Is Brian Kelly a Top 5 Coach?

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on from the sidelines during the Pittsburgh Panthers 28-21 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo: Justin Berl/Icon SMI)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on from the sidelines during the Pittsburgh Panthers 28-21 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA (Photo: Justin Berl/Icon SMI)

As Brian Kelly prepares to enter his 5th season as the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish there are still some Irish fans who are not convinced that Notre Dame might actually have an elite head coach roaming the sidelines for the first time since Lou Holtz.

Count the writers at Sporting News as those who do not subscribe to that school of though. In their recently released rankings of all 128 college football head coaches, Sporting News ranked Kelly as the 5th best head coach in all of college football. A ranking that places Kelly higher than the likes of Jimbo Fisher and David Shaw.

Here’s what they had to say about Notre Dame’s head coach:

Has won big everywhere he has coached, from the NCAA lower divisions to non-BCS and BCS levels. Had ND on pace for another run in 2013 before starting QB Everett Golson was dismissed from school for cheating on an exam. He’s back this fall – but so is Malik Zaire, a talented redshirt freshman who will push Golson and put Kelly in his comfort zone: playing and thriving with multiple quarterbacks.

There is no doubt that Kelly is the best head coach Notre Dame has had since Holtz. That much can’t be argued by even the harshest of Brian Kelly critics. By their 5th seasons at Notre Dame, both Bob Davie and Charlie Weis had at least one season with a losing record where they missed a bowl game and were entering do or die seasons. Tyrone Willingham never made it to a 5th year after suffering two losing seasons in three years before being shown the door.

Does all of that add up to Kelly being a top 5 head coach in all of college football though? To recap his accomplishments at Notre Dame, he has had a winning season all four years, taken Notre Dame to four bowl games where the Irish have a 2-2 record, and has had one top 5 finish. On the other hand, two of those bowl seasons that ended with winning records still landed Notre Dame outside of the top 25 meaning that Notre Dame has finished outside of the top 25 in half of the seasons Kelly has been in command of the Fighting Irish.

There is no doubt that Brian Kelly has returned some stability to the Notre Dame program, upgraded the talent level throughout the entire roster, and has Notre Dame in a position to be a consistently winning program again for the first time since the days of Holtz, but I think the jury might still be out if he is one of the top 5 coaches in all of college football.

The 2014 season will actually go a long way in determining just where Kelly fits in amongst the nation’s elite coaches. It could be argue that in his four years at Notre Dame Kelly has only had the kind of quarterback needed to run the kind of offense he wants in one season and in that one season the Irish played for the national title.

In 2014 Kelly will have not one, but two hand-picked quarterbacks tailor made for his offense. If that results in another run at a title this season, it will be hard for anyone to argue with The Sporting News’ rankings. If 2014 brings about another 9-4 or similar campaign ending in a subpar bowl game though, it will be hard for anyone to argue that Kelly is a top 5 head coach.

What are your thoughts on where Kelly should be ranked amongst the other 127 division 1 head coaches? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. I would say he is a great coach. However, I think you need at least one national championship to be a top 5 coach. In my opinion if he can take the Irish to the promise land he jumps to #1 easily.

  2. 2 qbs this year who fit BK’s system, and there should be only a few graduation losses after this year.

    They’re in position for an excellent season this year and next.

  3. You sound like you have had too much already. Shameful people like you wasting their lives away on booze.

      1. It’s a shame people like you have nothing in life but booze. Very sad. I’ll pray for next time at the grotto.

  4. Again you keep responding. I guess my comments then are truthful and make sense no matter how much you bow down to BK. Well go have another drink old drunken one. Maybe one day you’ll grow up.

  5. No, you just sound like a sarcastic wise ass but that might be because you have hit bottle again. Sad.

      1. Hey drunken one, then why respond to me in the first place. When you hear something you disagree with you have to add your dumb rhetoric because I’m not gung ho on your hero Brian Kelly. Well I speak what I feel. Don’t like it? Don’t respond. Go have a few shots.

      2. Sorry, sarcasm falls out of my mouth, like stupidity falls out of yours.

  6. No way in hell is this guy a top 5 coach. With 3 of 4 seasons losing 4 or more games and no real bowl win, not even close. This year will be big for Kelly which I see as another 3 loss season. He has upgraded the defense for sure and has the program much more steady that it has been in a long time.

