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July 31, 2012
Death, taxes, and the third year of a Notre Dame head football coach.
Nothing has stood the test of time quite like the barometer that is the third year with the Irish.
Since Knute Rockne's magnificent 13-year run from 1918-30, when the legendary head coach compiled a 105-12-3 record, his successors have followed a remarkably strict code: win in your third year and you'll go on to legendary success with the Irish; don't win in your third year and the powers that be begin looking for a new head coach.
Brian Kelly, about to embark upon his third season at Notre Dame, does not appear to be in such danger. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick is solidly behind the Kelly regime. But history shows that the third year of a Notre Dame head coach's tenure is the tipping point.
Excluding Ed McKeever (1944) and Hugh Devore (1945 and 1963), who were interim head coaches for one season, there have been 12 coaches who have been around for at least three seasons since Rockne. Kelly is No. 13.
Four of those head coaches - Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53), Ara Parseghian (1964-74), Dan Devine (1975-80) and Lou Holtz (1986-96) - won national titles in their third seasons. Leahy would go on to win three more (1946-47-49) after his third-year national title in 1943. He would finish with an 87-11-9 record in 11 seasons.
Parseghian nearly won a national title in his first year with the Irish in 1964, falling to USC in the 10th and final game of the season (prior to Notre Dame's decision to participate in bowl games five seasons later).
By the third year, Parseghian's Irish were a machine, allowing just 38 points in 10 games. Only a 10-10 tie with No. 1 Michigan State in the second-to-last game of the season spoiled the perfect slate, but it was enough to claim Notre Dame's first national title in 17 seasons. Parseghian and the Irish would go on to win another national title seven seasons later. He retired with an 11-year record of 95-17-4.
Dan Devine followed Parseghian and lost six times in his first two seasons, and then again in the second game of the 1977 season to Mississippi. But the Irish won the next 10 in a row, including a 38-10 dismantling of No. 1 Texas in the Cotton Bowl to claim the national title. Devine would complete a six-year term with a 53-16-1 record (.764), which also included a run at the national title in his final season (1980) before his retirement.
Lou Holtz lost 10 times in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, but the Irish would fall just nine times over the next six seasons combined. In his third season, 1988, the Irish held 11 of their 12 opponents to 21 points or less and scored the most points by a Notre Dame team since Devine's national title season in '77. Holtz would go on to post a 100-30-2 record in 11 seasons and make another run at a national title in 1993.
Since Rockne, eight other Notre Dame coaches not only didn't win a national title in their third season, but faltered dramatically, although Four Horseman Elmer Layden (1934-40) was a victim of Rockne's shadow.
Layden had a .770 winning percentage in seven seasons with the Irish. But a 47-13-3 record on the heels of Rockne's .881 winning percentage paled in comparison. Layden left his alma mater to become commissioner of the fledgling NFL in 1941.
The other seven head coaches struggled mightily in their third season, and none coached beyond a fifth year. Hunk Anderson (1931-33), who followed Rockne upon his untimely death, was 3-5-1 in his third season (16-9-2 overall) and was replaced by Layden.
After Leahy's successful run, former Irish player Terry Brennan (1954-58) took over, and his 17-3-0 mark in his first two seasons was better than Leahy's last four (27-8-4). But it fell apart in the third year for Brennan. Notre Dame lost eight times in 1956 and seven more times over the next two seasons to bring an end to the Brennan era at 32-18-0.
Notre Dame tabbed alum Joe Kuharich from the NFL to succeed Brennan. The move failed from the outset. None of Kuharich's four teams lost less than five times - including eight in 1960 - and Devore filled in for one season before Parseghian's arrival.
After Parseghian and Devine combined for a 148-33-5 record over 17 seasons, the Gerry Faust experiment (1981-85) failed. The Irish lost at least four times in all five seasons and at least five times in four seasons. Faust finished with a 30-26-1 record.
Holtz's 64-9-1 mark over a six-year span from 1988-93 was in the realm of Rockne and Leahy. Since then, however, three coaches - Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis - have had catastrophic third years, which cost Willingham his job after three seasons while Davie and Weis exited after sub-par fifth years.
Davie's third team in 1999 went 5-7, including four losses in November. Nine wins and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl in 2000 wasn't enough to offset a 5-6 record in 2001.
Willingham's 2004 squad - just two years removed from a 10-victory season - lost five times after falling seven times in 2003. Weis burst onto the scene in 2005-06 with 19 victories and trips to the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls. But a record-setting nine losses in 2007 was followed by another 12 losses in 2008-09. Enter Kelly.
With 16 victories and 10 losses in his first two seasons, Kelly's numbers are better than Holtz's after two seasons (13-10). But the Irish were loaded in Holtz's third season at Notre Dame, and Kelly appears to be staring at a transitional year with better things to come in 2013-14.
In '88, six players received All-America notice, led by first-team Associated Press selections Frank Stams, Michael Stonebreaker and Andy Heck. Leadership abounded with running backs Anthony Johnson and Mark Green, quarterback Tony Rice and linebacker Wes Pritchett. Chris Zorich was just breaking into the lineup for the Irish at nose tackle, and Ricky Watters was a big-play threat. Receiver Raghib Ismail and tight end Derek Brown made immediate impacts as freshmen. A young offensive line came together. Heroes emerged in the secondary - Todd Lyght, Pat Terrell, Stan Smagala and George Streeter.
A national title does not appear to be on the horizon in Kelly's third season, but this could be the regime in which the pattern at Notre Dame is altered. Barring a complete collapse in 2012, Kelly will be on solid ground as the promise of strong recruiting campaigns takes hold.
Still, as the Irish reload, the history of Notre Dame football casts a long and imposing shadow over the Brian Kelly era.
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