The Notre Dame Fighting Irish may not have achieved their goal of getting to the College Football Playoff for the 2015 season, but they already have their biggest win for 2016. And that's keeping head coach Brian Kelly around for another six years.
Or, at the very least, that's the extension Notre Dame and Kelly agreed to, per a Friday announcement on the team's official website. The new deal takes Kelly through 2021. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement that Kelly, who took the Irish to the BCS National Championship in 2012-13, embodies everything the school wants in a coach:
In the classroom, in the community and on the playing field, Brian has built the foundation of a great Notre Dame football program—one that reflects this University's values and its unique relationship to the game of football. I could not be more excited about the future of our football program under Brian's leadership, and I am especially thankful that our student-athletes will continue to have the benefit of that leadership in the years to come.
On the field, Kelly has done just about everything Notre Dame could want short of winning a national title. He's averaged nine wins a year, and the coaching job he did last season was one of the best by anyone in major college football.
Will Brian Kelly lead Notre Dame to a national title?
Look at it this way: Notre Dame was four points away from finishing the 2015 regular season undefeated with the sixth-hardest strength of schedule according to Sports-Reference.com.
The Irish lost two road games: at Clemson (24-22) and at Stanford (38-36). The loss to the Tigers in monsoon conditions came down to a failed two-point conversion, while the Cardinal kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. Clemson would go on to play for the national title and Stanford would rout Iowa in the Rose Bowl.
"Close enough" typically isn't good enough at Notre Dame, but the fact is Kelly had the Irish in a position to win every game and did so while dealing with a nearly unheard of number of injuries. In November, Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated laid out just how bad it was for the Irish in 2015:
This year the attrition began early—defensive lineman Jarron Jones (knee) went down in preseason camp, lead tailback Tarean Folston (knee) exited in Week 1 and quarterback Malik Zaire (broken ankle) was lost in Week 2—and it never truly stopped. Against Boston College on Saturday, cornerback KeiVarae Russell suffered a fractured tibia and tailback C.J. Prosise—the senior who leapt from No. 2 to No. 1 after Folston’s injury and then amassed 1,032 yards—sprained his ankle in his first game back after a concussion. Maybe all this catches up to Notre Dame in northern California. It’s stunning enough that the Irish outran it to late November.
Keep in mind this was the short list of injuries. There were more. Many more. More than anyone should want to count. On a good day, Kelly was rolling with a B-squad.
So, yes, an extension is in order—and it's timely, too.
Not that Kelly was on the hot seat, but such an announcement provides an invaluable boost in recruiting. When Kelly goes into a recruit's living room or makes a final push before national signing day next week, he can assure a prospect there's no uncertainty surrounding his future. The Irish currently have the No. 9 class nationally according to 247Sports' Composite rankings. Regardless of what happens in the next week, no one will question where Kelly stands with Notre Dame.
Keeping Kelly around for potentially up to 12 years is rare in this day and age of college football, especially at a place with expectations as high as Notre Dame has annually. Zach Barnett of Footballscoop.com noted what this means historically if Kelly sees his contract all the way through to 2021.
Should Brian Kelly see through the life of his new deal, he'd have 12 seasons at ND. Last Irish coach to last that long? Knute Rockne.— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) January 29, 2016
It goes without saying, but in a long lineage of great coaches, being put side-by-side with a guy like Knute Rockne in terms of longevity is huge for Kelly's legacy.
Winning at Notre Dame now, in 2016, is much different than it was when Rockne coached in South Bend from 1918-30. Notre Dame's partial membership move to the ACC attempted to open up more recruiting access in Southern states.
Notre Dame's high academic standards can actually be a hindrance in recruiting, too. Kelly addressed this topic last June, per Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune, in the wake of an academic probe:
I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk—all of them—really. Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two of our players that are on scholarship.
So making sure that with the rigors that we put them in—playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day—we recognize this is a different group.
And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts.
I think we’ve clearly identified that we need to do better, and we’re not afraid to look at any shortcomings that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys. Our university has looked at that, and we’re prepared to make sure that happens for our guys.
Notre Dame may have all the resources available to win at a high level, but that doesn't mean doing so is easy. Frankly, trying to win a national championship in South Bend these days is a grind, and Kelly has come close a couple of times. Short of hiring Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh, Notre Dame has the best-equipped coach to not only handle, but thrive within, these circumstances.
By giving Kelly six more years, Notre Dame is going hands off and letting him continue to build his program the way he wants to build it. After taking the Irish to one national championship and within a few points of a playoff appearance, he's earned that much trust.
Before these next six years are up, here's betting Kelly has Notre Dame in position again.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.