If everything goes to plan, Brian Kelly will take Notre Dame to Soldier Field on the final weekend in September with a chance to make history at a program saturated by it. That afternoon tilt against Wisconsin should give Notre Dame’s current head coach his first chance to pass its greatest on a significant scoreboard: With four more wins, Kelly will do something once unthinkable, topping Knute Rockne for the most victories in Notre Dame history.
The fact that Kelly has endured to this point is remarkable for reasons beyond his early flirtation with the NFL and that season-long face plant of five years ago. This place has a way of chewing up and spitting out coaches even when they’re winning. Yet Kelly has cracked the code of stability, reprogramming Notre Dame to be very good at being very good.
Even without a national championship or a major bowl win, Notre Dame can boast four consecutive double-digit win seasons that include two trips to the College Football Playoff, plus one appearance in a conference championship game. It’s just enough success that the Irish have reestablished themselves near the top of the sport. It’s also just enough to success to wonder if there’s still more out there to be had under Kelly.
This season might begin to answer that second question, as Notre Dame reinvents itself after losing much of what made the program go the past four years. Quarterback Ian Book, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and an offensive line replete with NFL Draft picks must be replaced. It’s hard to imagine the Irish simply picking up where they left off after losing so much, but that doesn’t mean a slight step back can’t set up a sprint forward in seasons to come.
That’s not a narrative Kelly will indulge this season, at least not out in the open. As spring practice closed, he sounded clear-eyed about the challenges that await today more so than he was thinking a few steps ahead.