      1. Hey Ronnie boy, as soon as someone speaks his mind with something you don’t like then you add your 2 cents. This is not about optimism or pessimism. Its about what I see as reality. If you think Kelly is one of the top 5 coaches so be it. Not me. No wonder so many people just can’t stand ND fans. They hate reality.

      2. Nope, I’ve just genuinely missed your optimism and good nature and the rehashing of this argument from you.

  7. Agree, top ten, not top 5. I think we find out this year. If the offense and special teams are really good I think Notre Dame can play with anyone, Florida State included.

  8. Considering where the program was when he was hired… It’s hard for me to say he shouldn’t be in top 10 coaches in the nation. The program was a mess…almost as if the team was expected to win with a couple big names while the entire defense has been under recruited for years. Every game was a hope and a prayer we could score 40 pts a game.

    At any rate, what he was as to accomplish by getting this team to a national championship with an “improved” team. I’m. Dry anxious to see the depth that he has recruited continue to develop for many years to come. Kelly will win a lot of ball games against a. Dry tough schedule for years to come if he continues down this path.

  9. Kelly is a superior team manager. Game managing may be the question. IMO he abandons a plan to soon and also does not stick with what is working. Also has failed to address Sp.teams execution. Exc. Brindza. Most underestimate defense which is very deep and athletic. (Hopefully smart). Just think they will be very hungry ,proud and determined bunch. Seen this before, they may very well carry this team. I know we are stacked at Receivers, they concern me most.

  10. I’m from Cincinnati and I saw what he did with UC and it’s scary. Remember that only one season he has coached did we have a QB that was serviceable. Now we have two and more on the way. This will be the first year we have had a full cupboard of recruits that were picked for his system. I just think the bump in the road will be the new coaches and the lack of depth on defense. I wish we had another year with Nix and Tuitt but maybe some others will step up. I love our offense and if Kelly has the right QB there will be no stopping them.

    Kelly, top 5…give us a national championship and I’ll agree!

  11. No, 2014 is the year. The rest of the offense was developing quietly during Golson’s absence. The pieces are now in place, and there are gamebreakers and playmakers all over the place.

    The defense is the sticking point, yet there are dynamic playmakers at each level, Day up front Jaylong Smith wherever BVG plays him and Russell in the back.

    Kelly has been waiting to have the offense carry the defense and this will be the year.

    Michael, I have some scar tissue on this issue. Too often the “year too early team” has made the run while something happened to the “mature team.”

    this is the only year that BVG’s defenses will be a surprise.

    There is a lot of pent up frustration from last year, and if a couple of guys coming back from injury can seize the day……………………..

  12. I have a prejudcie toward Steven Covey and the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a principle bedrock of which is the importance of production capacity (the goose) and not merely production (the golden eggs)

    college football’s two greatest coaches, Rockne and Leahy, had myriad skills, among rockne’s being an unusual attitude of malleability with facts, but each created “A goose” Self-sustaining, brimming with talent and attracting ever more talent, competitive well=coached.

    Ara got close to that, but he had to adjust and upgrade his athleticism in recruiting in the early 70’s. The Gordon Bell case was a pivot in Ara’s negotiations with the administration. Ara also had to contend with a greater run of excellence at USC than any other Notre Dame coach.

    Kelly inherited an inconherent, stepwise discontinuous roster and a mess at quarterback with only the gimp, Crist, left behind by the fat man.

    Kelly first changed the culture to establish pride in defense and physicality. That has only continued.

    But, and it was a necessity in the modern era of scholarship limitations, and the rigid adherence to Notre Dame’s education and developmental principles, Kelly has made the RKG thing work for the Irish. Watching KeiVarae Russell and Corey robinson during spring’s Strong and True show was uplifting and affirming. Robinson could have been anticipated, but Russell, actor, poet…….. WOW!

    He has greatly, GREATLY UPGRADED the coaching faculty, but the roster balance is now nearly self-sustaining. Oh use, holes arise in college, OL last year, LB last year and this year but I do not recall this sort of roster balance and depth across all classes before.

