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Brian Kelly And His “Senior Year”

The last time Brian Kelly had a fourth season as a head coach at a school was 1994, when his Grand Valley State Lakers finished 8-4 after a loss in the first round of the Division II playoffs.

This will be the first time since 1994 that Brian Kelly has a "senior year" at a school.

Year 3 has been his calling card since then — as in after Kelly’s third year, other jobs come “calling.”

After leading Central Michigan to the 2006 Mid-American Conference title (its first in 12 years), Kelly took the post at Cincinnati. After guiding the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season and Big East title in his third season (2009), Kelly joined Notre Dame. And now after a 12-1 ledger and an appearance in the BCS Championship Game in year 3, Kelly interviewed with the Philadelphia Eagles … but opted instead to return for his “senior year” at Notre Dame.

The results from the third year have defined the trajectory of a Notre Dame head coach’s career. Interestingly, the fourth year is the only one from one through five that has never produced a losing season for any Irish head coach, and certainly shouldn’t for Kelly in 2013.

The Irish coaches who won a national title or went unbeaten in year 3 often experienced an inevitable letdown the next season, yet posted impressive results despite the graduation of prime personnel. This included Frank Leahy’s national title in 1946, although his two previous years were spent overseas during World War II.

• Knute Rockne (1921) lost the incomparable George Gipp after back-to-back unbeaten seasons his second and third seasons.

• Ara Parseghian in his fourth year (1967) graduated a plethora of defensive starters, including future Hall-of-Famers Jim Lynch and Alan Page, plus running back Nick Eddy, who was third in the previous year’s Heisman balloting.

• Like Parseghian, Dan Devine graduated many defensive luminaries after his third season, most notably Ross Browner, Willie Fry and Luther Bradley, plus Walter Camp Player of the Year Ken MacAfee on offense.

• Lou Holtz not only saw the graduation of All-Americans such as Frank Stams on defense and Andy Heck on offense, but also the preseason suspensions of stars such as linebacker Michael Stonebreaker, running back Tony Brooks and defensive tackle George “Boo” Williams, plus a season-ending injury to fullback Braxston Banks in August.

Kelly will face a similar situation in 2013. His three prime leaders at each position group on defense have graduated — linebacker Manti Te’o, lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore and safety Zeke Motta — and all of his top playmakers on offense are gone: tight end Tyler Eifert, running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, and quarterback Everett Golson.

Still, the quintet of national title coaches Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine and Holtz produced a combined 47-7-1 (.863 winning percentage) record in their fourth seasons. None of the four beyond Rockne finished lower than No. 7 in the final AP poll (there was no such poll in Rockne’s era).

Producing a second straight top-10 finish in 2013 would constitute another outstanding campaign for Kelly.

Today, we begin our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.

No. 11: Joe Kuharich (1962)
Record: 5-5
Final AP Ranking: None
The 1955 NFL Coach of the Year is the lone Notre Dame head coach who didn’t finish above .500 in his fourth season with the Fighting Irish.

After opening with a 13-7 victory at Oklahoma — the second straight year he defeated the legendary coach Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners — Kuharich and Co., lost their next four contests, all to Big Ten foes: Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State and, most notably, Northwestern.

The 31-7 defeat to Michigan State extended Notre Dame’s losing streak to seven against the Spartans. Far more telling was the 35-6 debacle at Northwestern the next week, Oct. 27. The game occurred the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the world was gripped by the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

For the fourth year in a row, the dynamic young Northwestern coach, 39-year-old Ara Parseghian, saw his supposedly less talented Wildcats vanquish the Irish. While watching in envy the way Northwestern quarterback Tom Myers and receiver Paul Flatley clicked while ripping through the defense, Notre Dame sophomore reserve receiver Jack Snow noted disgustedly to classmate and fellow backup John Huarte, a quarterback, “We could do that too.” They would get that chance two years later — with Parseghian.

The Irish actually had a very good senior combination in 1962 with quarterback Daryle Lamonica and wideout Jim Kelly (single season record 41 catches), but Lamonica, a future AFL and NFL star, averaged only 13 passes per game all season.

After the 1-4 start, Notre Dame posted its longest winning streak of the Kuharich era with four in a row to improve to 5-4. But the season ended with a 25-0 loss at USC, which would win the national title under third-year head coach John McKay.

The following March, shortly before spring practice was to commence, Kuharich turned in his resignation to take a position as the supervisor of NFL officials. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was the football publicist at the University of San Francisco in the early 1950s when Kuharich was the head coach there, made the offer Kuharich couldn't refuse as an early exit strategy.

It is the only time a Notre Dame coach departed voluntarily after four seasons.

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