Notre Dame didn’t need a semi truck to close this recruitment.
Because when the University announced a new six-year contract for head coach Brian Kelly on Friday afternoon it signaled something much more significant about its football program than the college decision of a five-star prospect. This extension represents something better and something much more rare.
Details of the contract remain unclear and don’t represent its most significant part. The Irish don’t need an overhaul of its assistant coaching pay scale. Admissions and athletics peacefully coexist. The football facility is up to date. Notre Dame Stadium soon will be too. The athletic director is Notre Dame’s best of the modern era.
What the University needed – not just the football program or the athletic department – was a head coach to tie it all together. Kelly has done so masterfully as a CEO during the past six years, rebuilding and overachieving, playing the part of ring leader, spokesman, disaster cleanup foreman, rain maker and rock star at a place where the head coach has to do all five.
Unlike the last time Kelly agreed to a contract extension, when negotiations seemed to drag over months after his flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles felt like it lasted even longer, Notre Dame and Notre Dame football are in a good place. The school is coming off a record-breaking fundraising year. The cranes around Notre Dame Stadium continue to piece together the Campus Crossroads project. The head coaching post was just endowed, part of a $30 million gift. And recruiting within the football program is on a healthy four-year run.
When Kelly took this job six years ago there was a lot to like about Notre Dame football’s potential. Today, there’s everything to like about its production. Coaching here might still be the hardest job in college football, but there’s also a realization of that around campus like never before.
When Kelly signed his last extension three years ago he spoke about how Notre Dame and Notre Dame football needed to be “all in this together.” Mission accomplished there, even after the messy suspensions for academic misconduct of two years ago.
“I coach football because I believe there are few better avenues for impacting the lives of young men,” Kelly said in a statement today, “and I am certain that there is no better place to do that than the University of Notre Dame.”
Translation: the Notre Dame where Brian Kelly hoped to coach three years ago is now the Notre Dame where Brian Kelly actually coaches.
The timing of the contract is of course convenient and certainly not coincidental. National Signing Day is just five days away. Demetris Robertson, Caleb Kelly and Ben Davis are all watching this, probably realizing one of the bigger negative recruiting cards used against Kelly – let’s be honest, partially of his own making – just got put back in the deck. If they commit to Notre Dame now, the odds of finishing their careers under the winningest active coach in college football just went way up.
Maybe we all should have taken Kelly at his word down in Arizona in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl. He was asked more than once there about NFL aspirations, the Eagles, Chip Kelly’s firing, what was coming next. And Kelly talked about the control he has at Notre Dame and how no NFL team would offer it.
His answers about staying at Notre Dame felt authentic and strident. Three years ago before the BCS National Championship Game in Miami, those same answers felt awkward and forced.
Now Notre Dame football can move forward knowing the head coach who’ll lead the Irish program out of the tunnel after the Campus Crossroads project is complete. Future schedules look a little different. So does the program’s recruiting outlook.
Notre Dame football knows where it’s going today.
And it knows who’s taking it there.
The University extended a better head coach than the one it hired after the disastrous Charlie Weis regime. And it has a better program now than the last time it re-upped Kelly. Kelly and Notre Dame needed to go through those first six years – the good, the bad, the ugly – to get to this place. Now that they have, it’s a moment Kelly, Swarbrick and the University should savor.
Notre Dame football has genuine stability. It has peace in our lifetime.
Considering the general tumult of this century, that’s the biggest victory of all.