Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is in the twilight of his coaching career in South Bend. What he does over the next five months will determine his coaching legacy at Notre Dame.
With the extension he signed in 2020, Kelly's current contract is set to expire after the 2024 season. He would be 63 years old by the time his contract expires, and he will have been at Notre Dame for 15 seasons. The odds of him coaching at Notre Dame beyond 2024 are slim, and I would contend there's a better chance he is done before 2024 than there is that he coaches the Irish beyond 2024.
The next four seasons will determine just how he is remembered at Notre Dame. If Kelly wants to build on what he's already done and take the program to the next level, which means a championship, this offseason is the time to make those moves.
If Kelly retired tomorrow he would go down as one of the most successful Notre Dame coaches in history, and he resurrected a program that had laid dormant for over 20 years.
In the 11 seasons prior to Kelly's arrival the Irish went 75-59, good for just a .560 win percentage.
Kelly just completed his 11th season as the head coach at Notre Dame, and he's accumulated a 102-39 record, which is good for a .723 win percentage. Kelly has coached more games at Notre Dame than any coach in the program's history, and he's second in wins. His win percentage ranks eighth among Notre Dame coaches that stayed at least five seasons.
The program is light year's ahead of where it was when he arrived, from both an on-field standpoint and an overall program standpoint, especially when it comes to facilities and coaches compensation.
TWO THINGS ARE MISSING
There are two things that the legendary coaches at Notre Dame accomplished that Kelly has either struck out with, or has come up woefully short with. That would be winning a national title and racking up a lot of signature wins.
If you look at the four coaches who won titles at Notre Dame in the poll era, Kelly has fewer wins over opponents that finished ranked in the Top 10, and wins over opponents who were ranked in the Top 10 when the teams played.
Here's the career wins over opponents that finished ranked in the Top 10:
Lou Holtz - 15 (11 seasons)
Frank Leahy - 13 (11 seasons)
Ara Parseghian - 7 (11 seasons)
Dan Devine - 5 (6 seasons)
Brian Kelly - 4 (11 seasons)
Career wins over opponents that were ranked in the Top 10 at game time:
Holtz - 21
Leahy - 19
Parseghian - 10
Devine - 10
Kelly - 4
Missing those two key ingredients has Kelly lagging well behind those former coaches who have statues outside the stadium. Those are the legacies Kelly is chasing, and he's gotten the program on the cusp of that level, but they aren't there yet.
Over the next three seasons Notre Dame will have plenty of chances to play spotlight games. Upcoming schedules have both Ohio State and Clemson, and North Carolina is an ascending program.
WHY THIS OFFSEASON IS SO IMPORTANT
With Ohio State and Clemson on the 2022 and 2023 schedules, with ascending North Carolina on the schedule the next two seasons and with USC possibly getting back on track the Irish will have plenty of chances to win statement games. The matchups against OSU and Clemson in 2022 and 2023 will have significant playoff implications.
Through Kelly's first 11 seasons those are games he has not fared well in, and the fact is the schedule should be tougher in 2022 and 2023 than it has been from 2018-20. In two of Kelly's 10+ win seasons (2015, 2019) the best win on the resume was over Navy, and in another season (2018) the best win was over Syracuse.
Notre Dame has benefitted from not playing challenging schedules, and the Irish are just 5-6 against opponents that finished in the Top 15 from 2017-20, and just 1-5 against Top 10 opponents. Three of those five wins came with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback, which means it has been awhile. Notre Dame won just two games against Top 15 opponents during Ian Book's 35 starts.
You can bet Ohio State and Clemson will still be Top 10 programs when they face the Irish in 2022 and 2023, and there's a good chance North Carolina could be on that level.
Simply "doing what we do" isn't going to be an option for Kelly over the next four seasons, unless he's totally fine with beating up on inferior opponents while coming up short against the best teams.
Waiting until the offseason before either 2022 or 2023 to make the necessary changes to the program will be too little too late.
Kelly needs to make the major changes now. There aren't many to make, but the few he has to make are very, very important, and his willingness to make them will determine whether he goes down as a really good coach who made Notre Dame respectable but one who failed when the lights were brightest, or if he goes down as a legendary coach that brought a championship to Notre Dame.
