Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly Ranked One of Best CFB Hires in Last 25 Years

Brian Kelly is a polarizing figure among the Notre Dame fan base.   Some love him for taking Notre Dame out of the doldrums of twenty years of mediocrity.   Others can’t stand him for some of his faults that nearly kept the Irish continuing that mediocrity and resent him for not winning a national title yet.  ESPN, on the other hand, just ranked the hiring of Brian Kelly in 2009 as one of the best college football hires of the last quarter-century.

ESPN ranked the top 25 hires in all of college football since 1995, and Brian Kelly came in ranked 13th on their list.  To some, that will just be further proof that Kelly was a mediocre higher. Still, he was also the only Notre Dame coach to make the list and the Irish have hired five coaches since 1995 – Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis, and Kelly.

Remember how bad all those hires were for Notre Dame?  In case you forgot, read Greg’s piece on why Bob Davie failed as a head coach at Notre Dame from last week.  And if that isn’t enough of a reminder, wait until you get a load of the Tyrone Willingham one that is in the works.

Considering all of the coaching change in college football, being named the 13th best hire of the last 25 years is also a pretty impressive accolade.

Interestingly enough, Michigan’s Lloyd Carr was ranked 15th on the list, two spots behind Kelly.  Jim Harbaugh made the list as well, but for his time at Stanford, not his current run at Michigan.  Most of the names on ESPN’s list ahead of Kelly are impossible to argue with too – Jim Tressell, Nick Saban (2x), Urban Meyer (2x), Bob Stoops, Mack Brown (Texas), Dabo Swinney, and Pete Carroll line the path to their top spot.

Let’s take a step back and think about what Brian Kelly inherited at Notre Dame on the field too.  Charlie Weis went 16-21 in his final three years at the helm of Notre Dame football.  The Irish had won one single bowl game since 1994 – the 2008 Hawaii Bowl.  They had two 10-win seasons since 1993 before Kelly’s arrival, and both of those seasons ended with terrible bowl losses.

Off the field, the Notre Dame program had fallen woefully behind the rest of the college football world in its use of technology and was starting to fall behind in facilities.

Since taking over Notre Dame, Kelly guided the Irish to a BCS Title game appearance and a College Football Playoff berth.  Neither trip ended well for the Irish. Reminder: Michigan is still waiting for their CFP appearance and that they never made it to a BCS Title game.  Overall, Kelly has five 10-win seasons under his belt.  Another reminder: Notre Dame had two of those in the 16 years before his arrival. He also has two AP Coach of the Year Awards under his belt during his Notre Dame tenure – 2012 and 2018.

Notre Dame has finally reached a point where ten win seasons are expected and even considered disappointments. That is significant progress from where this program was eleven years ago when Kelly arrived.

The transformation that Kelly undertook in 2017, though, is perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of his entire coaching career.  Before the collapse of 2016, Kelly was as stubborn of a coach who was more stuck in his ways than almost any other coach in the country.  For him to be as introspective as he was and completely tear down what he had built only to rebuild it back up and reel off four straight ten win seasons is nothing short of remarkable.

That just doesn’t happen in coaching on almost any level with a coach who has been a head coach for 20+ years.  It occurs when a young coach starts off and falls on their face ala Bill Belichick in Cleveland during his first stint as a head coach or like Pete Carroll with the New York Jets.  But it generally doesn’t happen for a coach who has been coaching for 20 years.

We can all still debate whether or not Brian Kelly will win a national championship at Notre Dame.  As the roster looks today, it would require an incredible amount of luck.  While he’s upgraded the roster immensely from top to bottom in the last eleven years, Notre Dame is still noticeably behind the Clemson’s and Alabama’s of the world.  And most importantly, in his ten seasons so far, he has yet to produce one single elite quarterback capable of taking over a game and leading the Irish to victory over a more talented team.

