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A First For Everything At Notre Dame

Brian Kelly has an opportunity to achieve a feat no other Notre Dame head coach has accomplished: Record a bowl victory in his first season.

That fact might be slightly misleading because the first Irish head coach who actually played in a bowl game his first season was Bob Davie in 1997.

From 1925 until 1969, Notre Dame had a 44-year ban on postseason games. Part of it was the academic schedule, but also because until 1968, bowl games were basically glorified exhibitions.

The AP and UPI voted on the national champs almost without exception at the end of the regular season. There were pros and cons for Notre Dame with this approach.

The con was 1953, when No. 1 Maryland was selected the national champ over No. 2 Notre Dame in the regular season. Maryland then lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl — a team the 9-0-1 Irish defeated — but it didn’t matter. The Terps were already declared the national title winners.

The positive was 1966. Despite the famous 10-10 tie with Michigan State, Notre Dame was voted the national champ after its regular-season finale, a 51-0 trouncing of USC. Alabama finished 11-0 following a 34-7 Sugar Bowl win against Nebraska — but it didn’t matter again because bowls didn’t factor into the final choice.

In 1968, the AP decided to hold its vote for the national title until after the bowls. The next season, maybe not so coincidentally, the Irish rescinded their non-bowl policy. By then, Ara Parseghian was already in his sixth season as Notre Dame’s head coach.

The first Irish coach to have an opportunity to play in a bowl during his initial season was Dan Devine in 1975. However, back then the players voted on whether or not to go to a bowl — and the Irish rejected a bid to the Cotton Bowl. Why?

Part of it was the vote came shortly after a 34-20 loss at Pitt in which Tony Dorsett romped for 303 yards rushing against Notre Dame. The 7-3 Irish (who would finish 8-3 after beating Miami in the finale next week) felt unworthy to participate in a major bowl.

“Everybody was pretty down on themselves,” recalled 1975 co-captain and linebacker Jim Stock. “I wanted to go to the bowl and voted for it, but we didn’t have a lot of senior starters, so the other seniors didn’t see the point. A lot just wanted to stay at home for Christmas … and with finals coming up, there was an attitude of, ‘Let’s just go home.’ ”

That was the last time the players were allowed to vote. But thereafter, the next five Notre Dame coaches still couldn’t win a bowl in their first year.

Gerry Faust (1981) — Pegged as a preseason national title favorite after losing to No. 1 Georgia in the previous year’s Sugar Bowl, the Irish instead faltered badly in Faust’s first season and finished with their first losing record (5-6) in 18 years. That wasn’t bowl-worthy.

Lou Holtz (1986) — A 1-4 start led to a 5-6 finish. Five of the defeats were by a combined 14 points, and four of them were to top-10 programs, including national champ Penn State, Big Ten champ Michigan, SEC champ LSU, and at Alabama. The Irish were probably one of the 15 or 20 best teams in the country by the end of the year, but the final record was still under .500.

Bob Davie (1997) — After a 2-5 start, Davie was on the threshold of becoming the third straight Irish first-year coach to finish with a losing record and no bowl bid.

Instead, similar to the 2010 team under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame hit its stride in November and finished the regular season with five consecutive wins, highlighted by a 24-6 victory at No. 11 LSU in which it didn’t commit a penalty nor a turnover for the first and still only time in its history.

Alas, the destination for the 7-5 Irish was a rematch with LSU in Shreveport, La., for the Independence Bowl. The Tigers, coached by 1975 Notre Dame grad Gerry DiNardo, rolled to a 27-9 win.

Tyrone Willingham (2002) — Billed as the “Savior of South Bend” after an 8-0 start, Willingham’s Irish were passed over for a BCS bid when they closed the regular season 2-2 following a 44-13 loss at USC.

The consolation prize was a trip to the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against North Carolina State, led by quarterback Philip Rivers. After Irish starting quarterback Carlyle Holiday was sidelined the remainder of the game with a first-quarter injury, the Irish offense became hapless in a 28-6 defeat to the Wolfpack.

Charlie Weis (2005) — Two plays away from an 11-0 regular season mark, the blustery Weis led the 9-2 and No. 5 Irish to a BCS bid against No. 4 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes racked up 617 yards total offense, the most ever yielded by a Notre Dame team, in a 34-20 conquest of the Irish.

That meant the three Notre Dame coaches who did get a chance to play in a bowl in their first season lost by an average of 18 points.

There is a first time for everything … and why not for Brian Kelly on Dec. 31, 2010?

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