Two years ago at the start of the 2016 season following a sloppy and embarrassing 50-47 loss in overtime to Texas, I predicted the end of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame. I felt that perhaps he had peaked in 2012 and his inability to close in the 2015 season that saw demonstrated once again for Irish fans that National Championship aspirations were simply a mirage. Perhaps two kids and some maturity over the last six years have tempered my view-point.
Notre Dame fans are often quite fickle, and I now believe have somewhat unrealistic expectations. In my lifetime aside from the Lou Holtz years, Notre Dame has mostly been up and down. Despite the greatness of the Holtz years, even Dr. Lou delivered “only” a single National Championship, though he did author four Top Five finishes. However, from 1993 to 2008 Notre Dame enjoyed exactly one bowl victory which came at the hands of the much maligned Charlie Weis.
Heading into the Pitt game this weekend, Brian Kelly is 75-38 and 4-3 in Bowl games giving him a .663 winning percentage at Notre Dame. Since 2012 he has had Notre Dame in National Championship contention late in the season three times in the last six seasons and barring a collapse this year will make it four in seven during this season. He has also managed to do this while still compiling a sparkling graduation rate among football players.
During his tenure Kelly has been criticized at Notre Dame for everything from sideline demeanor, handling of quarterbacks, to his staff hires (Brian VanGorder). Is it possible a person can reinvent themselves at a later stage of their career? For instance, I never bought the sideline demeanor nonsense. The same media types who criticize Kelly for his sidelines antics applaud coaches like Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh for their competitive fire when they behave in a similar fashion. His handling of the quarterback position looks masterful in this season. Looking back, he managed it pretty well in 2012 during Notre Dame’s run to the National Title game. His offensive and defensive coordinator decisions over the last few seasons look equally brilliant at this point in the season.
Ara Parseghian once remarked that he needed every year of coaching experience at his other stops to prepare him for what awaited him at Notre Dame. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln bungled his way through the early stages of the war as Commander-in-Chief a product of his lack of military experience. Lincoln however, dedicated himself to reading as much as a he possibly could about the military and essentially learned on the job how to be a Commander-in-Chief. I think we all know how that turned out. Brian Kelly appears to have undergone a renaissance over the last two seasons by learning from previous errors and maximizing the potential of his staff and players. Maybe it is time the Irish faithful throw a little love his way?