionized the game with a record-breaking offense. Kelly turned surly in his postgame.

It would be fair to call 2021 a transition year. Quarterback Jack Coan was brought in to be a plug-and-play starter following the departure of dual-threat Ian Book. Kieren Williams remains a strong runner, but a previously intimidating offensive line simply isn’t so far.

Notre Dame had the look of a playoff team last season. We don’t know yet three weeks into 2021. Beating a Wisconsin team with similar profile may not answer many questions. The Irish probably still have to go undefeated to return to the CFP.

This is not nearly the end for Kelly, still a relatively young coach at age 58. Rockne was stopped by cruel fate. His last game — that 105th win — is a reminder of what Kelly is chasing. On Dec. 6, 1930, Notre Dame beat USC, 27-0, to get what the school claimed (before the wire service era) to be a second consecutive national championship.

Slightly less than four months later, Rockne was dead.

Rockne’s .881 winning record is still No. 1 all-time among major college coaches. Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy is No. 2 at .864. The winningest active major-college coach is Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (.810).

At .729, Kelly is in eighth place at Notre Dame among coaches who lasted at least six seasons. It’s a job that grinds up those without a square jaw. In the 133-year history of the program, the average Irish coach has lasted barely longer than the average letterman, 4.29 years.

But this current run under Kelly — 46-8 since 2017 — is Notre Dame’s best since going 64-9 from 1988-93.

There are only few places he could go at this point in his career. The NFL, for sure. Kelly interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.

Perhaps there would be temptation if the likes of Ohio State, Florida, Clemson or Alabama came open; however, the coaches at those programs are all firmly entrenched among the top 10 in the sport.

Don’t even think about the opening at rival USC.

“You can’t make that move,” a coaching friend said. “Notre Dame is unforgiving. You’re done. You’ll break Knute’s record, and you’ll be hated ,and you’ll never be welcomed back. He’s not ruining his legacy. You don’t go through what you’ve gone through at Notre Dame and throw it all away and go work at USC.”

So, is Kelly a lifer under the Dome?

“His contract, he will definitely fulfill,” McKellar said. Kelly’s deal runs through 2024. “Then he’ll sit down and analyze everything. I’ve watched his wife beat breast cancer twice. I love Paqui. She is the rock who holds and has held that whole this whole thing together.

“You’re talking about one of the strongest and most powerful women I’ve ever been around. She didn’t overcome cancer by accident. It never stopped her from smiling, from talking, from cheering. All that stuff helped Brian move down the path.”

Suddenly, getting a hunk of bronze in your image outside Notre Dame Stadium doesn’t seem like as much of a priority.


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