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Kelly surpasses Rockne’s record with 106 wins at Notre Dame

| Friday, October 1, 2021

On a September Saturday afternoon, in the hometown of legendary Fighting Irish head coach Knute Rockne, current Irish head coach Brian Kelly surpassed the great coach for most wins of all time as head coach of the University of Notre Dame’s football team.

Photo Illustration by Maggie Klaers. Photos by Max Petrosky

Kelly totaled 106 wins under his belt at the school, vacated games included. Kelly accepted the job at Notre Dame in December 2009, replacing Charlie Weis. He beat Purdue in his first game with the Irish 23-12, but subsequently lost to Michigan 28-24 the next week. Then, he lost again in his third game against the Spartans of Michigan State off an overtime fake field goal.

He attended St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Massachusetts, and went on to be a four-year club football player at Assumption College, playing linebacker. Kelly graduated from Assumption in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He served as defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and softball coach at Assumption from 1983 to 1986.

Kelly worked under Tom Beck at Grand Valley State University in 1987, as a graduate assistant and defensive backs coach. Kelly rose through the ranks quickly and was serving as defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator by 1989. By the 1991 season, Kelly had assumed the position of head coach after Beck took a job at Notre Dame as Lou Holtz’s offensive coordinator.

Kelly coached the Grand Valley State Lakers for 13 years, leading them to five conference titles and six playoff appearances. His 2002 and 2003 teams won back-to-back Division II National Championships while he was named AFCA Division II Coach of the Year after both seasons. The 2001 squad broke 77 NCAA, GLIAC, and school records, including the all-time Division II scoring average with 58.4 points per game. Kelly departed Grand Valley State in 2003 when he took over for Mike DeBord at Central Michigan University. 

When Kelly arrived on campus, the Chips had won more than three games only once in the previous four seasons. In his first year, the team finished with a record of 4-7. The next year he finished the season 6-5 — the first winning season for the Chippewas in seven years. In 2006, Kelly recorded a 9-4 record and his team won the MAC Championship. 

Three days after winning the MAC Championship Kelly accepted the vacancy at Cincinnati and led the Bearcats to a 27-24 win over Western Michigan in the International Bowl. In his first year at Cincinnati, he led the Bearcats to their first-ever 10-win season since 1949. Then, he was named Big East Coach of the Year and he led the Bearcats to a 31–21 victory in the PapaJohns.com Bowl over Southern Mississippi.

Kelly led the Bearcats to the Orange Bowl the next year, where they lost to ACC Champions, Virginia Tech, 20-7. In Kelly’s third and final season with the Bearcats, he strung together 12 straight wins to finish the regular season undefeated and with his team placed at No. 3 in the BCS Standings ready for a match against Urban Mayer and a senior campaign Tim Tebow’s Florida Gators. However, on Dec. 10, 2009, Kelly announced that he would take over as Notre Dame’s head coach. This announcement came after Charlie Weis’ poor 6-6 season with the Irish. 

In his 13th season with the Irish, Brian Kelly and his legacy are different than their early 2000s selves. Exactly one week after breaking Rockne’s record Kelly will square off against the team he essentially revolutionized in just three short seasons.

Looking back, Kelly is a greatly decorated coach. In his 31 seasons as a college football coach he has won 2 NCAA Division II titles, 3 MIFC titles, 3 GLIAC titles, 1 MAC title and 2 Big East titles. Moreover, he is a two-time AFCA Division II Coach of the Year, a three-time Big East Coach of the Year, a GLIAC Coach of the Year, a two-time AP College Football Coach of the Year (2012, 2018), a three-time Home Depot Coach of the Year Award winner (2009, 2012, 2018), SN Coach of the Year, a Walter Camp Coach of the Year (2012), a Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award winner (2018). He even took home ACC Coach of the year for his sole Irish season in the conference in 2020. 

But, as Brian Kelly looks back at his time at Notre Dame he is missing one thing and that is how he carefully commented on the question of becoming Notre Dame’s all-time winningest coach.

“I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history,” Kelly said. “The coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship. That’s where I’ll sit.” 

Kelly may have the most wins of all-time at Notre Dame with a record of 106-39, compared to Rockne’s 105-12-5. But Rockne led the Irish to victory in not just one, but three National Championship games. Frank Leahy led the Irish to five National title wins between 1943 and 1953. Ara Parseghian led them to two in 1966 and 1973. Dan Devine won one in 1977 and Lou Holtz won the last Notre Dame National Championship in 1988.

All five of those coaches have a statute that greets visitors to Notre Dame Stadium. That is what Brian Kelly wants. It’s what fans want. And, ultimately, it’s what will earn him bronze immortalization of his own, standing guard at the house that Rockne built. 

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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