If you have ever taken a walk around Notre Dame Stadium, there are statues of Notre Dame coaches Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz.
What do these men have in common? Simple, they all won at least one national championship in South Bend.
For Brian Kelly, he will eventually surpass Rockne for most wins as a Notre Dame head coach, but what keeps him from being immortalized in bronze outside the stadium where he has coached since 2010 is the lack of a national title.
And Kelly has had his chances.
The first was during the 2012 season when the Irish finished undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the A.P. and B.C.S. standings, only to be rolled by No. 2 Alabama 42-14 in the National Championship Game in Miami that year.
In the College Football Playoff era, Notre Dame has made two appearances the last three seasons, only to be defeated by Clemson 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl during the 2018 season, who went on to win the National Championship, and just a few days ago losing 31-14 in the Rose Bowl to Nick Saban’s Alabama squad, who will play Ohio State for the title January 11.
What’s even more polarizing is Notre Dame’s abysmal record in New Year’s Six Bowl Games since the Bob Davie era.
The Irish are 0-7 since 1998 in those major bowl games. Kelly accounts for four of them. Along with the B.C.S. title game and playoff losses, a 44-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State in 2015 is on his resume.
Since the departure of Lou Holtz, Notre Dame has not met the expectations that come with the history of the program. But Brian Kelly has been the bright spot since 1997.
Kelly has led the Fighting Irish to four-straight 10-win seasons following a 4-8 finish in 2016, when many questioned (myself included) if Notre Dame should fire him.
In his 11 seasons at the helm, the Irish have had six seasons with 10 or more wins, two undefeated regular seasons, and 2016 is the only losing season during his tenure.
This season, The Irish beat a No. 1 team (Clemson) for the first time since Lou Holtz’s 1993 team knocked off top-ranked Florida State.
Simply put, Notre Dame has been a much-more consistent and competitive team under Kelly since Holtz left, even as they fall short against the likes of Alabama.
His time at Notre Dame has also come in an era where the 4-team playoff began, realignment saw the school strike a deal with the Atlantic Coast Conference when the Big East crumbled, making the Irish a quasi-football member, and a full-time member for the 2020 season during the pandemic, and a decade where Alabama, other SEC schools, Florida State, Oregon, Ohio State and Clemson have been constant contenders for the national title.
You could make the argument that winning a championship for Notre Dame is harder in the present college football landscape compared to when coaches like Ara and Holtz won their titles.
These days, gaining favor with the A.P. voters doesn’t help you anymore like it did for Parseghian when he was happy to take a tie in the 1966 matchup against Michigan State, knowing if they won out, they’d be national champions.
This is not an effort to create excuses for Kelly, but circumstances have changed, along with the game in the last few decades.
Kelly and other coaches are epidemiologists trying to stay on top of the latest strain of Alabama football that emerges each fall.
With 102 wins, Brian Kelly, as mentioned earlier, will soon surpass the great Knute Rockne, who turned Notre Dame into a national name.
That is something for Kelly to hang his hat on. But at Notre Dame, that is the equivalent of a participation trophy. After Charlie Weis’ firing following the 2009 season, the school brought Kelly in to win a title. He has flirted with that immortality those before him achieved, but has yet to seal the deal.
A Brian Kelly statue could one day sit outside Notre Dame Stadium.
To start work on it, that national championship needs to be won.
Kelly may not be thinking about a statue of him at the gate, but he knows Notre Dame needs to break through and be the best in college football again to quiet doubters who will debate his legacy.