Three different presidential administrations have come and gone, as well as three Summer Olympics. But Brian Kelly still remains. On September 4, 2010, Kelly earned his first win as head coach at the University of Notre Dame. A little more than eleven years later, Kelly cemented his name in the record book, earning win No. 106 to pass Knute Rockne for the most wins by a Notre Dame head coach.
The Brian Kelly years were not without strife. While the eleven years have yielded no national titles, they have produced a national championship game appearance in 2012, as well as College Football Playoff appearances in 2018 and 2020. Fans and pundits have criticized Kelly for his inability to win the big game. However, while he does not have a national title, the program has seen stability and success throughout most of his tenure.
The Road to Notre Dame
Kelly’s first collegiate head coaching job was for Division II Grand Valley State. He coached there for 13 seasons, from 1991–2003, posting an impressive record of 118-35-2 over that span. The final three years of his tenure were most successful, as he led the Lakers to a national runner-up finish in 2001, followed by back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003. Grand Valley State inducted him into its hall of fame in 2009.
Following the 2003 season, Kelly was appointed head coach at Central Michigan University. He faced the challenge of turning a lackluster program around, as the Chippewas had only won three games or more once in the four years prior to Kelly’s arrival. Kelly slowly built the program up over his three years at the helm, posting four wins in 2004, six in 2005, and nine in 2006. In the breakthrough 2006 season, Central Michigan also captured the Mid American Conference title with a win over Ohio.
Kelly’s final stop before arriving in South Bend was at the University of Cincinnati. In three seasons, 2007-2009, Kelly accrued an impressive overall record of 33-6. Kelly also earned Big East Coach of the Year honors every season with Cincinnati. In 2009, the Bearcats entered the season unranked. Kelly proceeded to lead them to an undefeated season, and Cincinnati ended the year ranked No. 3 in the country.
Big Wins at Notre Dame
Notre Dame was in a frustrating state heading into the 2010 season. The 2007, 2008, and 2009 seasons had seen disappointing records of 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6, respectively. After the departure of Charlie Weis, Brain Kelly took the job and ushered in a long and stable tenure that continues today, with many notable wins on the way to No. 106.
Win 1: September 4, 2010 Notre Dame defeats Purdue, 23-12
Kelly did not have to wait long for his first win. He got it on his first attempt in a 23-12 win over in-state rival Purdue. While the game was not the most high-profile matchup of the season, it was important, as it signified the beginning of the Brian Kelly era and secured Kelly’s first victory as head coach of the Fighting Irish.
Win 8: December 31, 2010, Notre Dame defeats Miami in Sun Bowl, 33-17
Winning a “Catholics vs. Convicts” matchup is sweet. So is winning a bowl game. Achieving both in his first season as head coach, Kelly ended the 8-5 year on a high note. This was not as close as the score indicates, as Notre Dame led 27-3 at the half. This blowout win over a rival in a bowl game was a shining moment in Kelly’s first season at the helm.
Win 25: November 3, 2012, Notre Dame defeats Pittsburgh, 29-26
There are many momentous wins to choose from during the 2012 undefeated season that saw Notre Dame advance to the National Championship game: at eighth ranked Oklahoma, at tenth ranked Michigan State, versus 18th ranked Michigan. Why highlight this win? Because this game saw Notre Dame erase a 14-point deficit and come out victorious in the third overtime. While the opponent was not the most touted that the Irish faced that season, Notre Dame needed this win just as badly as all of the others and had to work hard to pull it out. Kelly’s Irish had passed all of the big tests they had faced and just had to find a way to hang on against a team that had nothing to lose. They did, and while the season came to a disappointing end with a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the National Championship, Kelly was voted AP Coach of the Year for his efforts in the undefeated season.
Win 39: September 6, 2014, Notre Dame defeats Michigan, 31-0
This win was the best of six straight wins to begin the 2014 season. It was the first time in 365 games that Michigan was shut out. Everett Golson threw for three touchdowns, and the Irish defense forced four turnovers. A dominant win against a major rival proved a good way to boost Kelly’s reputation among Irish fans in his fifth season.
Win 69: January 1, 2018, Notre Dame defeats LSU in Citrus Bowl, 21-17
After a strong season was derailed by an embarrassing loss at Miami, this win was important for Kelly to prove that the Irish could still compete with big name programs. The 55-yard touchdown pass from Ian Book to Miles Boykin in the final minutes was a memorable ending and surely instilled confidence in a team that would go undefeated and reach the College Football Playoff the following year.
WIn 87: November 2, 2019, Notre Dame defeats Virginia Tech, 21-20
After losing a 45-14 thrashing to Michigan, Brian Kelly and the Irish badly needed this win to stop the season from going off the tracks. Kelly and the team prevailed as
Ian Book ran in the game-winning score with 29 seconds left. The team used this win as a catalyst and won their final five games of the season, including a win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.
Win 99: November 7, 2020, Notre Dame defeats Clemson, 47-40
This game is the biggest win of Brian Kelly’s career. Critics of Kelly’s say that he never wins the big game, but the Irish got a massive win over the top-ranked Tigers at home in overtime. This game will be remembered for many reasons: Kyren Williams’ 65-yard touchdown run 30 seconds into the game, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s fumble return for a touchdown, and students storming the field in the middle of a pandemic. And it will also almost certainly be remembered as Brian Kelly’s biggest win as head coach at Notre Dame.
Win 106: September 25, 2021, Notre Dame defeats Wisconsin, 41-13
Kelly obtained his record breaking win in a top-20 matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago. The game was closer than the score suggests, as Notre Dame returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the waning minutes. However, even with starting quarterback Jack Coan leaving the game due to injury, as well as some costly sacks throughout, the Irish weathered the storm, and Kelly was able to break the all time wins record.
While breaking the all-time wins record is a momentous achievement, Kelly also knows there is still work to be done. In the days before he broke the record, he told CBS Sports, “I can tell you exactly where I stand in Notre Dame history, the coach that won more games that hasn’t won a national championship. That’s where I’ll sit.” While he has many accomplishments over 11 years, the lack of a national championship sits as a hole in his resume. In order to be remembered as an all time great with the likes of Rockne and Holtz, he knows that 106 wins is not enough.