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Brian Kelly the Latest Notre Dame Head Coach to be False Messiah


The 38-35 loss to Duke on Saturday didn’t just drop Notre Dame to 1-3, it definitely exposed the latest false messiah to coach the Fighting Irish.

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It all feels so familiar, doesn’t it?

Notre Dame hires a new head coach and he wakes up the echoes with some early success only to fall flat on his face and put the Irish back at Square One. After all, it’s been that way for the last 20 years.

The Irish were declared “back” for the first time in 2000 when Bob Davie went 9-2 in the regular season and went to the Fiesta Bowl — only to get waxed there by Oregon State, 41-9. Davie went 5-6 the following season and was canned.

If you blinked, you missed the George O’Leary Era that lasted all of five days over lies on his résumé.

Then came Tyrone Willingham, the Stanford head coach who knew how to win big at a great academic school. He started the 2002 season 8-0 and landed the Irish on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “Return to Glory” plastered across the front — also the title of a book about his first season there. Those became famous last words as Notre Dame lost three of its final five games and went a woeful 11-12 over the next two seasons before Willingham also got the heave-ho.

But the delusions of grandeur were never greater in South Bend than when Charlie Weis returned to his alma mater in 2005. Coming to town with his three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots and a “decided schematic advantage” from coaching in the NFL, Weis started his head coaching career with wins over No. 23 Pitt and No. 3 Michigan on the road and the athletic department lost all grip on reality. After nearly beating No. 1 USC if not for the “Bush Push,” Notre Dame gave Weis a 10-year contract extension just seven games into his return to South Bend.

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ESPN even rushed out a book called The New Gold Standard after his Weis’ season (you can now buy it on for a penny — seriously).

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But after reaching back-to-back BCS bowls in 2006 and ’06, the wheels came flying off Notre Dame’s program faster than ever before as Weis went 16-21 over the next three seasons and Notre Dame decided it was better to pay Weis nearly $20 million in buyout money rather than let him continue to submarine the program.

Enter Brian Kelly.

After two mediocre seasons, Kelly went a perfect 12-0 in 2012 to play in the BCS Championship Game against Alabama. Sure, the Fighting Irish were run off the field by the Crimson Tide, but reaching the national title game in Year 3 was a minor miracle.

Out came another book for Irish fans: Faith Restored.

Certainly, Notre Dame had finally found the head coach that would deliver a national title in the near future, right?


Following three ensuing mediocre seasons, the bottom officially fell out on Kelly and the Irish on Saturday in a loss to Duke and backup quarterback Daniel Jones. Even worse, Kelly then proceeded to throw his players under the bus and back over them by saying all 22 starting positions were up for grabs but "coaching had nothing to do with the outcome" — then promptly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder less than 24 hours later.

What Kelly apparently meant to say is head coaching had nothing to do with the outcome. Because apparently a team that starts a season 1-3 after being ranked No. 10 in the preseason is all the fault of 21- and 22-year-old college kids and not their head coach making millions of dollars per year.

Duly noted.

Of course, all this comes just months after Notre Dame extended Kelly’s contract until 2021 so the Irish are likely stuck with him for the foreseeable future unless things get so bad Notre Dame boosters are willing to pony up enough money to pay a second monster buyout right after Weis’ finally came to an end last year.  

And so Notre Dame fans find themselves in a familiar spot over the last two decades: Wondering how a head coach who once looked like the program’s savior could turn out to be fool’s gold.

— Rankings by Jim Weber, a veteran college sports journalist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Weber has written for CBS Sports Network,, ESPN the Magazine and the college sports website he founded and sold, Follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.