When Notre Dame ended last season with a 4-8 record with Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat, I was the first to back him. My reasons were sound, or at least I thought they were:
- Kelly has won at every level of college football. At Grand Valley State he won 77% of his games taking them to the national championship in each of his last 3 seasons, winning the championship in his last 2 seasons. He took Central Michigan to a bowl game in just his third year. He took Cincinnati to 4 bowl games in 4 years and won 85% of their games.
- Kelly won ND’s first bowl game in 30 years. He took Notre Dame to a bowl game in each of first 6 seasons, winning 3 and losing 3.
- Kelly took ND to the National Championship game in 2012. Notre Dame over-preformed in 2012 and finished the regular season undefeated after winning a number of close games. Things broke down in the lead up to the national championship game and The Irish were beaten soundly by a better Alabama team, but none-the-less the 2012 season was a memorable one for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly.
- The 2016-17 season was an anomaly. In 26 seasons of coaching the 2016-17 season was only Kelly’s 2nd losing season. 7 of the 8 losses came by a score or less.
But even then I knew he had to come out with a stellar 2017-18 season in order to keep his job. In the season preview I said that the week 2 Georgia game was as much of a “must win” as you can get for a week 2 game. Kelly could not start the season with an early loss and expect to stay off the hot seat the rest of the season. In that week 2 game, Notre Dame lost to Georgia by just 1 point. But that one point loss was a pivotal loss for me as it was the first time I truly began to wonder if Brian Kelly was the right fit to turn Notre Dame into a perennial top 10 team. After this loss, I stopped looking at the stats from a biased Brian Kelly fan and here is what I found:
- Notre Dame has finished the season unranked in 4 of 7 seasons under Brian Kelly.
- Notre Dame has under-preformed consistently compared to their talent. Team recruiting rankings under Kelly have been top 20 every single season since he took over (15, 9, 17, 5, 11, 13, 15, and 10).
- Notre Dame has lost 13 of the last 16 one-score games under Brian Kelly.
- Kelly has lost the support of many fans with his demeanor on and off the field.
To put it simple, the illusion of Brian Kelly being a good fit at Notre Dame is fading. With 10 (or 11 with a bowl game) games remaining this season, Kelly likely can only lose 2 more games if he wants to keep his job. This means he will most likely have to win at least 2 of the following game: USC, at Miami, at Stanford, or a bowl game.
Top Candidates to Replace Brian Kelly
Assuming that Brian Kelly and The Irish do not make a dramatic change and finish 10-3 or better, Notre Dame will have struck out on their last 5 coaching hires. It would be as imperative as ever to make the right hire. The best hire would come from the “Sustained High-Level Success” group of coaches. The next best option would be the “Defensive Minds”. I have no interest in hiring an offensive mind after the Charley Weis and Brian Kelly experiments have failed. The last option should be from the “Up and Comers” group. Unfortunately, this is the group that Ty Willingham and Brian Kelly came from.
(1) Sustained High-Level Success
- Chis Peterson: In 8 seasons at Boise State, Peterson led the Broncos to 2 undefeated seasons and a 6-2 bowl game record (2-0 in BCS bowl games). Peterson then took over an abysmal Washington program and has led them to a bowl game in each of his 3 seasons there, including a Playoff appearance last season.
- Chip Kelly: Chip led Oregon to 4 Pac 10 championships, 4 bowl games, and a national championship appearance in his 4 years as HC at Oregon. Oregon finished in the top 11 in each of his 4 seasons. After 2 unsuccessful stints in the NFL, Chip is currently working for ESPN as an analyst. He is surely just waiting for right gig to open up before he ends up back in the college game.
- David Shaw: In just 6 seasons at Stanford, Shaw has won 78% of his games, won six Pac 10/12 titles, been to 6 bowl games (4 of them BCS games), and finished in the top-10 five seasons. Shaw has shown he can do this with academic restrictions that are tougher than Notre Dame’s. My only fear are the flashbacks from another recent coach from Stanford (Ty Willingham). But Willingham did not have half of the success that David Shaw has had.
