When it comes to winning national championships at Notre Dame, it seems there’s a three-year window for coaches to get the job done.
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Since the dawn of the Associated Press poll in the 1930s, four Fighting Irish coaches have led the program to at least one national championship. Each won his first title in his third year at the helm. Conversely, coaches who haven’t won a title by Year 3 in South Bend tend not to stick around much longer after that.
Frank Leahy started the trend in 1943, when his Irish won the first of four national titles under his guidance during his third year. In 1964, Ara Parseghian took over a team that had just come off a 2-7 season and hadn’t finished above .500 in six years, and by 1966, the Irish were champs once again.
After Parseghian retired, Dan Devine took the reins of an already-thriving program and maintained that level of success, winning a national title in his third season in 1977. And in 1988, Lou Holtz, the last Notre Dame coach to lead the Irish to the top of the polls, won it all with a 12-0 campaign in his third year at the helm.
This brings us to Brian Kelly, who, in his third year at Notre Dame after a successful tenure at Cincinnati, has the Irish playing for yet another title — against Alabama on Jan. 7 in the BCS Championship Game at Miami.
Win, and Kelly cements his place in Notre Dame coaching lore alongside Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, Holtz and Knute Rockne. Lose, and, well, it would be fair to wonder whether he’ll ever get a chance again.
“I had an evaluation clause in my contact after the third year,” Kelly joked Wednesday at the BCS Championship Game coaches press conference in New York. “So I figured we needed to get it done in three years.”
It truly has been a remarkable turnaround for the Irish after the disappointing Tyrone Willingham Era and the train wreck that signaled the end of Charlie Weis’ tenure with the school.
After back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Kelly’s first two years, there were rumblings that he might have Notre Dame headed in the right direction. However, little thought was given to the idea that one of football’s most storied programs was all the way back — as evidenced by the Irish’s absence in the AP’s preseason poll.
But after a perfect 12-0 regular season that saw the Irish dispatch nine teams headed for bowls — including the Pac-12 champs and the Big 12 co-champs — as well as a Miami team that would have played for the ACC title had it not self-imposed another postseason ban, it’s safe to say Notre Dame has earned its No. 1 ranking and its shot at defending champion Alabama in the title game.
The 51-year-old Kelly won’t go as far as to say he saw a revival coming so early in his tenure with the program, but he also won’t say that he didn’t, either. Kelly built a successful program at Grand Valley State, and he did it again at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. He knew he could restore Notre Dame to prominence, as well.
"I think it’s a process that you undertake, and you don’t normally have, you know, a destination date," Kelly said. "In other words, (you don’t say), ‘We are going to get to this point at this date.’ I think you just go in and you get to work.”
Notre Dame has earned its spot in the BCS Championship Game by being consistent, if unspectacular en route to victory. Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o, the Irish boast the top scoring defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision and have made a habit of stifling the run, allowing only 92 yards per game on the ground.
Offensively, Notre Dame musters up enough to get by, opening up holes for running backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick and protecting quarterback Everett Golson, who has responded well after being benched in favor of Tommy Rees in two of the team’s first four games.
The Irish aren’t always pretty, and there have been multiple cases where their dream season almost got derailed, most notably in overtime wins over Stanford and Pittsburgh. But they always have gotten the job done, and they have done so by focusing on perfecting the most rudimentary aspects of the game.
"The way that we wanted to construct this football team is that if we got to a national championship, you’re going to have to play physical football,” Kelly said. “There’s no tricks. There’s no gimmicks. It’s going to be basic fundamental football when you get to this level.”
Kelly’s counterpart in next month’s title game sees Notre Dame’s rapid ascension to the top a little differently, however. Nick Saban — a man who is coaching for his third national championship in four years and knows a thing or two about program-building himself — praised Kelly’s ability to alter the attitude surrounding the Irish program, refine the focus in the Irish locker room and develop a culture of winning among his players.
“It’s not just about winning a game,” Saban said. “(A coach has to) get the process right, and the process is ongoing. There’s never a continuum of success, and you’re always working every day to make your organization and program better.
“They have good players, but a lot of people have good players. The way they play and the way they compete and the relentless sort of competitive attitude they have, I think that’s what I admire most and think is the most difficult to get instilled in a group of young men.”
The pillars of success are certainly in place at Notre Dame, and the players are buying into Kelly’s system. It’s the reason why they are where they are and have gotten there quicker than most thought they could. Under Kelly, the Fighting Irish have shown they have what it takes to win a national title, and now it’s on them to make it happen now — just in case that three-year championship window really is about to close.
"I’ve got a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We had a blueprint of what we felt was going to be successful for Notre Dame. We just went about it and went to work, and this is a culmination of three years of doing that job and sticking to the plan that we had from day one."