Brian Kelly leaves Notre Dame as he predicted, though the unexpected rush overshadows his successes

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Maybe Brian Kelly always knew how he would be remembered at Notre Dame.

“I can tell you exactly where I’ll sit in Notre Dame history: the coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship. That’s where I’ll sit,” Kelly said in September after tying Knute Rockne’s record of 105 wins with the Irish. “What I feel like we’ve done is, we’ve played consistent football. We’ve brought Notre Dame football back to its relevance of competing for championships.”

Kelly went 8-3 against Notre Dame’s biggest rival, including winning the last four by an average margin of more than two touchdowns. He led the Irish to more wins than any coach in history, including 54 in just the last five years, also a Notre Dame record. Three times he got the Irish into the postseason with national title hopes alive, and a fourth may yet be afoot, fitting that “competing for championships” claim.

But Brian Kelly may end up more remembered for his exit from South Bend without winning a national championship than for any of that.

He openly and publicly challenged himself and his coaching staff to elevate their recruiting — “We want to break out of the 15th-ranked or the 10th-ranked, and we want to get into that next echelon,” Kelly said before the 2019 Camping World Bowl. He led the Irish to a double-overtime upset of No. 1 Clemson just last year. He won three straight games against Stanford, which had troubled its supposed peer for years until recently.

But Brian Kelly’s handling of his ringless departure for LSU may mar those memories in many minds.

The NCAA voided 21 of his Notre Dame-record 113 wins, though the University actively recognizes them all the same, after five players received inappropriate academic assistance in the early part of last decade. He saw dream seasons fall apart in disaster at Miami in 2017 and Michigan in 2019. The Irish never genuinely competed in their three postseason appearances, losing by an average margin of 24 points.

But in hindsight to come, Brian Kelly’s rapid and unexpected exit for Baton Rouge may outlast even those flaws on the biggest stages.

When Notre Dame extended Kelly’s contract to 2024 during the 2020 season opener, an announcement delayed for about half a year by the pandemic, every expectation was that Kelly would retire in South Bend. He recently built a house within a mile of campus, after all, that exact proximity needed to fit certain NCAA recruiting restrictions. Just a week ago, Kelly said the only thing that would keep him from ending his career at Notre Dame would be an offer from a “fairy godmother” in the range of $250 million. That figure may have been an exaggeration, as it was a 10-year deal somewhere around $100-150 million that got Kelly to head south, per Monday evening reports.

Some may wonder how much money is enough money but combining that kind of payday with the reality that the last three Tigers head coaches each won the national championship that evades Kelly makes for a defensible decision. Not only Notre Dame’s coaches are judged on that championship binary; all coaches are.

“Everything is judged and rightly so on winning national championships,” Kelly said when discussing his 105th win, and 158th at the FBS level, without said title. “And I have no problems with that.”

This move to the SEC can also be construed as an odd decision, given that a week ago, Notre Dame would have been seen as one of the six most stable programs in the country and thus an annual national title contender, if not also still an underdog to the other five of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Kelly had already endured his near-firing in South Bend, coming out of the 2016 faceplant with almost an entirely new coaching staff and a rededication to knowing his roster. That being only a near firing surprised many, and he will have no such mulligan at LSU, as evidenced by the Tigers so eagerly firing Ed Orgeron less than two years after a dominant national title run.

But that national championship possibility proved too enticing for Kelly. Only Alabama has won more national championships this century (six) than LSU’s three, all won by different coaches. It may be the most head coach-proof program in the country, seemingly capable of raising the most-sought trophy in the sport no matter who leads from the sideline.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 11 Brian Kelly Introduced as New Notre Dame Head Coach
Kelly at his introductory press conference at Notre Dame in 2009. (Photo by Marcus Snowden/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

That may come across as downplaying any future accomplishments Kelly may enjoy, but it is instead the ultimate compliment for a college football program, something that had evaded Notre Dame for nearly 20 years before Kelly arrived in December of 2009.

Lou Holtz went only 44-13-2 in his final five years in South Bend and 17-6 in his final two seasons. Then Bob Davie put together a 33-25 stretch in five years, capped by going 14-9 in 2000 and 2001. Tyrone Willingham was given only a three-year runway, going 21-15 and 11-13 in his last two. Charlie Weis, a prodigal son returning to his alma mater, went 35-27 and ended 13-12 with his end sealed by a loss to Connecticut.

Neither Willingham nor Weis was Notre Dame’s first choice, and neither performed like it, either.

Kelly was the first choice in 2009, by all reporting both then and in retrospect. A 113-39 record arguably qualifies as performing like it and going 54-9 in the last five years — the stretch comparable to Holtz’s from 1992 to 1996, and all of Davie’s and Weis’ tenures — certainly matched any reasonable expectations, along with going 21-3 in these last two tumultuous seasons.

Consistency, if not a championship, through that tumult was undoubtedly part of the undercurrent of Kelly’s initial parting words to his Irish roster, sent in a mass message Monday night and promptly leaked.

“I will have more to share when we meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 7 a.m., but for now, just know that my love for you is limitless and I am so proud of all that you have accomplished,” Kelly wrote. “Our program is elite because of your hard work and commitment and I know that will continue.”

Sending that message hours after his departure was reported is not how any coach wants to leave a program, and while the rush of reporters to be first makes that a more difficult needle for a coach to thread, that reality will not lessen the backlash to Kelly’s botched farewell. Spending Monday recruiting in the homes of players expected to sign at Notre Dame in 15 days was another egregious misstep that will be readily, easily and understandably pitted against much of what Kelly accomplished in the last 12 years, but he still accomplished that much, even if he did not raise a 12th banner in the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel.

“Each year, you raise the bar,” Kelly said as that 105th win gave an opportunity to look at his 12-year tenure. “You continue to build toward that goal of winning a national championship.”

Kelly will build toward that goal elsewhere, somewhere that has proven always capable of reaching that goal.

Now the test for Notre Dame will be to prove Kelly right and continue as an elite program, continue raising that bar, continue building toward its own national championship. Successfully doing so, beginning with director of athletics Jack Swarbrick finding the right next coach, would prove the Irish have found not only the stability that lacked from Holtz’s end up until Kelly’s reboot but stability that can extend beyond a coach.

Ironically, Notre Dame proving that level of stability and remaining a title contender in doing so would be something that would be best described as LSU-esque and always required Kelly to leave, now forever sitting as “the coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship.”

BRIAN KELLY AT NOTRE DAME BY THE NUMBERS
12: Seasons as the Irish head coach.
113: Victories, including 21 from 2012 and 2013 vacated by the NCAA, the most in Notre Dame history.
39: Losses, most notably going 4-8 in 2016.
54: NFL draft picks since the 2011 draft, with a few more to come this spring that should be credited to Kelly’s tenure, led by junior safety Kyle Hamilton, a presumptive top-10 pick.
9: First-round draft picks since the 2011 draft, three times as many as Davie, Willingham and Weis produced combined, and again not yet including Hamilton.
42: An active streak of 42 straight wins against unranked opponents, the best in the country.
5: An active streak of five straight seasons with at least 10 wins.
3: National championship game or Playoff appearances, in 2012, 2018 and 2020.
3: Unbeaten regular seasons, in 2012, 2018 and 2020.
2: Bowl wins against LSU, in the 2014 Music City Bowl and the 2017 Citrus Bowl.