Number 200 won’t go down among the most memorable of wins in Brian Kelly’s coaching career.
Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field prior to his 200th career victory Saturday afternoon.
Notre Dame launched itself into the 2013 season with 14 points in its first six plays of the year. Then the Irish coasted to a 28-6 victory over an outmatched Temple team Saturday in South Bend. It was a check-the-boxes, matter-of-fact win — the type of performance that has to be commonplace for a coach to average 8.7 of them per season over the course of his 23 years on a college football sideline.
It wasn’t that much different, in fact, than Kelly’s first win with Grand Valley State against St. Joseph’s College, a Div. II school 100 miles and a lifetime of coaching away from Notre Dame’s campus. Jack Hull, the quarterback of that Grand Valley team, only remembered that they were trying to stay intact for a meeting the following weekend with the defending national champions, North Dakota State.
“There was nothing spectacular about that game,” said Hull, who surprised Kelly in the Irish locker room after this Saturday’s win to present his former coach with the game ball.
Hull broke his non-throwing hand in the second quarter of that next game, but returned to lead a comeback and snap North Dakota State’s streak of 25 straight home wins. It was Kelly’s second victory and the first of many games when he and his teams rose to meet the moment.
They finished 9-3 that season while weathering the challenges that come with building a young program. Hull recalled their budget was about the same as what Michigan spent on athletic tape in a year.
On a trip to Indianapolis, the team’s discount hotel didn’t have a meeting room large enough to fit all 60 players, so they went through their game plan in the parking lot. When an October snow covered the team’s practice field, Kelly’s staff used a bulldozer as a plow. It removed as much grass as it did snow and left behind a patch of frozen mud where Hull and his teammates practiced for the rest of the year.
Now, Kelly’s Notre Dame team sleeps comfortably in a hotel before even its home games and meets in a massive team auditorium on campus with the program’s former bowl wins plastered on the walls. Down the hall is the indoor practice facility for snowy days and across the street are three more full practice fields at his disposal.
Kelly has come a long way in his quarter century in the coaching world. As the second youngest (51 years, 310 days old) coach to reach the 200-win milestone, he still has plenty of room to keep going. The only man to get to 200 at a younger age was Pop Warner. Only Joe Paterno, Tom Osborne, Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes — a Mt. Rushmore quartet of Midwestern coaches — got there in fewer games than the 270 it took Kelly.
He’s been driven this far by a passionate need to do better. That’s what pushed him to leave a secure job in Massachusetts politics to be a Div. III softball coach at Assumption College. It’s what carried him from Central Michigan to Cincinnati and then to Notre Dame in a warp-speed rise to one of the sport’s most coveted jobs. It’s what gave him the faith to take a sturdy 7-9 wins-per-year program at Grand Valley State and tear it apart to start anew.
“He could’ve very easily kept the system we had in place,” Hull said. “He didn’t want to just win. He wanted to win a championship.”
He won two of them. That upward inertia, the pull toward bigger and better, might be the one thing that can keep Kelly from winning another, and eventually joining those coaching luminaries with whom he’s currently keeping pace.
It’s been a full decade since Kelly has stuck around in one place for longer than three years. He sped through his last three stops like a real estate flipper. In January he entertained the thought of moving to the National Football League after his three seasons at Notre Dame. He decided that he preferred to stay at the college level. For now.
The more he wins, the harder it will be for Kelly to keep his loyal staff of assistants by his side. Having them around is what the coach said he enjoyed the most about winning his 200th game.
""I haven't really taken the time to think about it other than a lot of the coaches that are with me today have been a part of a lot of those wins," he said. "And that's really, for me, pretty special."
If they follow the head man's lead and keep surging upward, will Kelly feel inclined to follow suit? As long as he continues to win, those options will continue to be available. Kelly’s track record indicates that sooner or later that drive will carry him out of South Bend. In the meantime, Notre Dame and its coach can plan to keep on winning.