Kelly's willingness to make the tough but needed decisions this offseason will determine if in 10 years fans walk by a Brian Kelly statue on their way into Notre Dame Stadium.
One of those boxes has already been checked, and that happened when Kelly hired defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
Here are the other areas where changes are needed:
1. Overhaul the offense - I will dive into more specifics about this next week, but I've already talked about the philosophical changes that are needed, and explained why Kelly needs to move forward by looking to his past.
Simply put, if Kelly doesn't make major changes on offense none of the other points will matter. It starts here, and it must be done now, which would give the offensive players and coaches a full season to get used to the new system by the time 2022 rolls around.
2. Rethink how you handle quarterbacks - Kelly hates getting asked about quarterback regression during his tenure, but as much as he hates to discuss it the numbers don't lie. Book, for example, had his best QB rating in 2018, saw a drop in 2019 and saw another drop in 2020. Kizer regressed, Rees regressed, Golson regressed, Wimbush regressed. It's a common theme, and it hasn't changed in 11 seasons.
Kelly must figure out why this is happening, and simply blaming it on talent is lazy and inaccurate. He needs to think long and hard about the demands he is placing on the shoulders of his quarterbacks, on an off the field. Beyond that, he needs to think even longer and even harder about how he interacts with quarterbacks, and how many voices a quarterback has in his ear.
Kelly seems to trust OC Tommy Rees, and now he needs to let Rees be the only voice quarterbacks hear on the practice field, on the game field and in the film room.
3. Make sure your offensive staff is up to par - There are some really good pieces on the offensive staff, but there are some areas that aren't where they need to be. Kelly needs to make sure each coach on offense is a top-notch teacher and a strong recruiter. That isn't the case right now, and that needs to get fixed.
That doesn't mean firing people, it could be as simple as creating a greater sense of accountability, but as I said before, just "doing what we do" isn't going to work on offense if Kelly is serious about competing for championships.
4. Create a more dynamic recruiting operation - Kelly must be willing to expand the current recruiting operation at Notre Dame, which means more resources from both a financial standpoint and a personnel standpoint.
He must also make sure that every coach on his staff is putting in the work. Not the work that we've seen from the staff in recent seasons, but that every coach is pushed to work even harder, be more effective and raise their game.
Kelly has not seemed to be willing to move on from coaches who don't recruit, which is why Autry Denson and a few other coaches lasted as long as they did despite loads of evidence they weren't recruiting. That can't happen anymore, if a coach isn't crushing it on the recruiting trail a change needs to be made.
5. Become more involved in recruiting - You cannot hold coaches accountable in recruiting if you're not more involved on a day-to-day basis. Kelly has seemed reluctant to make recruiting a significant part of his job, and this has been true for years.
He'll come in and close and occasionally get involved with a top prospect, but the gap between the work Kelly puts in on the recruiting trail and what other top coaches (coaches who are actually competing for and winning championships) is enormous.
This does not mean that Kelly must be on the phone with recruits every day, or that he needs to be on the road non-stop. That's not necessarily needed at Notre Dame, although having a coach who will do those things is great, but Kelly doesn't have to go all the way on that.
He must, however, be more involved on a day-to-day basis in many other ways, at least for the next two years.
When coaches ask him for help he needs to do it. He needs to be more involved in daily recruiting meetings (yes, this needs to start happening and he needs to be part of it). The next time I hear a story about how Kelly was unavailable to talk to a top recruit I might lose my mind. That's a story I've heard way, way too many times, especially in recent seasons.
He needs to have as strong of a grasp of the recruiting board as the rest of the staff. It's been obvious for years that Kelly isn't as locked in with the recruiting board as he should be, whether people want to hear that or not.
You simply cannot hold coaches accountable for putting in the work if you're not involved on a day-to-day basis.
Kelly likes to talk about how Notre Dame must shop down a different aisle, and he loves to point out all the stumbling blocks that the program must work around. I don't buy many of them, but if Kelly is right and I am wrong that is even more reason that he must be way more involved in recruiting. He simply cannot create stumbling blocks that are otherwise avoidable.
Him prioritizing recruiting to a much greater degree is 100% within his control, and he needs to make the changes, and do it now.
If Kelly addresses these topics and is willing to make some tough choices he can get the program over the final hurdle.
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