Those are fair criticisms of Kelly, but it is also possible to simultaneously appreciate what the man has done for Notre Dame while realizing that there is still work to be done and admitting that we still don’t know if Kelly is the man capable of getting the job done.  One can do both at the same time without having to have a totally polarized opinion of him as hard as that may be for some in the Notre Dame fan base to comprehend.

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  1. There is a HUGE difference in talent when you compare Notre Dame’s roster with the elite teams such as Alabama, Ohio St, Clemson, Oklahoma, and a few other SEC teams especially at the skill positions. Kelly has done a great job at getting the program to a respectable level but he is still far away from reaching the level of the teams mentioned above. Recruiting skill position players is still a major issue especially at quarterback and running back. I think ND can get to the playoffs if a lot of things go right but to actually win a playoff game let alone two would take a miracle and I dont see that happening with a roster of skill position players that pales in comparison to the teams they would face in playoffs.

  2. Lets take a step back for a minute. Comparing Kelly to Davie, Weis, and Willingham will always make him look better. However, even Weis made two BCS games. I know Kelly made a National title game, and got destroyed in the process. The changes made while commendable, had to be made as a result of his own failures and retention of bad coaches like Van Gorder. In fact, the 2014-2015 teams both should have made playoffs with better coaching. Ed Orgeron had the foresight to hire an innovative play caller and realized his faults. Kelly’s offenses put immense pressure on the quarterbacks and are poorly conceived with no adjustments or imagination, particularly in all the games thar matter. Look at Clemson both times in 2015 and playoff game, Miami 2017, humiliated by an average team, Michigan last year, and both Georgia teams. Kelly panics in hostile environments Whike his players fold as a tesukt of seeing their “ general” scared. Kelly then uses the tired excuses about execution of an ill conceived offense that fails to establish balance when running the ball. ( see NC State 2016) when he wanted to chuck it in a hurricane. He has not beaten a top ten team on the road since 2012.. Oklahoma. Ten wins in 12 game seasons with a bowl game needs an asterisk. Lou Holtz had tougher schedule and was much better recruiter. ( i know Vinny Cerrato was the architect of those classes as well ) Necertheless, Kelly is on same ground coaching wise as Kirk Ferentz at Iowa or Mark Richt. ND sold its soul A long tine ago and is just happy to be in conversation. Any sane and smart fan recognizes this shined up wooden nickel . We used to be mad at one or two loss seasons, now we celebrate them.

  3. He needs to recruit an elite quarterback and then actually play that elite quarterback instead of playing the QB who has done decent and knows the system Book vs Jurkovec. To not give Jurkovec a real shot to see what he can do in meaningful games to the point where he wanted to transfer was seriously a travesty. Jurkovec was one of the most highly rated QBs coming out of high school but virtually got no chance because Book starting beating mediocre teams on a consistent basis but gets exposed against any really good team. There was no “competition” heading into last season to see who the starter would be. It was Book’s job the whole time. Jurkovec got tired of this and didn’t want to wait around for Book to be gone. This is on Kelly on not recognizing the talent and building the team up with guys who have the larger upside, even if they need a little more time to get there than others. Kelly’s priority one is players must know the system and what they are supposed to be doing out there. So instead of having his better athletes playing and learning on the fly, he plays the lesser athletes who know what they are doing. Just my opinions but there’s a lot there to back that up.

    I’m actually excited for this Buchner kid to come in. He seems to be our best bet as the next elite ND QB. Kelly has had one guy at QB who was a legitimate Heisman contender in Everett Golson back in 2014 through the first half of that season before it all fell apart. No other QB under Kelly has even been close. Golson in my opinion has been Kelly’s best QB. Most people probably think Book is better than Golson but Golson had much less talent at receiver than Book. Golson’s receivers were John Goodman, Roby Toma, Chris Brown, Davaris Daniels, TJ Jones, and Tyler Eifert in 2012. 2014 was Will Fuller (only sophomore at time), CJ Prosise, Amir Carlisle, Tori Hunter Jr, Corey Robinson, and Ben Koyack. Book in 2018 had Myles Boykin AND Chase Claypool together (holy!), Chris Finke, Jafar Armstrong, Michael Young, and Alize Mack/Cole Kmet. Book last year had Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, and Cole Kmet/Tommy Tremble (who is going to be really good). Book clearly had the better passing options by far and more of them than Golson ever did. Imagine Golson with Claypool and Boykin on the field together. I bet we would have scored at least 1 TD against Clemson that game.

