Question: I am a Brian Kelly guy, but I wonder how often — if ever — in its history Notre Dame has been able to hire away “The Fantasy Coach” of the kind we all tend to hear mentioned on this and other boards.
Brian Kelly was hired at Notre Dame after being named National Coach of the Year at Cincinnati.
• Lou Holtz had been fired by Arkansas and was rebuilding Minnesota that was still mediocre at best when he left.
• Maybe the Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy hires qualify, but just as Cincinnati is not Notre Dame, neither were Northwestern (Parseghian) nor Boston College (Leahy). Leahy was at BC only two years and Parseghian’s record at Northwestern was 36-35-1, so I don't think either was a lock to be successful at ND.
• I think in the real world Kelly was an excellent hire, not just “settling.” Was he the very best conceivable hire in a perfect world? I honestly wonder if we have ever hired that person in the entire history of the program. Have we?
Reply: In 1941, Frank Leahy was indeed the Urban Meyer-like home run hire to Notre Dame because he was everything Notre Dame people sought:
• He was an alumnus who had played for Knute Rockne on national title teams in 1929 and 1930 while learning from him as well.
• He coached The Seven Blocks of Granite (including Vince Lombardi) as an assistant at Fordham and elevated Boston College to a perfect record the way Meyer did at Utah in 2004.
• The cherry on top was upsetting No. 4 Tennessee, under the leadership of General Robert Neyland, in the Sugar Bowl.
Leahy fit the prototype of everything Notre Dame wanted: alumnus, played for Rockne, devout Catholic, young (33 when hired) and an instant success as a head coach at a program where it's not easy to win big.
Parseghian was a huge hire because he too was young (40 at the time), dynamic, camera friendly (like a young, tanned JFK going against a more haggard looking in Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate in 1960) and was 4-0 against Notre Dame when he faced it from 1959-62. He also won three of his last four from Ohio State's juggernaut coached by Woody Hayes, and had Northwestern ranked as high as No. 2 in 1959 and No. 1 in 1962. That was as astounding back then as it would be now. It would be like seeing Vanderbilt No. 2 or No. 1 at mid-season.
The problem Parseghian had at Northwestern was depth. It was a private school, and the roster was threadbare, so the team usually ran out of gas in November. The 1959 team that started 6-0 and No. 2 lost its last three games. The 1962 team that started 6-0 and was No. 1 lost two of the last three to finish 7-2.
Assessing a coach at a place like Northwestern, Vanderbilt or even Stanford and comparing won-lost records to places like USC, Alabama, Ohio State, etc. is apples and oranges. We doubt anyone would disagree that Jim Harbaugh is an outstanding coach … but he was “only” 29-21 (.580) at Stanford.
But you have to remember he was taking over a train wreck that was 1-11 the year before he took the reins and had seven straight losing years. By his fourth year the Cardinal was 12-1. Same with Holtz, who was only 13-20 at William & Mary (“With more Marys than Williams,” joked Holtz.) or 10-12 at Minnesota. Parseghian was 0-9 in his second year at Northwestern but made them 5-4 by the next season.
The concerns with Parseghian were that he was the first non-alumnus since Jesse Harper in 1913 to be hired by Notre Dame, and he also wasn't Catholic. He even expressed doubt that he would be hired because he wasn't Catholic, but he said the 4-0 record versus the Irish aided the cause greatly.
The funny thing is the No. 1 choice at the time may have been Missouri's Dan Devine. He had led Arizona State to an unbeaten season in 1957 and had made Missouri a top-10 program, plus he was Catholic. But Notre Dame president Father Hesburgh liked Parseghian, and our understanding was there was an unofficial agreement between University vice president Father Ned Joyce and Devine (who he had visited) that the next time the Notre Dame job opens, he would get the first crack. Indeed, hours after Parseghian stepped down in December 1974, Joyce had already spoken with Devine about becoming the successor.
Notre Dame also was extremely lucky to get Parseghian because the Northwestern athletics director, Stu Holcomb had personal issues with him. They had a falling out at the end of 1963 when Holcomb refused to endorse him for the future — and it was Parseghian who made the call to Father Joyce that he noticed Hugh Devore was only an interim coach at Notre Dame and he'd be interested in the position.
That was like Marilyn Monroe calling you to see if you'd be interested in going out (although Joyce preferred to refer to it as "manna from heaven.")
Similar to Parseghian with Holcomb, Holtz had a falling out with athletics director Frank Broyles at Arkansas in 1983, leading to him taking the Minnesota job. He worked wonders there in his two years — but again luck was involved. Everyone knows about the Notre Dame clause in his contract (Leahy had one too at BC). What Holtz later revealed was that in accordance with the clause, Holtz was not eligible to take the Notre Dame job until he first led Minnesota to a winning record and bowl eligibility.
In his second year at Minnesota, after he improved to 6-3 (Minnesota was 1-10 when he arrived) with a 27-18 win over Wisconsin, Holtz reminded AD Paul Giel that the terms of his contract had been fulfilled. Giel immediately knew then that Holtz was destined for the Irish. If he had gone 5-6 that year, we doubt it would have happened.
Timing, timing, timing is everything when it comes to a coaching hire. Just ask Ohio State.
We do believe that Notre Dame was fortunate to get Brian Kelly at the crest of his career. Going 34-6 at Cincinnati, notably 12-0 his last year, is an extraordinary feat. With that said, we would not rank him at this point among the elite coaches in the country because he has never really gone head to head with one and vanquished him.
For example, prior to coming to Notre Dame Holtz had already conquered several coaching giants in the game like Barry Switzer or Joe Paterno (and that was at N.C. State) and Frank Kush, among others like West Virginia's Bobby Bowden. Parseghian had done it with Woody Hayes, Bud Wilkinson, Forest Eveshevski, etc.
Kelly has no such victories yet on his résumé, but we do believe he is capable of reaching that next tier. Time will tell.