Among the 15 Notre Dame full-time head coaches in football since the hiring of Jesse Harper in 1913, Brian Kelly quietly this year has become only the fifth to reach his eighth season.
Last year Kelly tied Elmer Layden (1934-40) for fifth place on the all-time chart at the school in longevity, but now he has the spot to himself. The only four with longer tenures are the Mount Rushmore of the program: Knute Rockne’s 13 seasons (1918-30) prior to his premature death, and then the 11-year reigns of Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53), Ara Parseghian (1964-74) and Lou Holtz (1986-96).
After last year’s 4-8 result, there was surprise from many that Kelly survived to make it to an eighth season.
First, the four aforementioned coaches all had finished undefeated and/or won a national title in their third seasons. In 2012, Kelly did finish unbeaten in his third year as well (12-0) in the regular season, but lost in the title game. Such an achievement, however, after nearly two decades of mediocrity, probably brought Kelly five more years on the job — or coaching equity — hence, year eight in 2017.
The four Mount Rushmore figures also experienced tremendous success in Year 7. Rockne (1924) and Leahy (1949) both finished 10-0 and won consensus national titles. Meanwhile, Parseghian (1970) and Holtz (1992) were 10-1 and 10-1-1 respectively — and both won the Cotton Bowl over unbeaten teams. Parseghian’s Irish defeated No. 1 Texas (24-11), snapping the Longhorns' 30-game winning streak, to finish No. 2. Holtz’s Irish romped past 12-0 Texas A&M (28-3) and finished No. 4, although by the end of the season there wasn’t a more talented and better team.
The fifth coach who had reached seven years, Layden, finished “only” 7-2 in 1940 and unranked. Consequently, he felt it was time to step away from the demands and become the commissioner of the NFL.
Possibly, Kelly might have also mulled after the 4-8 campaign in year 7 whether a change was needed. Indeed, change came — in the form of six new on-field assistants, plus new leaders in the strength and conditioning operation.
What is interesting to note is that after those stellar seventh seasons, three of the four Notre Dame head coaches who made it to year 8 had disappointing results.
Knute Rockne: Year 8 (1925)
In the six previous years Rockne was 55-2-1, most notably 10-0 the year prior that earned Notre Dame its first consensus national title.
This loss total matched those of the previous six seasons combined, and included what would be his largest margin of defeat ever, a 27-0 loss to Army. The season ended with a 17-0 defeat at Nebraska.
After the season, Rockne actually signed a three-year deal at $25,000 per annum with Columbia University, far greater than the $10,000 he was making at Notre Dame. The deal was supposed to be done in confidence — especially because Rockne had a long-term deal with Notre Dame — but after Columbia alum James Knapp bragged about the arrangement and it made national headlines, the Irish head coach was embarrassed and returned as The Prodigal Son.
Frank Leahy: Year 8 (1950)
Just like his mentor Rockne, Leahy went through an unbelievable stretch before a significant dip in year 8.
In his first seven seasons with the Irish, Leahy was 60-3-5, with four consensus national titles, including 36-0-2 from 1946-49.
In 1950, though, the 4-4-1 outcome resulted in more defeats than his previous seven years combined.
How did it happen? One, the windfall of immense football talent that came to Notre Dame in 1946 following the end of World War II had concluded its four years of eligibility in 1949.
Two, football scholarships at Notre Dame had been cut from 32 to 18 right around 1947. The 1950 senior class, even with future College Football Hall of Fame members Bob Williams and Jerry Groom, saw the results.
Ara Parseghian: Year 8 (1971)
Despite the graduation of quarterback Joe Theismann, the Heisman runner-up in 1970, Notre Dame was the preseason No. 1 pick in the AP and by Sports Illustrated because of a seemingly impregnable defense and the return of virtually everyone else on offense.
Instead, for the first time in Parseghian’s eight seasons, the Irish finished outside the AP Top 10 (No. 13) while losing decisively to their two best opponents on the schedule: 28-14 at home to USC and 28-8 at LSU in the finale.
Even at 8-1 and the week of the LSU game, the players were so disappointed with their campaign, they voted against an invitation to play in the Gator Bowl because it was “national title or bust.”
Lou Holtz: Year 8 (1993)
This was classified as a “rebuilding year” because the previous year’s backfield that consisted of first-round pick Rick Mirer at quarterback, first-round pick Jerome Bettis at fullback and second-round selection Reggie Brooks (fifth in the Heisman voting) at tailback was gone. Plus, it also graduated first-round pick Irv Smith at tight end.
Meanwhile, the defense graduated its top pass rusher (Devon McDonald), its captain, second-round linebacker Demetrius DuBose, and best cover man, first-round pick Tom Carter, who turned pro after his junior year.
All the departures left the Irish a “lowly” No. 7 in the AP preseason poll.
Notre Dame finished 11-1 and No. 2 — despite defeating No. 1 Florida State in November, 31-24. A Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M was not enough to compensate for a 41-39 defeat at home to Boston College the week after the FSU game.