In the world of sports, an athlete or a coach is generally measured by his most recent performance.
Just ask Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Four years ago at this time, his name was easily among the top 10, and even amongst the Top 5, in the often-inconsistent Football Bowl Subdivision “ratings” of coaches. That's because in his third season with the Fighting Irish he guided Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season, a No. 1 ranking and a berth into the BCS Championship. Just three years earlier, he directed the University of Cincinnati to a 12-0 ledger before accepting the Notre Dame post.
That put Kelly one tier below the ultra-elite category in the FBS basically comprised of Alabama’s Nick Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, the lone coaches in today’s game with multiple national titles.
Fast-forward four years later and Kelly understands that he is now going to be viewed as “a 4-8 coach.”
His stock has plummeted to where in Athlon’s rating of the 130 FBS coaches entering the 2017 season, Kelly is listed at No. 25. He’s become a microcosm of the overall team in that the ranking is still respectable but hardly considered the bar for Notre Dame. Such rankings are extremely fluid, though.
Back in the summer of 1985, neither Minnesota’s Lou Holtz (fired in 1983 at Arkansas and 4-7 in his first year with the rebuilding Golden Gophers) nor Michigan’s Bo Schembechler — 6-6 in 1984, with his bowl record falling to 2-10 — was deemed among the top 20 or even 30 coaches nationally.
Four years later, after a national title by Holtz at Notre Dame and a Rose Bowl win by Schembechler, they were ranked 1-2, respectively, by at least one college football publication (Don Heinrich’s).
For Kelly, the hope is he can pull a Gary Patterson, who directed TCU into prominence before falling to 7-6 in 2012 and 4-8 in 2013. He followed with consecutive seasons of 12-1 and 11-2 in 2014 and 2015, respectively (although back to 6-7 last year). Patterson has built enough of a track record to rank No. 9 this year.
Four years from now, who knows if Kelly will still be the head coach at Notre Dame. For now, the goal is to lead a return to prominence, both individually and especially as a team.
Here are Athlon’s coaching rankings, from lowest to highest, among Notre Dame’s 2017 opponents:
112: Geoff Collins (Temple) — The former Florida defensive coordinator is a first-time head coach who will have a hard act to follow in Matt Rhule, now at Baylor.
77: Chuck Martin (Miami (Ohio)) — Kelly’s right-hand man at Notre Dame from 2010-13 has improved each of his first three seasons and possibly is vying to align himself to be Kelly’s successor someday.
65: Kirby Smart (Georgia) — His 8-5 debut in 2016 did not make a splash. He and Kelly both need the Sept. 9 showdown to establish or regain more credibility with the fan base.
62: Steve Addazio (Boston College) — Only 10-22 in the ACC, including 2-14 the past two seasons. All four of these first four opposing coaches listed will face the Irish in September.
61: Dave Doeren (North Carolina State) — He’s facing a crossroads year himself with a 25-26 record in four seasons, most notably 9-23 in the ACC.
47: Clay Helton (USC) — He was 7-7 in his first 14 games, steeping in as an interim coach in 2015, but has won nine straight, highlighted by the Rose Bowl conquest of Penn State. Still needs a larger body of work to ascend.
44: Dave Clawson (Wake Forest) — Has a good history of building programs, including 7-6 last season with the Demon Deacons. Current Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko helped play a significant role.
35: Larry Fedora (North Carolina) — Has posted a quality 74-44 record in nine seasons as an FBS head coach with the Tar Heels and previously at Southern Mississippi.
32: Ken Niumatalolo (Navy) — A surprisingly low rating given that no one maximizes his talent base more than Niumatalolo, who has recorded a minimum of eight wins in eight of his nine seasons, highlighted by 11-2 in 2015.
The three ranked ahead of Kelly are:
14. Mark Richt (Miami) — He was 145-51 at Georgia before becoming a victim of his own success. He led his alma mater to a 9-4 mark and No. 20 finish his first season in 2016.
13 Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) — Like Kelly, he had a complete implosion in 2016 with a 3-9 mark. But because he won at least 11 games in five of the previous six seasons at a school with not as strong a tradition or recruiting base, Dantonio gets a little more leeway for now.
7. David Shaw (Stanford) — Rumors of Stanford’s demise after Jim Harbaugh’s departure were greatly exaggerated. Shaw is 64-17 (.790 winning percentage) with three Pac-12 titles, two Rose Bowl wins and four Top 12 finishes.