Exactly 100 years ago, Nov. 1, 1913, first-year Notre Dame head coach Jesse Harper began what can be categorized as the most important and amazing month in the school’s football history.
Brian Kelly is 10-1 in November at Notre Dame, was 10-1 at Cincinnati in November, and also 2-0 at Cincinnati during regular season games in December.
Forced to schedule nationally because of no regional marquee takers, Harper and his Notre Dame team capped a perfect season with their traveling show by first upsetting Army 35-13 (Nov. 1) in a watershed moment, Penn State 14-7 (Nov. 8), traveled to St. Louis to defeat Christian Brothers 20-7 (Nov. 22) and then five days later, on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 27), defeated Texas 30-7 in Austin.
During his five years at Notre Dame, Harper was 19-1 (.950) in November, with the lone defeat coming to Army in its “revenge match” in 1914. His first three years the November record was 10-1. A Notre Dame head coach hadn’t matched that … until now.
Through his first three seasons with the Fighting Irish, Brian Kelly is 10-1 in November. It began in 2010 when his reeling 4-5 team on a two-game losing streak, and having to suddenly start freshman Tommy Rees at quarterback, defeated No. 15 Utah, 28-3. Last year Kelly joined Frank Leahy and Lou Holtz as the lone Irish coaches to vanquish USC in their first two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
And there’s more. Kelly also was 10-1 in November during his three-year stint at the University of Cincinnati (2007-09) before coming to Notre Dame, winning his last eight contests in that month. Four of those victories were against ranked teams, and the lone defeat was in 2007 (28-23) to No. 5 West Virginia.
And wait, there’s more! In regular season games that extended into the month of December while he was at Cincinnati, Kelly was 2-0, highlighted by the dramatic 45-44 win at No. 15 Pitt in which a BCS bid was on the line. The Bearcats trailed 31-10 before rallying to victory.
Finally, Kelly also won his last two November games while at Central Michigan University in 2006, highlighted by the MAC Championship game, the team’s first such title in 12 years.
In his last 26 November/December regular season games, including the MAC Championship, Kelly is 24-2 (.923 winning percentage). His lone loss at Notre Dame in November was 28-14 at Stanford in 2011, when quarterback Andrew Luck led the Cardinal. A victory at Stanford this year — currently No. 5 in the BCS — would go a long way toward atoning for that setback.
Kelly said much of the November success is based on year-round conditioning plans, headed by his long-time right-hand man, Paul Longo. This includes proper nutrition, hydration and pacing of training and practices throughout the year. A huge part of conditioning is not over-working players.
“We make it such that it’s not a grind,” said Kelly of how the practices are set up. “It’s not a sprint but a marathon, and that October is for pretenders and November is for contenders. We try to ingrain within our players’ [and] coaches’ mind that this is now the time to kick it into gear. This is where you get the opportunity to play for championships.
“You can’t have a great November without having a great plan as it relates to your conditioning. That goes back to January. That goes back to what you do in June. If you try to win the battle in June and July and August, you’re probably going to come up short in November.
“We want to make sure the tank is full in November, and we’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
Like in everything else, you need luck, too. Just ask Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Losing a game in November, especially at home, used to be a death knell for a college football team with championship aspirations. The Crimson Tide has lost at home in November each of the past two years (LSU and Texas A&M) but still went on to capture the national title.
“You’ve got to be lucky, too,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to stay away from the injury situation and make sure your players are developed and count on guys … we’re going to have to count on guys to play a big role for us in November.”
Here are the November records of Notre Dame coaches their first three years at the school, keeping in mind it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison based on strength of schedule:
Jesse Harper 10-1 (.909)
Knute Rockne 11-1-2 (.857)
Hunk Anderson 7-6 (.539), plus 1-0 in December
Elmer Layden 6-4-1 (.591), plus 1-0-1 in December
Frank Leahy 9-2-1 (.792), plus 0-0-1 in December
Terry Brennan 8-4 (.667), plus 1-1 in December
Joe Kuharich 5-7 (.416), plus 0-1 in December
Ara Parseghian 8-2-2 (.750), based on NCAA formula where ties count for a half-win and half-loss, thereby dividing 9 into 12.
Dan Devine 8-3 (.727) , plus 1-0 in December
Gerry Faust 3-8 (.273)
Lou Holtz 8-4 (.667)
Bob Davie 7-5 (.583)
Ty Willingham 6-5 (.546), plus 0-1 in December
Charlie Weis 9-3 (.750)
Note: In his last two years, Weis was 1-8 in November, losing his last six.
Brian Kelly 10-1 (.909)