SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame defeated Purdue 27-13 on Saturday, in the renewal of a rivalry that began in 1896. That victory allowed Brian Kelly to equal a record that was first set in 1930.
The win was Kelly's 105th in 12 seasons at Notre Dame, putting him on level footing with Knute Rockne for the most wins of any coach in Irish history. Since taking the job prior to the 2010 season, Kelly has piled up more victories than Lou Holtz, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and every other legendary figure who has walked the sidelines in South Bend.
“It just means I came here to do a job and that was to bring Notre Dame back to its winning traditions,” Kelly said of equaling Rockne. “We've gotten there by being consistent and having stability.”
Consistency has been the name of the game for Kelly and the Irish. He has led them to six 10-win seasons, including the current run of four in a row that is the longest in program history. In 11 full seasons under Kelly's leadership, Notre Dame has won fewer than eight games just once after doing so eight times in the previous 13 years.
He has not added a 12th national championship to the Notre Dame trophy case, but by almost every other measure Kelly has taken a program that had been flailing for the better part of 15 years and turned it back into a nationally relevant brand.
Consider that under Kelly's watch, Notre Dame has gone undefeated in the regular season three times. Here's the list of other active college coaches who have matched that feat: Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. That's it. That's the list.
And Kelly's tenure in South Bend does not seem to be getting stale. On the contrary, he has reached some of his greatest heights in the last three years and is recruiting at a higher level now than he has at any time since he took the job.
When he was asked about tying the record Saturday, Kelly pointed to athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president the Rev. John Jenkins, who have both been with Notre Dame for his entire term as coach. He contrasted the consistent success he has built at Notre Dame with what has happened at USC, which has gone through five coaches (two interim) since Kelly got the job with the Irish.
“Consistency, leadership, alignment, all those things have to come together to get this point,” Kelly said. “Look, we're going to play our rival and they've had a number of different head coaches at their university. I'm talking about our rival on the West Coast, and this is not to smear them at all. I'm just saying it requires consistency to get to these marks, and we have it with our leadership.”
There will be some Notre Dame fans disappointed that Kelly will soon overtake the man who was the greatest college coach of the first half of the 20th century. Rockne, in large part, created the mythology that still surrounds Notre Dame. Kelly's tying of Rockne certainly is more about longevity than the peak success the latter enjoyed – three national titles and five undefeated seasons in 13 years – but it is impressive all the same.
When the former Cincinnati coach took the position after three coaches in a row had washed out in quick succession, former Journal Gazette columnist Ben Smith called Notre Dame a “job that triggers a flight response in even the most ambitious of men.”
Twelve years later, Kelly is still around. He is the one who stayed.
Dylan Sinn covers Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue for The Journal Gazette. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @DylanSinn.