    It’s hogwash to hang kelly with Rees. HIs fiirst thoughtful recruit was Golson, and in JUne 2015, the quarterback array, shepherded by laFleur when Kelly is busy will be golson, Zaire, Kizer and barnett.

    In areas like TE, OL, RB, WR, CB S, DE and DT we have depth and talent for years to come.

    It’s a healthy goose. Kelly has done the most important job.

    1. Agreed . . . but soon, at least by 2015, the golden eggs must be hatched and scrambled into a delectable golden opportunity come BCS, 2015.
      The talent is deep; the position coaches can both coach, and their charisma/experience makes recruiting of elites as effective as it’s been since Lou.
      All of that will help BK’s “rating”. As for this year, it could be the year before the “experts” see it. A bit like ’88 with a mobile QB, and many not seeing what Stams would do. I vow patience this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if . . .

  13. I certainly think he has been better than the 3 previous predecessors and the best at ND since Holtz was here. I think lauding him a top 5 coach is still a little pre-mature. I believe this will be a defining year, even if the D is young, for the Irish under Kelly’s watch. He now has 2 of the proto-typical QB’s he prefers to finally run the offense he wants (albeit it has taken FIVE years to do it), a bevy of RB’s who have the overall talent to be really good, a receiving corp with some athletes and a defense that I think may be better than what we suspect, to make a winning run toward a good record for 2014. This is the year of no excuses. They have to score points, ESPECIALLY TD’s and not FG’s, in the red zone. If ND wins 11 or more games, a major bowl win or playoff win(s) then it’s time to start assessing how high he is on the list of greats. I think it’s no secret he has brought in better talent overall than Charlie, Tyrone, or Bob ever did and developing them have also been better than what those 3 other coaches achieved. I am excited bout this fall.


  14. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on the top 5 question. he has certainly brought the program back to respectability but it’s only been four years. Let’s face it he had no where to go but up after Weiss Davie,& Whit left the program in disarray! This year should be the one that defines him and the new program. he needs to win 10 games and win whatever bowl they are in. Anything less will be just another disappoint in Irish land. He appears to have the talent on the offensive side, 2 solid QBs, a house full of running backs and enough receivers to make a difference but will the D hold up? Only time will tell. My hunch is that it will. Go Irish!

  15. I think it is a stretch to put him at number five, but if he goes at least 10-2, 11-1 this year he will certainly deserve a top five rating. If over the next few years, he stays around he can be one of the best. I do not believe he has peaked. The keys, staying around and consistency.

  16. As far as his tenure at ND is concerned, I would sat he’s not a top 5 coach – yet. He’s the best since Holtz, he has stabilized the program and he has been able to develop the players. I think he’s good, but not great. To be a top 5 coach, he needs to land more top-flight recruits and turn those players into teams that consistently win 10-12 games a year.

    He’s building towards that, but he’s not there yet. He could still do that, but he’s got to start this year with at least 10 wins. I think this is at least a 10 win team, even with the schedule. We shall see.

    1. I think that was why Sporting News included his whole resume. 2 Division II national championships. 1 MAC Championship. 2 Big East Championships and 23 regular season wins in 2 years. And a 12-0 regular season and National Championship game appearance at ND. That much success doesn’t happen in someone’s career by accident.

  17. A quick comparison with Weis, Willingham and Davis – okay – but should we want to compare more thoroughly would be saying he isn’t top five material. I would go with a top 25 somewhere around No.25.

    There are so many parts to being a head coach and one of those is game day (or in game) coach which (while at ND) where he has shown to be just better than mediocre. Also QB coach. If TR is his crown jewel so far then maybe yes, but he had Crist and Hendrix and has shown he couldn’t get either Crist (a far better athlete with pedigree) up to speed or Hendrix (also a far better athlete…)

    So no, he’s maybe top 25 and that’s being generous.

    The rest I’d agree with – Kelly stabilizing the school, recruiting (which I thought he’d suck at when he arrived)

    1. “If TR was his crown jewel…”

      But he wasn’t.

      Everett Golston was.

      A first year starter who helped the team go 12-0.

      Crist was far from a better athlete.

