Notre Dame head coaches have a history of capturing lightning in a bottle during their third year with the school. At 12-0, current head coach Brian Kelly is poised to continue the legacy. There is still one major hurdle between Kelly and Fighting Irish immortality: the BCS Championship game.
On January 7th Notre Dame will face their greatest test to date: the Alabama Crimson Tide. Battle-hardened by the SEC, Alabama presents a significant obstacle to the Fighting Irish. A win in the National Championship would be the crowning moment of a season that has seen the Irish return to their former glory.
Beating defending BCS champs Alabama will be no easy task. According to ESPN the Crimson Tide is ranked 14th overall in points scored, and 2nd overall in points allowed. Should the Tide prevail, Nick Saban will be the first head coach since Irish legend Frank Leahy to win three national titles in a four-year span.
For Kelly, it truly is a date with destiny.
As mentioned previously, Kelly is not the first head coach to be in this position. Irish greats Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third year with the Fighting Irish. Anyone who has been to Notre Dame stadium recognizes those names from the larger-than-life bronze statues of each coach outside Gates A, B, C and D (The greatest of them all, Knute Rockne, stands outside the North Tunnel, facing Touchdown Jesus.)
Brian Kelly is no stranger to success. He won two Division II national titles with Grand Valley State, dramatically improved the Central Michigan Chippewas, and had great success with Cincinnati where he won three consecutive Big East Coach of the Year awards. To date, Kelly has continued his winning record at Notre Dame, a team that has not won a major bowl game since the 1993 Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M when Lou Holtz helmed the team. In three seasons he has taken the Irish from 6-6 in 2009 (their last year with Charlie Weis) to 12-0.
Adding to the irony of the situation are several parallels between Kelly and the last head coach to win a national title for Notre Dame, Lou Holtz. Both entered their third seasons with 10 losses at Notre Dame, both were 51 years old, and both relied on a dual-threat quarterback from South Carolina.
So how would a win in the title game impact Kelly's legacy at Notre Dame?
In a word: cornerstone. If Kelly takes home the crystal football, this win will be the cornerstone of his legacy with the Fighting Irish. All of the other great head coaches followed up their third year success with a continued winning record, so Kelly will need to keep it up if he truly wants to be among the legends.
If Brian Kelly finds a way to best the Goliath that is the Alabama Crimson Tide, he is well on his way to a bronze statue.