Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct 9, 2021

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

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Page 4 of 55 OCT. 9, 2021 5 D uring its telecast of Notre Dame's 41-13 win over Wis- consin Sept. 25, the FOX TV crew noted that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had casually mentioned to them wanting his own statue to someday sit along- side the five former Irish national championship coaches already memorialized with bronze effigies outside Notre Dame Stadium. Yet, even before beating the Badgers to become the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, Kelly also explained how he fully under- stands that without one particular line item on his coaching résumé, a statuesque shrine isn't guaranteed. "I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history," Kelly said in anticipation of his milestone 106th victory, "the coach that won more games that hasn't won a national championship. That's where I'll sit." With program history secure, Kelly's worthiness of a statue — even without a national title — is already debate-wor- thy because of the adaptability, consis- tency and importance he's demonstrated during an eventful 12 seasons on the job. "We've brought Notre Dame football back to its relevance in competing for championships," Kelly said. "Other than that, everything is judged, rightly so, on winning national championships. I knew that coming in." Looking in 2021 to extend his program record from four to five consecutive sea- sons with 10 or more wins — and with three postseason invites to a national title event in the last nine seasons — Kelly has lifted this program to heights it hasn't reached in more than 30 years. "Obviously, it's about consistency, having great players and great coaches," Kelly said. Accolades and superlatives aside, Kelly has earned his stripes on a job that has historically spit out head coaches at an average rate of every 4.3 years. And twice during his Notre Dame career, even Kelly faced that dismissal chatter. The first came after going 16-10 over his first two seasons — a 26-game stretch that included consecutive home losses to Navy and Tulsa in 2010, and an 0-2 start in 2011 that included a home loss to South Florida in the sea- son opener. Recognizing the urgency, Kelly made a radical and curious gamble after his second season at Notre Dame by mov- ing valued assistant Chuck Martin from safeties coach to offensive coordinator. The following season in 2012, Notre Dame played Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. With equity built from a title game appearance — the first for Notre Dame since claiming its last national cham- pionship in 1988 — Kelly temporarily quieted his critics by adequately go- ing 9-4 in 2013, 8-5 in 2014 and 10-3 in 2015, until rock bottom arrived in 2016 after a 4-8 season. His coaching seat not warm but on fire, Kelly never flinched, took full re- sponsibility, tore down and rebuilt his entire coaching staff, looked in the mir- ror and paid closer attention to his play- ers. In the last four full seasons since, he hasn't won fewer than 10 games or lost more than three, and he has made two College Football Playoff appearances. In both 2012 and 2017, Kelly diagnosed his coaching and per- sonnel issues, found good solu- tions and won back his fickle fan base with memorable turnaround seasons. Kelly's success secret at Notre Dame follows a pattern of roster recognition and coaching adap- tation that dates back to his first head coaching job at Grand Valley State. Coaching there in 2002, Kelly's innovative spread offense over- whelmed all opponents as his Lak- ers — essentially unchallenged — went 14-0 and won the Division II national championship. A season later, following mas- sive player turnover, Kelly recog- nized his returning roster neces- sitated a strategy flip, so he went "ground and pound," and repeated as national champion with a 10-3 win over North Dakota in the 2003 Divi- sion II title game. After two national titles and a 13-year Hall of Fame career at Grand Valley, Kelly moved on and enjoyed sustained success during his brief three-year stints at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, before his bumpy but leg- endary ride at Notre Dame. "The journey is much more important than the wins," said Kelly, who continu- ally downplays his victory milestone. Kelly turns 60 years old later this month, and if he lasts through his cur- rent contract that runs through 2024, he'll have 15 years on the Irish sideline and will again surpass Rockne to become not only the winningest Notre Dame coach all time but also the longest-ten- ured skipper in program history. Is all of that enough for a statue? Without a national title, history will decide. Win a national championship be- tween then and now? Pick your spot, Coach Kelly. ✦ During the course of his coaching career, especially at Notre Dame, Kelly has demonstrated an ability to improvise, adapt and overcome challenges. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Adaptability At Core Of Brian Kelly's Longevity UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at

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