Kelly has a chance to become the fifth Irish coach to win a national title in his third season, and sixth if you count the guy who started it all – Knute Rockne – who went 9-0 in his third season (1920) before they officially crowned college football teams as national champions.
Just as uncanny is the longer list of Irish head coaches who have struggled in their third seasons, which has served as a harbinger of things to come.
No Notre Dame head coach has failed to win a national title in his third season and went on to a long and successful stint with the Irish. No coach has lasted beyond five seasons without winning a national title other than Elmer Layden, who coached seven seasons (1934-40) without winning a national title while fashioning a notable 47-13-3 record.
Mere coincidence? The pattern has repeated itself too often for it to be simple happenstance.
“The third year is not magic as much as having good people and having a good plan,” Kelly said. “It takes some time to get all the pieces in order, from top to bottom. It’s not just football players, it’s coaches, it’s leadership…It seems like that three-year window is when it starts to come together.
“It just takes some time, and if you have a plan that you believe in and you stick with it and everybody stays together and you have a good mix of good coaches and good players, you put yourself in position to be successful.”
If Kelly and the Irish claim the national title Monday night, it will be the first time a third-year Notre Dame coach has done so with as many as five losses the previous season.
The last Notre Dame coach to win a national title in his third year was Lou Holtz, whose 12-0 squad in 1988 came together after a four-loss 1987 season in which the Irish dropped their last three games.
Dan Devine won the 1977 national title with an 11-1 mark after a 9-3 season in 1976. Ara Parseghian went 9-0-1 and claimed the 1966 crown after a 7-2-1 campaign a year earlier. Frank Leahy’s 1943 national championship team finished 9-1 a year after one of his more difficult seasons – a 7-2-2 campaign.
Asked if he thought Notre Dame could win a national title under his direction as early as Year Three of his regime, Kelly said: “I didn’t think that we couldn’t. I’ve always thought in terms of what are the impediments, what are the things that will cost you from (winning it).
“You come here because you want to play for a national championship. It was nothing other than practicing and playing the game the right way and developing our talent. That was the only element, and that was just a matter of time. I didn’t think there was anything that was there that said that we couldn’t do it.”
Kelly isn’t counting his chickens before they have a chance to hatch Monday night. He recognizes that he’s already part of a select few heading into the game.
“Does that mean it’s a national championship? No, there are only a few people who can say they’ve ever done this,” Kelly said. “We bring it up, so it seems like everybody does it. But there’s only a few who ever have.”
Kelly hopes to add his name to the prestigious list Monday night.