- Bob Stoops: I would not have listed Stoops here, but some Oklahoma fans seem to think that there is a small possibility that Stoops would consider. In 17 seasons Stoops took Oklahoma to a bowl game every single year, won eleven Big 12 titles, went to 11 BCS/Playoff games, and finished in the top-10 ten times. While certainly qualified, Stoops is a short term option that I do not see Notre Dame pursuing.
* I don’t think Notre Dame would consider Jim Tressel after his NCAA violations and given that he would be 65 at the time of hire. Les Miles is definitely not on the short list.
(2) Current Defensive Minds
*Mike Elko’s (Current Notre Dame DC) contract is not tied to Brian Kelly. I would expect him to stay as DC under a new head coach, even if a defensive coach was hired. Some would say that hiring a defensive mind as head coach would be pointless with Elko on staff, but I disagree as I would foresee Elko getting a head coach gig somewhere within the next 5 years in that scenario.
- Brent Venables: Vernables has coached under Bob Stoops, Bill Snider, and Dabo Sweeney. In 2016 he won the Broyles Award for top assistant in the nation. While Clemson fans think he is in no rush for a bigger gig and larger paycheck (he is currently a top 5 paid assistant), the $4+ million dollars Notre Dame could offer him would be enticing. Vernables has noted that he only plans to coach for 10 or so more years.
- Mike Elko: Some will find this surprising, but I think Elko should have a legit shot at becoming the next HC at Notre Dame. So far this season Elko has completely turned around ND’s defense. In the past Elko has led Wake Forrest and Bowling Green to top 10 defensive seasons and in 2016 he led Wake Forrest to top 20 rankings in red zone defense, turnovers, defensive scores, sacks, and scoring defense. The only other teams to do this were Alabama, Washington, and Clemson and all 3 were in the Playoffs. If Elko were not to be promoted to HC, he will likely stay as DC for the next HC as his contract is not tied to Brian Kelly.
- Dave Aranda: Aranda’s defenses (Utah State, Wisconsin, and LSU) have finished in the top 15 each of the past 5 seasons and in the top 10 each of the past 4 seasons. Aranda is one of the highest paid assistants at over $1 million per year, but a pay raise and promotion may entice Aranda to coach Notre Dame.
- Gregg Shiano: In 11 years at the black hole known as Rutgers University, Shiano managed to go to 6 bowl games (winning 5 of them) including a 2006 Coach of the Year award. However, Rutgers only finished in the top 25 once and never won a Big East title. After a 2 unsuccessful seasons in the NFL, Shiano has spent the last few years as DC at Ohio State. While many would consider Shiano a top candidate, I have him at the very bottom of my list.
(3) Up and Comers
- Mike Sanford: Just a few years ago Sanford was hired onto the ND staff as Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach. Sanford immediately found success recruiting when he landed a commitment from then #1 QB Phil Jurkovec. Most thought that Sanford was being groomed to succeed Brian Kelly after he leaves. Sanford’s father (also Mike) coached Notre Dame back in the 90s, so South Bend was not new to Sanford. Sanford’s stint at Notre Dame was short and quiet. After never being given full reigns of Notre Dame’s offense from Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock, Sanford accepted the Western Kentucky head coach position. Sanford now finds himself as the youngest head coach in FBS. Already having a network at Notre Dame, Sanford will need to have a great first season at WKU in order to seriously be considered a finalist if the ND job opens up.
- Jeff Brohm: Brohm led Western Kentucky to a 30-10 record as the predecessor to Mike Sanford. In his 3 seasons as HC, WKU won 2 Conference USA titles and went 2-0 in bowl games. Now in his first season at Purdue, Brohm has revitalized both sides of the ball in West Lafayette and has the Boilermakers over-preforming.
- PJ Fleck: Fleck is one of the sexy picks at the moment. In his first season at Central Michigan he only won 1 game. But he then followed that up with 3 straight bowl games including a 13-1 season last year. In his first season at Minnesota, Fleck has the Gophers sitting at 2-0.