      He was damaged goods who was afraid to take a hit.
      He couldn’t even make as a 5th year senior, under Charlie Weis, at Kansas.
      Any Pedigree that he might have had was left behind the day he graduated from high school.

      As far as Hendrix being termed a far better athlete, one only needs to watch last year’s game against USC.

      You also thought Kelly would suck at recruiting…

      but in any case, we do appreciate your generosity!

      1. The fact that some people are still paying Crist compliments is just beyond belief. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to comprehend that the high school ranking services blew one.

      2. Agree re: Crist. He faired no better at Kansas and eventually was pulled by Weis there. He just didn’t pan out. Sometimes the rankings blow it.

        Hendrix was a disappointment. I thought he’d do better.

      3. You, shazamrock and George missed the point all to completely. Reread the post (slowly this time).

      4. Shazaam – you just facial led JIMBASIL. I got nothing against LIMPBASIL, but you do really good job of showing how ridiculous he sounds. Congrats!

    2. Sorry, but even Re-reading slowly doesn’t help…

      although, if you use your Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, the secrete message says….

      “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”

      A crummy commercial???

      Son of a buckeye!

      1. Golson wasn’t with ND when TR was a recruit and Crist was a soph.

        The timeline matters along with Golson missing the 2013 season.

        Keep working on your ovaltine.

      2. (So much for comparing more thoroughly)

        Ok, Ok, you win…

        If Kelly hadn’t been such a mediocre coach, Hendrix would have been a first round draft choice last year, Crist would be in the Hall of Fame by now, anything Golson has done clearly doesn’t matter, and it’s completely baffling why the Philadelphia Eagles had a burning desire to interview the 25th best college head football coach in the nation as one of their few choices to lead their NFL team.

        When one looks at it like that, it makes perfect sense.

        Thanks again for opening our eyes!

    3. Pretty good points. But “the BK I know” and “the Kelly I thought I knew” – or expected – are different.
      The Kelly I thought I knew (expected) was a run’n’gun maverick. The BK I know is a better, more complete coach. Maybe this year we’ll see the offensive juggernaut we all expected originally but with a BETTER D. (introing BVG) It’ll be fun!

  18. I agree with Frank. I think the jury is still out as to whether BK is a top 5 coach. He is certainly an improvement over Davies, Willingam and Weis for all the reasons pointed out in the article. And ND certainly has top recruits. But now it’s up to BK to develop that talent. There is no reason ND should not compete for a top tier bowl this year, or even one of the 4 playoff spots. I gave BK a pass this past year because Rees was not an elite QB. But this year, he has 2 potential elite QB’s to choose from.

    In all fairness, BK himself probably expects better of himself as well this coming year.

    So is he a top 5 coach? I think that is yet to be seen. But I have high hopes. Definitely higher that at this point during the D/W/W years.

    1. Great points. But I would caution against BK developing his talent. BK’s position-coaches really develop the talent. And I’ll definitely hook-onto Harry Heistand’s caravan. I think it’s the whole staff that is getting me excited.

  19. unfortunately, I think ND will be perpetually a year away with Kelly at the helm.

    1. Not “perpetually a year away”, but with the youth and limited starting experience, especially on D’, I think this discussion will be more certainly answered after 2015. With literally the entire O’ potentially back next year, and a new D’ scheme loaded with players as new starters this season, I’m willing to wait and see before I rank BK among the top 5. Year 6 will be even more telling than year 5.

  20. 5 seems a bit generous but top 10 no doubt. I think you’re right in that there will be no excuses this season with EG back leading offense and with him calling plays which seems to be what he prefers. I also think that BK has a lot more hurdles to deal with as far as SOS on a yearly basis and the kids he brings in. Takes a certain type of coach to not just coach at ND but to win while doing it the right way.

  21. I think Kelly is real good. 2014 will indeed be the litmus test.

    I am so glad our defensive style is changing. I think we are going to have a very successful season.

    Go IRISH!


    1. Very, very astute qualification at the end. “I” think…is awesome. It removes the pretense most posters have when they post like they know-it-all. BTW, change of defensive-styole is JUST what the doctor (Lou? maybe!) ordered.

    2. No way is Kelly a top five coach. He’s not a top ten coach either. He is in the first 25 somewhere but not sure where. Maybe 25th.

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