Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2021 Issue

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 45 of 47

46 MAY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED F our short years ago in the an- nual offseason rankings of the Football Bowl Subdivision head coaches, Brian Kelly's stock had plummeted. A 4-8 finish in one's seventh season on the job at a school will do that. CBS Sports dropped him 10 spots from the previous year down to No. 22, while Athlon placed him at No. 25. If only Kelly could get the most out of his players — like Mike Brey was doing for the basketball program with his looseness. At the time, Brey was at the peak of his head coaching career with a school-record seven NCAA Tourna- ment wins in three years, a 2015 ACC championship and a runner-up fin- ish two years later, and back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, while Kelly was at his nadir. Notre Dame football coaches don't survive losing records beyond their first season, be it Hunk Anderson in 1933 (3-5-1), Terry Brennan in 1956 (2-8), Joe Kuharich in 1960 (2-8), Bob Davie in 1999 (5-7), Ty Willingham in 2003 (5-7) or Charlie Weis in 2007 (3-9). With Gerry Faust, it was even more tangible with a 5-6 output in year one (1981) after having been a top-five program the 17 previous years. So here we are four years later, and the first such college football coach- ing rankings we've found were re- leased by The Athletic's Bruce Feld- man and Stewart Mandel this March. Kelly was No. 3, behind the two obvious choices of Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney. That duo has combined for seven of the last 10 national titles, five of them with Saban's semi-pro fran- chise based in Tuscaloosa. At the same time, a second losing season in three years and a fourth straight year sans NCAA Tourna- ment conversation has made Brey the new target of slings and arrows. How quickly fortunes and such ratings of coaches can change. Is Kelly worthy of the No. 3 rank- ing? Critics would contend that no na- tional titles and only three top-10 finishes in 11 seasons do not meet the standards set by other Fighting Irish luminaries such as Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian or Lou Holtz who coached 11 seasons. No major bowl/playoff victory has been recorded against a top oppo- nent, whereas Parseghian and Holtz had three wins apiece versus un- beaten and/or No. 1-ranked teams in the postseason. A 19-27 record versus teams that finished in the AP top 25 also is quite pedestrian. Be that as it may, Kelly is not ranked against the past but the present. Who would you put ahead of him? A case can be made for Jimbo Fisher, who won a national title at Florida State and now has Texas A&M on the rise after a No. 4 finish in 2020. Maybe Georgia's Kirby Smart, who has four straight top-seven finishes, is 2-0 against Notre Dame and came within a whisker of the 2017 national championship. Still Smart has coached only five years, and Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Ohio State's Ryan Day even less. The latter two inherited gold mines from College Football Hall of Fame figures and have excelled with them, but I'd like to see at least five years of running a program on their own because of the Larry Coker study. At Miami in 2001, Coker inher- ited a Saban-like semi-pro outfit and started 24-0 in his career … but by year six the Hurricanes had fallen to 7-6, resulting in his ouster despite an .800 career winning percentage. Bennie Oosterbaan was 9-0 and a na- tional champion in year one at Michi- gan, but 4-5 by year four and stepped down after a 2-6-1 finish in 1958. Terry Bowden won his first 20 games at Auburn, but abruptly re- signed after a 1-5 start four years later. When it comes to consistency, longevity and program building, a strong case can be made for Kelly at No. 3. I don't know of anyone else in the FBS other than Urban Meyer who had 12-0 regular-season finishes at two different schools. And while three unbeaten regular seasons at Notre Dame are sometimes dispar- aged with the "he didn't beat any- body" comments, it remains a laud- able feat seldom achieved anywhere, and Kelly deservedly will be in the College Football Hall of Fame. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald has been a longtime favorite of mine be- cause of how he maximizes talent at his program, but it's also a differ- ent ballgame when a 7-5 season is viewed triumphantly at the school. The ratings game in coaching is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately" judgment when it comes to fluidness. So much can happen in just a few years, as Kelly and Brey have seen firsthand. ✦ Ranking College Coaches Can Be Quite Fluid THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at The Athletic's Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel rated Brian Kelly as the No. 3 college football head coach in the country, behind only Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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