It’s hard to believe that Brian Kelly is about to start his tenth year under the Golden Dome.
He took over a program trying to find it’s way since Lou Holtz stopped stalking the the sidelines. There was Bob Davie (35-25), Tyrone Willingham (21-15), and Charlie Weis (35-26). None of the three moved the needle. There were no signature wins or signs that Notre Dame would return to its historical glory.
That’s not to say it’s easy. All three coaches were trying to follow what Holtz had built in an ever-changing landscape. Offenses started to become more spread oriented. There was massive conference realignment. Even the NCAA changed from the old bowl system to the BCS to the College Football Playoff.
With all the changes, Notre Dame fell behind.
That was the situation Kelly stepped into when he accepted the job. What has happened since has been nothing short of incredible. After starting off with two 8-5 seasons, Kelly improved the talent and the record. His offense was changing along with the times and became a handful for opposing coaches to deal with.
In the last seven seasons, Kelly’s Irish have won 9+ games five times. Take away the 4-8, 2016 campaign and it’s hard not to be amazed by how Kelly and the Irish continue to make hay in today’s college football landscape.
If you want to seek out a reason to ding Kelly, you can look at his 4-4 bowl record with two devastating losses. The 42-14 National Championship loss to Alabama and the semifinal 30-3 loss to Clemson. Even then, you’re looking at arguably the two best programs (by a wide margin) in the country.
Heading into this season, there are questions for the Irish. With Dexter Williams gone, who will carry the ball for the Irish? Does Ian Book have an encore performance in him? Can Clark Lea continue to grow the defense?
All are legitimate questions but they also reflect where Notre Dame is now. It’s incredibly hard to be an Independent in today’s college football but the Irish has managed to do it well. They’ve maintained a high standard and are in contention for a New Year’s Day Six Bowl every season.
It’s easy to lose sight of how well Kelly has done under difficult conditions. Many didn’t think he’d make it ten years. Yet Kelly continues to build upon a program under the most pressurized eyes in the country.
The Irish have their usual tough schedule that includes trips to Georgia and Michigan. The moment won’t be too big for Notre Dame because it isn’t too big for their coach.
That’s the environment Kelly has fostered.