There was a point when Brian Kelly seemed like a home-run hire for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and for a while he was.
Coming off a very successful stint at Cincinnati and before that, a nice run at Central Michigan, Kelly was a rising star in the college football coaching world before landing in South Bend. He led the Chippewas to all the way from a 4-7 record in his first season (2004) to a 9-4 record his last season in Mt. Pleasant (2006). Upon joining the Bearcats, his very first win with the team was a bowl win. He joined Cincinnati on December 3rd, following the departure of Mark Dantonio, who went to Michigan State. The Bearcats gave Kelly the reigns right away, electing not to go with an interim head coach, and Kelly immediately awarded them with a bowl game followed by three double-digit win seasons.
The Bearcats went 10-3 in 2007, winning the PapaJohns.com Bowl. They went 11-3 in 2008, and a perfect 12-0 in 2009, making it as high as No. 8 in the AP Poll, which at the time was very impressive for a team in the then Big East.
Notre Dame brings in Brian Kelly
After the massive disappointment that was the Charlie Weis era in South Bend, Kelly joined the Fighting Irish and the expectation was that the glory years were finally on their way back to Notre Dame.
Perhaps the most well-known and certainly one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Notre Dame football was itching for a return to championship form. The championship days of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz were well in the past, but in Kelly, Notre Dame had landed perhaps one of the top rising stars in football.
Along with his brother Chip Kelly, who starting making his name at Oregon in 2009, Kelly was seen as an innovator and as one of the brightest minds in college football. His first two seasons at Notre Dame were building blocks as expected, with two 8-5 seasons in a row. They were highlighted by a Sun Bowl win in year one, but Kelly also had the Irish on track on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame’s 2010 class was in the Top 15 nationally, according to 247Sports, and 2011’s class checked in at No. 9 overall.
All things considered, Kelly had Notre Dame trending upward. The 2012 season shattered all the expectations, though, and perhaps set Kelly up to fail in the future.
The Fighting Irish were dominant that year, blowing through most of their competition en route to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the BCS National Championship against Alabama. Frankly, Kelly and the Irish were never close in that game. Alabama ultimately ended up winning 42-14, but it was worse than the final score suggested. At one point, in the third quarter, the Tide were up 35-0. It was a shellacking of the highest order, and another notch in Saban’s dynastic belt.
Ironically, it was also the recent high water mark for Notre Dame football.
Notre Dame can’t recapture championship magic
Kelly has never been able to get his program back on track after the championship route. The Irish have won two bowl games since, but the Pinstripe Bowl and Music City Bowl are both far cries from the BCS Championship, or now, the College Football Playoff.
Kelly’s best record since 2012 was a 10-3 season in 2015, but that campaign ended in a 44-28 bowl game loss to Ohio State. It was also immediately followed up by a 4-8 season that saw the Irish miss bowl eligibility completely. And now, it looks like the wheels are falling off.
The 2016 season wasn’t kind to Kelly. There were rumors that he wasn’t happy in South Bend and his team was extremely underwhelming. A double-overtime loss to Texas started the season off on a sour note, but there were no excuses for losing to Duke at home or even N.C. State on the road.
Recently, Kelly stated that he was an “absent professor” in 2016, more concerned with fundraising for a new football only facility than dealing with the ins and outs of running a big-time college football team. It was a bad look in an already bad offseason — an offseason that saw him criticize his starting quarterback for entering the draft early, mind you.
All that bad, and frankly mediocrity, makes it hard to remember the promise of 2010, Kelly’s first season with the program, or the high of seeing the Irish back in the national championship picture. All that bad mojo has bogged Kelly and the Fighting Irish down and at this point, it makes sense to wonder whether or not things will ever get back to the way they were.
Kelly may or not be happy at Notre Dame and he certainly lost focus in 2016. He’s been in South Bend for seven seasons now and he doesn’t have a whole lot to show for it other than a few okay bowl wins and a championship run sans a trophy. He doesn’t have any big-time hardware, despite the national stature of his school, and one has to wonder how much longer fans — and the administration — will be willing to wait for his true potential to realize itself.
Brian Kelly is no longer a rising star
After all, at this point, we know who Kelly is. He’s no longer the bright rising star.
Coaching changes happen because coaches eventually wear out their welcomes. That, or they lose their voice in the locker room and their grip on the direction of the program, and it’s starting to look like one of those scenarios could be happening at Notre Dame.
It’s obviously too soon to the start of the 2017 season for the Irish to make any big moves, but if Kelly and Notre Dame can’t find their collective footing this season and things go sour quickly — it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Fighting Irish send the one-time star head coach packing with a pink slip.
And frankly, at this point, it may be the best option.