    1. I agree. I saw Jurkovic play in high school and he looked great against really good competition. Never understood why he never got a chance at Notredame. Also agree Kelly needs to get these young players on the field a lot sooner. Lile you say they may mess up at times but their talent will produce more upside than these juniors and seniors who have more rcpierence and will make less mistakes but wont provide the big plays. I hope that changes this year and we see Tyree, Lenzy, Austin , Tremble maybe a Jordan Johnson.. You have to have all of that to beat Clemson, Wisconsin, USC. The playoffs if you have to face Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State etc

      1. He was even better in Pop Warner, not to mention the flag football I game I saw him play when he was 4.

  4. When ND hired Kelly I predicted a NC for the Irish within 5 years. He got them to the game but no win. I’m from Cincinnati and watched him make UC a contender with Mark Dantonio’s players (probably recruited illegally). I’m also a MAC fan and watched what he did at Central Michigan. So he knows how to coach that’s not a question.

    Looking at what preceded him, I don’t know how anyone can not be happy with his hire.

  5. BK is an improvement, yes. I’m no longer a BK believer in that I no longer think he’s the one to bring home the NC like I used to think. I just feel we will always be one step behind the Clemsons and Alabamas of the world under BK. Now I don’t know what coach out there would do better AND be willing to coach at ND these days.

    But yes, BK is an improvement over the D/W/W years. I don’t think there can be much doubt about that. Under those coaches ND was in danger of becoming a 2nd rate has-been. If we continued down that path eventually we probably would have had to join a conference and we would have become another Northwestern type school. Average with the occasional ‘good’ year where the stars align for a potential conference championship, maybe once a decade.

    In fairness BK has taken us to the point where ND is not a patsy. Other schools have to take us seriously. We’ll occasionally even beat upper tier teams….to a point. We are still a long ways off from taking down a school like Clemson when it counts the most. And that goes for most schools. Clemson-type programs are light-years ahead from their nearest competition.

    So overall I feel like BK is an above average coach. We can beat most teams on any given Saturday. But BK isn’t NC level elite. He has yet to prove that he can beat elite teams in a playoff game. It’s a high bar, but until he gets over that bar he’s an above average coach that 90% of CFB teams would love to have as their coach. And I think ND is happy with that internally (despite their statements that NC’s are the standard–they are not when it comes down to it).

    1. I mostly agree Damian. Here is something though that gives me hope. If you were to take a poll before last season and asked everybody who is a better coach Brian Kelly or Ed Orgeron most everyone would have said Brian Kelly. His record as a college coach was much better even if you not count the fact that Kelly has coached much longer. Also most people would not of envisioned Oregron going undefeated and winning a national championship. But give him credit for getting Joe Burrow changing to a spread offense bringing in Joe Brady. It’s possible the same things could happen for Kelly. Tommy Reese Book getting better. Austin Lenzy Tyree becoming great. It could happen.

  6. agree with most of this article to an extent. I dont think Notredames talent is as good as Clemson Alabama or Ohio State. However I think it’s closer than a lot of people think. The difference is Notredame doesn’t have the Heisman trophy level quarterback those teams have along with Kelly nor his assistants have shown to be great at game planning game day coaching in game adjustments etc. The recruiting rankings over the last decade between Notredame and Clemson are 9.4 Clemson 10.7 Notredame. That’s pretty close. What is not close is Watson vs Kizer Golson vs Boyd, Winbush and Book vs Trevor Lawrence. Another mismatch Venebales vs Chip Long.

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